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1/3/2002
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Industry Comment: Plain English, Please

The inability of some technical people to communicate clearly can cost them dearly, says columnist Bob Rubin.

With the coming of the New Year, it's time for the traditional list of resolutions. If you're an information technology manager--or hope to become one--then you might consider a pledge to stamp out jargon use when talking to non-techies in your company.

Over the years I've seen many people fail miserably--not through technical incompetence or lack of hard work, but because they were unable to communicate clearly. Some never learned to explain their ideas in simple English. Others tried to show off their knowledge or attempted to snow people in an effort to cover up mistakes. Regardless of the reason, the result was always the same: annoyed and frustrated listeners.

The inability of IT people to communicate with the non-anointed masses is legendary. It has become standard fodder for vendor initiatives. I was sitting at the kitchen table the day before Christmas, reading The Wall Street Journal, when I came across an IBM advertisement that put a knot in my stomach. At the top in bold letters: "How to speak with your friends from IT." The text of the ad offered an executive guide on E-business, promising to explain all the terms we IT people use. It's a sad state of affairs when a vendor positions itself as being able to help executives talk to their own IT people.

What really bothers me is the fact that many executives need assistance. It's a big problem. As much as we'd like to blame business people for never taking the time to listen to us, the responsibility lies on our shoulders. We frequently do not make enough of an effort to be clear and concise. Too often, as that great philosopher Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The three major IT communications flaws are:

  1. We think that business people should learn our language.
  2. We explain how things work, instead of the results that will be obtained.
  3. If we don't know the answer, we tend to hide behind the technology.
For some reason, we IT workers think it is important for senior executives to understand the details of what we do. Formal executive education on IT issues is very popular in business circles--with the IT people. More than one of my associates has spent a bundle developing seminars on information technology for business people. I've done it myself. However, it's a rare executive who will take the time to attend, or even to admit he needs education.

The tough fact is that it is up to the IT manager to do the communication. Does this truism bother you? Think about how often a company CEO is interested in the guts of a manufacturing process, beyond the point of knowing whether it will work and how much it can be depended upon to add dollars to the bottom line.

Perhaps it is because we are so proud of what we've accomplished that many of us feel compelled to explain the technology instead of the result. In more than one meeting I have cringed as savvy IT managers fritter away precious moments of senior executive attention describing intricate technical nuances, instead of explaining what the technology will mean to the company. I often suspected that the IT person didn't really understand the business, so covered up that lack of knowledge by talking bits and bytes.

Finally, and uncharitably, I have to point out that I've seen IT people who will not admit that they do not know the answer to a question, and use technical jargon to deflect blame from themselves. You know what I mean: "Well, the branch office would have been online a greater percentage of the time last month, but the leased-lines vendor had a problem with the TCP/IP connection which, of course, was beyond our control and the Microsoft NetBIOS module wasn't functioning properly--and you know how Microsoft is."

So, as we begin another year, let's take an oath to help our profession eradicate our poor image. It's a worthy resolution. Even if you're perfect at communicating, make a resolution to help those in your organization who aren't as communicative. Someone's job--maybe yours--could depend upon it.

valleymc@home.comRobert M. Rubin is CEO of Valley Management Consultants, a firm specializing in E-business and information technology strategy, organizational design, and evaluation. Prior to joining VMC, he was senior vice president and CIO for Elf Atochem North America, a $2 billion diversified chemical company. The recipient of multiple industry awards, he is a contributing editor to InformationWeek and a member of its advisory board. You can respond to Bob Rubin (jargon-free) in his Listening Post discussion forum.

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