This time last year, I wrote a piece on the communication gap between ‘the business’ – senior management excluding IT – and those who deliver the IT services (Two Worlds, Two Languages). I said that the two groups did not speak the same language, leading to mutual incomprehension, with serious consequences. A recent column by Gillian Tett in the Financial Times magazine (Beware Techies Talking Gobbledegook, 4/5 January 2014) talks about the same problem and spurred me to write this piece.
Ms. Tett talks about a senior broker – referred to as ‘Dennis’ – who sits on the board of an insurance company. Dennis told her about a board meeting convened to approve a new and expensive IT system, which was to replace one that was ‘plagued by problems.’ The expert appointed to devise the new system presented the result to the board for their approval.
Approval was duly given by the board, but Dennis dissented. He said that he had not understood a word of the presentation, which was ‘delivered using the baffling gobbledegook that many computer geeks use.’ After heated debate, the rest of the board admitted that they had not understood it either and demanded that the plans be translated into plain English. Dennis went further, insisting on working closely with the experts to understand.
Ms. Tett goes on to show the consequences of this kind of incomprehension, citing a number of well-known IT project problems in the past year. I’d like to pick up her point about the need to use plain English – to say it clearly, in other words.
The need to use plain language sounds obvious but all too often is ignored. There are some subjects that are inherently difficult, requiring specialised terminology. But it is almost always possible to convey basic ideas clearly. The late Richard Feynman, for instance, was a master in explaining quantum electrodynamics, hardly an everyday subject, for a lay audience – see his QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.
The key is to understand the audience and communicate at its level. In the case of IT, there is nothing about its relationship to business that cannot be said in a way that non-IT specialists would understand. There is no need to go into the details of how systems work internally to explain what they do, any more than understanding the workings of internal combustion engines is necessary to choose and drive a suitable automobile.
However, the need for clarity is not confined to IT specialists. ‘Management speak’ and ‘consultant speak,’ two widely-used languages in today’s business world, can make the obvious obscure and the simple complicated, the straight crooked and the plain places rough.
Why don’t people say things clearly? There are, I believe, a number of reasons. One is a simple inability to write or speak clearly. There are people who do not seem to have mastered this learnable skill. And it is learnable; there’s no magic, just a willingness to consider the audience and practice.
There are more sinister reasons. One is a desire to put something over on the audience. Orwell remarked that ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ The same could be said, possibly less dramatically, about management speak.
Another dubious reason is a desire to appear profound by using obscure language to impress the audience. IT offers a fund of complicated terminology to assist. In some cases, the lack of clarity is based on a lack of real knowledge rather than a desire to deceive. Professor Feynman showed how clear a real expert can be.
IT is a global business: the need to communicate clearly has never been more important. And because so much of IT is conducted in English, there is a special responsibility on native English speakers.
Finally, for a magnificent attack on willful obscurity, let me commend Alan Sokal and his hoax paper Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity – see New York University web site for the paper and its follow-up.