Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's all in the naming (language)

"It's harmful ... when naming leads the mind to think that names alone bring meaning close" - Marvin Minsky, Society of mind

If one breaks down the nature of organization into it's component parts, what comes out is communication. Communication drives standardization, co-operation and co-ordination amongst other things - which are all needed for an organization to function effectively and grow. 

There are oral and written artifacts. Direct , real-time and delayed communications. In-direct communications and those that are current and others that are historic. Furthermore there are bi-directional multi-directional communications. All of these happening at the same time, and depending on the parties involved and the culture of the organization they have varying degrees of impact and credibility.

Starting with clear definitions is essential for any form of communication to convey the intended meaning in a reliable manner. Very often as a consultant I find that the root of many organizational problems is that the "language" is not defined prior to the communication. Often levels of analysis are mixed and definitions unclear. If, for example, we are looking at a businesses value proposition we must define value to whom ? The value of a proposition is very different depending on who is using or viewing the proposition. More often than not we try define generic "things" that mix elements and do more to confuse than to clarify. I may define a set of objectives that are technical and physical as well as a set of objectives that are business orientated or financial, maybe some that are personal. In complex communications throwing these objectives together into a mixing pot may not be productive.  We should always be mindful of combining like things and grouping them as such.

When we analyze technical solutions, for example, we should be careful to always be aware of our level of analysis. Are we referring to the physical implementation, the logical representation, the systems or the business capabilities. Again, mixing these levels of analysis can be counter-productive.

One major challenge in communication is that the recipient of the communication usually interprets the communication with reference to his/her normal level or reference of analysis. It is easy to see that if we are not careful certain communications can be wrongly contextualized. Labeling adds to this confusion: often to simplify our communication we label things and then use these labels without ever going back to define what these labels actually mean. Furthermore, different people in the organization develop a different understanding of what these labels mean - they continue to communicate not using the meaning of the label rather the label itself. It is easy to see why this type of communication could become very inefficient. Consider a potential solution called "plan A" and another called "plan B". The architect of the solution may initially know exactly what Plan A consists of and the problem that it was designed to address. Later more people in the organization (including business units) begin discussing Plan A without really knowing the details of the solution or it's context.

One of the problems with communication over the Internet, is that it is often very generic and impersonal. We are tempted to send out group-wide emails, post notices on forums, tweet generic thoughts etc. While no doubt the Internet has changed the way we communicate and is valuable in terms of its reach and efficiency, it is not always valuable in terms of it's effectiveness. Especially within large organizations, we should be more careful in the way we use labels, we should take more care to define the level or point of view and be mindful of the context.

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