A seminar debate yesterday illustrated the critical links between the language we IT people use, our influence over business culture and behaviors, and how we are valued by everyone else.
I’ve just finished my latest two-day seminar with IT leaders from both companies and government. One of the aspects I really value about hosting them is that I can never be sure which subjects will ignite debate, nor where those debates will take us.
This time, in the midst of exploring how to use the IT numbers to influence the business investment culture, the importance of language came to the fore. Specifically, we settled on the example of IT people using the word ‘recharging’ to describe the process by which a number of business units share the total cost of an IT service they all use, to achieve synergies and economies of scale.
The question that ignited the debate was ‘what happens if one of the businesses decides that they want to reduce their share?’ Is it up to the IT folks to change the ‘recharging’ formula and tell each of the other businesses to pay more, or perhaps go back to the supplier of the service and tell them to expect less?
As most of the room were away from home and had eaten out the night before, the analogy we used was of a group of people deciding to eat at a restaurant together and coming to an agreement beforehand on what percentage of the bill they were each going to pay. For our analogy to be realistic in the IT context, we needed to have a fifth person, who I’ll call Teresa. She is not there to eat, but as a subject-matter expert – to help everyone decide what they wanted, recommend ‘synergies and economies of scale’, and the end of the meal collect everyone’s share of the bill and pay the total over to the waiter.
Now comes the question. What if, when the time has come to pay up, one of the diners, Dennis, privately tells Teresa that he’s not happy with the amount she is recharging him for the dinner as he didn’t eat and drink as much as everyone else, and it’s a big bill?
What does Teresa do? Does she tell each of the other diners that she is going to have to recharge them more? Or tell the waiter to lower the bill? Maybe she should remind Dennis that she is not ‘recharging’ the costs of the meal to him as she hasn’t incurred them in the first place, and to agree with his fellow diners a new way of calculating their respective shares. She can help by facilitating that conversation, but is ambivalent about the outcome provided that there’s enough money in total topay the waiter.
There’s no doubt that the diner’s behaviour towards each other, Teresa and the bill, will be heavily influenced by the language that Teresa chooses to use, and the process that goes with it.
And depending on the value everyone sees in Teresa’s contribution to the evening, they will decide whether it’s worth having her along next time.
Food for thought!