Achieving consistent vocabulary across business functions

Language is a key component of developing a shared culture, it represents a key determinant for business IT alignment. But how much consistency is there between the language used by IT and their internal and external business stakeholders?

A stack of books; one book open on top, scattering flying letters into the surrounding environment.
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CIOs for a long time have stressed the importance of alignment with business counterparts, but they cannot achieve this until they are speaking the same language. As I learned in my undergraduate anthropology courses, language is a key component of developing a shared culture. For this reason, it represents a key determinant for business IT alignment. But how much consistency is there between the language used by IT and their internal and external business stakeholders? 

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How often does the language of the IT profession get in the way of business conversations?

During a recent CIO chat -- CIO David Seidl said that IT organizations “often trip themselves up with their use of language. Just ask a security person and a help desk person what an incident is about. Count the number of three letter acronyms they use. Ask your newest staff member about the dictionary they needed to understand what people were talking about.” Even worse, Seidl said, “as a new CIO, one of the first things I learned was that I was using terms that my team heard as entirely different things than I actually meant. I quickly learned to describe what terms mean to both sides, and then try to agree on one we could all understand.”

When I teach, I like to ask my students what it means to communicate. The word communicate comes from the Latin root word communicare which means to make common. The goal of communication is to have an overlap of meaning occur like a Venn diagram. Interestingly, former CIO McBreen said, “he hasn't had IT language get in the way for a long time. However, I worked hard back in the 90's to remove IT speak from any business-related projects. This started by keeping physical database folks out of business discussions.”

At this point former CIO Isaac Sacolick gave an example of a business/IT conversation gone wrong. In this conversation, the IT person said, "we've narrowed the problem to inconsistent web server configuration files." Sacolick goes on to say, “we all fail if this kind of a conversation takes place today.” Analyst and enterprise architect Dion Hinchliffe said in response, “business plus IT are the two parts of an organization separated by the language of technology. Except now, business and technology are becoming ever more the same topic. The gap causes endless confusion, barriers to collaboration and frustration.”

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Which business functions are most important for getting business language right?

McBreen said, “it is getting a finance view of data integrated with either the supply or demand side of the business. Finance has had a chart of accounts that are tough to work with until a lexicon to cross reference user’s meaning for the same words.” Sacolick broadens this out by saying it is critical to have the data/analytics teams be able to agree with the business on what date really means? Or how is this $ computed? There are all kinds of data governance issues for organizations that want to be data-driven without investing in a data catalog and dictionary.” At this point, McBreen said, “without some kind of basic data catalog it’s tough. You don't have to spend a fortune to get at least the key 100 terms in synch across the enterprise. And you can fill in the rest as needed.”

Hinchcliffe suggests, however, that “most business domains largely have the right language and nomenclature today. The more rigorous the function, the more it matters. While marketing has a large and rich lingo, it's not as immediately important as say finance, R&D, legal, IT, or lines of business. I'd also throw this observation into the ring, given that organizations increasingly seek to be data science driven in both operations and strategy, the use of one common integrated view of their data is critical.” However, Sacolick believes “for most organizations, basic is good enough. I've started some off with a spreadsheet just so that they have something that everyone can review.”

Former CIO Drex Deford added, CIOs should “understand their business partner’s work well enough to use their language, workflow and stories to illustrate an information service.” For this reason, Seidl asked, “Is there a situation where it isn't important? It depends on where you're most broken right now, and where you're most broken strategically.” Steve Jones, CTO and GSO of insights and data at Capgemini, added, “sales and finance have different languages to talk about the customer. Sales and manufacturing talk about product differently. Manufacturing and logistics disagree on locations. Learning the business language is like saying learn to speak European. Context is key. If you want a technology estate that represents the business, it has to start with the business, look like the business and evolve with the business. Do not force technology language and structure.”

What can CIOs do to get better business dialogues taking place?

Hinchliffe suggests, “better business dialogues are about improving stakeholder engagement, a human-centric skill many in IT haven't held in high enough regard.” He believes the best approaches for this include: 1) IT client managers sitting long-term in the business; 2) CIO stakeholder summits; and 3) IT/stakeholder communities.” Unfortunately, Dion said this is a tech-skill IT folks usually don't have — i.e. the experience to talk to the business and the right perspective or background. Prior business users versed in IT are much easier and more effective, even though they often need someone riding shotgun.”

For this reason, McBreen said, “I have hired my analysts from the cream of the crop business users or people who had moved to IT from the business side. I have, also, rotated IT analysts into business units a couple of times with limited success. It has worked best when rotating from business to IT.” He goes on to say that he “grew up on small tech teams that had to do everything in software world. That approach worked in business as well by coupling business skills with technical skills depending upon the solution.” With this Dion said, “This brings up another Pandora's Box: Traditional procurement is not the friend to IT acquisition. Unless dialogues have been happening well ahead of time, the process too often leads to a committee solution that checks all the boxes but misses the key opportunities.”

Related: Unifying people and communications technology to drive better outcomes

Do IT professionals need to learn the language of business value too?

Kail provided a quick answer and said, “[Yes] if they want to improve their long-term value.” Dion said, there can be no excuses anymore. Today, IT must learn the business vocabulary and the business must learn the IT vocabulary. The gap must close to reach significant new progress in IT including automation, digital transformation, and operations. Though one would fervently hope not to have only one business/IT translator in residence.”

Drex believes there is a continuum. “At one end are classically-trained business/client folk. At the other end, there are those who grew up as technology folk. As you get to the CIO level, you can see the tech folks that have had a tougher time serving in the translator leadership role.” Former CIO Tim Crawford goes on to suggest that “it is more important for IT professionals to learn relevant business vocabulary vs. business professionals to learning IT vocabulary.” For this reason, McBreen believes that “a CIO/CTO better know how to speak in business terms in 30 days or less. Especially if they come from a different industry or consulting. I came from consulting to the insurance industry and worked hard to understand and use their lexicon.”

CIO Paul Wright said, “I would agree that the most effective organizations understand that technology is an enabler to a better business, so you don't need to be a specialist in all things, but you should know enough to have thoughtful conversations.” Meanwhile, McBreen believes “it is good for at least one board member to have a familiarity with technology. But it is important to distinguish that it doesn't mean that boards need to speak tech.” Dion agrees and said, “in general, I think that's right. But of course, the answer is always: It depends. Boards, for example, now have to make profound, existential decisions about digital that would depend on their understanding a lot of IT vocabulary.

How do IT people translate potential digital business impacts into business language?

McBreen said, “he used to use the analogy of a two-story house with the business on the first and second floors and IT infrastructure in the basement. I would show how they interconnect when necessary to support the businesses digital products. I would link business strategy to technical strategy as well.” Making this real is a skilled business/IT communicator typically with an internal dictionary to do real-time translation. For example, the following:

  • Technical Debt=Temporary solutions/fixes
  • Implementation=Tech project or rollout
  • APIs=Open supply chains

Parting words

It is clear that language matters. And savvy IT organizations get that business functions just like IT can use the same term and mean different things. For this reason, Chief Digital Officer Jay Brodsky said, “there is one vocabulary. Tear down that semantic wall.” So, it is an anthropological dilemma. What needs to come first is a culture of alignment with an inclusive, common language. It is time for things to change and for CIOs to lean into it.