A friend of mine at a small college once threw a party for an incoming professor of Latin. At some point in the evening, my friend’s 10-year old daughter was presented and asked to give her name. She proudly piped up that her name was Aren-kay Iller-may, sure that her recently learned pig Latin was just the thing to make a professor of Latin feel welcome. As a consultant who sees a lot of interactions between technologists and business people, I’m often reminded of that 10 year old. Just like that 10 year old, technologists rattle something off, confidant that they’re talking the language of their business partners. However, the looks and responses from those partners often indicate a certain failure to communicate.
What’s a technologist to do? We’re actually getting noticeably better at including words, phrases and whole concepts that business people readily grasp. Return on investment, net present value and other business-y phrases are rolling off our tongues. Unfortunately, the business terminology is often drowned out by the same old storm of jargon, acronyms and just plain impatience.
Every profession has its jargon and slang, but information technology seems to be particularly efficient at producing new terms and phrases. My latest favorite is something called a server dome. It’s a rack… which is a freestanding server closet… which is a… well, anyway you get the idea. Even the most persuasive numbers can’t do their job if your audience isn’t listening because they can’t figure out what you’re talking about. At one firm they had a jargon jar. Any time someone used a word that was needlessly buzz-wordy (jargon in and of itself); they had to put a quarter in the jargon jar. They threw quite a party on the proceeds from that jar, but gradually began to use fewer specialized words when more common, more accessible words would do.
Acronyms are a close relative to jargon. They’re convenient. They seem to acquire a life of their own. And for someone venturing outside of their own specialty (say from finance into information services), they are an incredibly high barrier to understanding. People will always try to make sense of what you’re saying, but acronyms can lead to some interesting results. I once heard an IT manager questioned for wanting to buy sand. He was actually looking for funding for a storage area network, or “SAN.”
In the last year, I’ve tried to eliminate acronyms from my writing and my speech. Well, not completely. I’ll use acronyms like a.m., p.m. and the ever-popular etc. But if it’s an acronym my mom wouldn’t recognize, I can’t use it. At first I was practically speechless. Over time I’ve started doing the retranslation of acronyms back into words pretty seamlessly (that might cost me a quarter in the jargon jar, though). The most interesting side effect has been to uncover the subtle differences in understanding that acronyms hide. Information services, information systems and information solutions (cha-ching in the jargon jar) all share the same “IS” acronym but suggest different approaches and understandings of using technology to address information needs.
Mostly, though, effective translation from techno-speak to other forms of communication is about patience. Jargon and acronyms do save time in the short term when everyone in a particular audience understands them. But they’re also a way of creating an “in-crowd” who “gets” it or creating some kind of advantage in a contentious discussion. Current foreign policy not withstanding, bluster, intimidation and confusion are not the most direct paths to building support for one’s recommendations. And that is the effect of using too many acronyms or too much slang.
I know many technologists feel like they’re also on the receiving end of this dynamic, having to learn some kind of artificial business-speak. That’s probably true in many cases, but a linguistic arms race is not the answer. It’s time for truce, or maybe just time for us all to return to plain old English. Or maybe we could just conduct all our professional discussions in Latin, a language all of us would have to learn and therefore level the playing field. Cha-ching!
Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and
program development consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be
contacted via the e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.