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Bob Evans
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Business Technology: Words Are IT's Bridge To Credibility And Funding

We all know that IT matters and just as surely, so, too, does language matter. It might be comfortable to lean on the specialized internal jargon of our professions, Bob Evans says, but business-technologists need to continue making big strides in dropping the Soap and picking up the concepts, themes, and language of business.

Language matters. And it matters more these days in the business-technology world than ever before. The arcane vocabulary that's the part of any specialized profession has its place, and no doubt that'll be the case for a very long time--short-order cooks, jazz musicians, carpenters, jewelers, and horse trainers all deal in jargon that's undoubtedly colorful but also resolutely inscrutable to any outside the inner circle. (Journalists, by the way, might have some of the dorkiest insider lingo of any group: we wallow happily in discussions of nut grafs, ledding, stets, dangling participles, and whether serial commas are a good thing or a Commie plot.)

But truth be told, few professions churn out the volume or depth of exegetical gems as the IT business. I had just started to, uh, "grok" HTML when XML and BPL came along, garnished with Soap and UDDI and perhaps even a sprig of J2EE. A few years ago in this space, I mentioned the hyperventilated announcement of the world's first FSASP, defined by its creator as a "full-service application-service provider" that would ultimately be "the silver bullet" that would create chaos and upheaval in the software industry. At my own company, I remember many years ago a colleague proposing that we launch a publication covering the systems-integration business, and the founder of the company replied by saying, "Define systems integration for me--in one sentence." My colleague, a bit exasperated by the demand, replied, "I can't do that--it's too complicated." And the founder said, "Then this conversation's over, because if you can't define it in one sentence, then not enough people understand it to support a publication." Talk about words to live by.

So I really sat up and took note during a customer-oriented seminar put on last week in Chicago by a big software company when an industry analyst recounted an anecdote about how a client's IT department decided to put together for its business-unit counterparts a list of the business-oriented services offered by that IT organization. At first, recounted Gartner's Cameron Haight, it sounded like a great idea: a breakthrough away from speaking exclusively the language of the isolated clan and toward the lingua franca of the folks controlling the purse strings. But then, Cameron said, he saw the list of services, and featured fairly prominently was LDAP. You know, LDAP? Now, I share Cameron's respect for the technical capabilities of LDAP, but is it really a "business service" that marketing or sales or manufacturing or finance is going to get excited about? Is it the type of example that will make those groups feel that IT is (a) brilliant and visionary, (b) eloquent expositors of customer issues, or (c) totally outta touch with reality?

Other Voices

Abu Hamza al-Masri, a radical Muslim cleric linked to Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid, was arrested Thursday in London and accused in a U.S. indictment of trying to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon, U.S. officials said. "We are actively seeking Hamza's extradition from Great Britain to face justice in our courts on these serious charges," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters in New York.

-- CNN, May 27

Language matters; these are not just philosophical hair-splittings. Here's how General Motors CIO Ralph Szygenda put it in a recent issue of Optimize, our monthly CIO magazine for strategy and execution: "I believe there are two types of CIOs today. There are those hard-working types who have an incredible command of the technology they steward and are admired by their staffs as IT visionaries. And then there are those who will survive. A CIO's survival in today's climate requires intuitive financial acumen and a strong, analytical understanding of business processes, in addition to technology expertise and vision." And a key to those survival-essentials Ralph so eloquently describes is the ability to communicate and articulate those skills, insights, and ideas: is the conversation with the CFO or head of global services going to be about server uptime, or about opportunities and customer segmentation? Is the board presentation going to delve into the kernel-level characteristics of Linux versus Windows, or is it about the merits of each in cutting costs, simplifying infrastructure requirements, head-count reductions, faster access for salespeople, and fewer $2,000-per-day consultants growing roots in your facilities?

At last week's seminar, featuring presentations from Chicago-area customers of Mercury Interactive, an executive of Xcel Energy with a truly inspirational job title and responsibility offered a terrific example of the significance of translating IT jargon into business-centric issues. Mike Carlson is Xcel's VP of Business Transformation and Customer Value--now there is a title stuffed with both great potential and heavy challenges--and he described a fairly recent change in how the IT organization at the regulated utility thinks about that great TLA, or three-letter acronym SLA, a Service-Level Agreement . The IT group, Mike said, no longer uses the term--rather, it has shifted to the more-tangible concepts of Business Value Agreements or Business Value Metrics. "We still have SLA's in the company, because they're still very important, but now it's the lawyers who deal with those," he said. The gritty details have become the responsibility of lawyers focused on contract compliance, leaving Mike and his IT team free to focus with their business partners on such areas as customer information, new products, and making it easier for people throughout the company to have access to the information they need to improve products, services, customer value, and profitability. "It's really not that complicated," Mike said. "It's a matter of focusing on building credibility with your business partners."

And that credibility is a bridge to many things, one of which can be increased funding for new initiatives. If that credibility can be leveraged to show demonstrable ROI and customer value and to gain the ongoing support of lines of business, then proposals for new investments in business-technology initiatives are perceived by top executives and the board in a totally different light.

By no means am I saying this is all just a big word game--the verbiage has to be backed by constantly enhanced execution, demonstrable business value, increased customer intimacy, reduced costs, and more. But don't overlook the fact that language matters--and it matters a lot.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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