David C. Hay, Thomas C. Redman, C. Lwanga Yonke, and John A. Zachman writing for the Harvard Business Review:

At first blush, executives may dismiss technical debt as the province of their IT departments. That conclusion camouflages the root cause of the issue, however. In truth, technical debt stems from the way the businesses are structured, and how departments develop their own systems and languages for getting their work done.

Technical debt grows as departments adopt increasingly disparate business language and embed that language in their systems. To reduce it, companies must first establish, and rigorously adhere to, a small, well-thought-out common language.

I’ve long joked with customers that today’s large organizations need a new C-level role: the Chief Ontology Officer. The role’s responsibility would be to ensure the organization’s language is aligned. Why do they need this? My sixth-grade English teacher would’ve said, “if you don’t say what you mean, you don’t mean what you say.” But there’s something worse: saying what you mean and having others understand it differently.

The article includes a powerful — and surprisingly common — example:

consider that “customer” means distinctly different things to different departments: to marketing, it means “qualified prospect,” to sales it means “the person with sign-off authority,” and to finance it is “whoever is responsible for paying the bill.” Note that in the context of the entire company, customer has three different legitimate roles, while each department focuses on only one.

I’ve seen this sort of thing play out many times. All organizations (and teams within organizations) develop particular ways of talking about what they do. Their unique terminology makes internal communications more efficient; special terms serve as shortcodes for complex sets of concepts. Some words, such as “customer,” are central to the team’s functions yet may mean something different to another team within the organization.

While the article focuses on the effects of misaligned language on technical debt, using the same terms to mean different things (or conversely, using different words to mean the same things) affects many other aspects of the organization’s operations. Semantic misalignments affect all team communications. (That said, technical implementations are especially critical since that’s where quirky usages are reified.)

One obvious benefit of hiring a consultant to help with large-scale systemic design projects is that external parties haven’t (yet) been inducted into the organization’s particular language. As a result, it’s easier for consultants to identify novel or unusual usages. They can call them out, ask for clarification, etc. The consultant’s role as a non-native speaker enables them to reflect peculiar language to the team.

Some practices can help align the organization’s language. One I used before the pandemic was what I call “the language wall:” a space set aside during in-person workshops to note unique terminology, acronyms, jargon, etc.

As conversations unfolded, internal folks would say unusual things. To them, they sounded perfectly natural, but to my untrained ears, these terms stood out. Whenever that happened, I’d write the phrase, word, or acronym on a sticky note and paste it on the language wall. During pauses in the conversation, I’d ask participants to explain what these terms meant.

This practice is especially beneficial when workshops include folks from different teams. Sometimes, colleagues from different departments don’t understand each others’ language. In such cases, the simple fact of acknowledging the unique usage and asking folks to define it would increase alignment.

Of course, this is easier to do with obscure terms and acronyms than with everyday words such as “customer.” Because the latter are common English words, we take their meaning for granted. But we shouldn’t: even “simple” words may take on different meanings within different contexts of use. As a result, we must look out for particular usages even when hearing common words.

We’re not meeting much in physical rooms these days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t set up language walls. A simple way to do it digitally is by listing unfamiliar terms and their definitions in a shared document. It’s not as effective as having a literal language wall since one of the advantages of the wall is that everyone can see it simultaneously. But a shared asynchronous dictionary is better than nothing.

Ultimately, teams need to speak the same language to collaborate effectively. They may believe they do — but often, they’re wrong. One of the unacknowledged upsides of large-scale design projects is helping identify and resolve such misunderstandings. Knowing that teams are using language differently — and taking steps to remediate the situation — goes a long way towards increasing organizational effectiveness.

Effective Digital Transformation Depends on a Shared Language

See also:
The Value of Mapping Semantic Environments