Monday, 2 February 2015

Lost in Translation and Finding Common Ground

I once referred to myself as a techo-translator for the work I often seem to end up doing in speaking between L&D folks and IT teams.  It can seem we spend a lot of time and effort trying to translate our ideas and things just seem to get lost in translation.  Never has this been truer than in when trying to take the slightly eccentric world of 'learning' or its way out there relative 'education' and communicating with the other-worldly bunch on the planet of IT or IS.

Sometimes this speaking of another language is a literal thing.  It's fine for us to talk about learning objectives and taxonomy as if these are everyday things, but for an IT person these don't mean anything - in the same way they may talk about cleansing your data or an issue with protocols fully expecting you to grasp the fundamentals of this.  Then we speak to senior leadership teams and we talk about the great affect something will have on the learning or the improvement in caching on the system and we've missed their language too.  Sometimes it's a wonder large organisations manage to communicate internally at all.  Of course, small businesses experience the same frustrations, they don't have internal teams so they go externally and meet the same kind of barriers when talking with external teams providing services.

Another real issues arise when the gulf between languages exist because we want them too, and you'd be amazed just how often this happens and at times we are all guilty of it.  Most of us would probably accept readily that in the IT world they seem to enjoy the fact that they can speak a language that most common folk can't.  It's like they're able to communicate with each other right in front of us, or better still if we ask a difficult question they can answer it with something we can't grasp so it's an easy out.  Truth is this definitely happens, but IT aren't alone in this.  Have you ever been asked to provide explanation on a training event that didn't go very well - maybe the facilitator was awful?  It seems that often the easiest explanation is to make sure it's one that most people will feel they don't get.  So sure talk about your level 1 and 2 feedback and trending analysis if you will, but don't expect the answer to improve communication.

So how do we find common ground and remove barriers around language?


  1. Plain Speak. Never underestimate the power of speaking in the simplest language you can.  Have you ever spoken to people with great vocabularies whose sole purpose in life seems to be to show off how many long word they know?  Think about how that makes you feel and put things into simple language when talking about your passionate subject.
  2. Drop the acronyms. I'm ex-military so if anyone knows about TLAs it's me (three letter abbreviations if you were wondering).  But if you start talking LOs or ADDIE or PCE to anyone outside of your area you just add complexity where it doesn't need to be.
  3. Use relativity. No, not the Einstein stuff, but make what your saying relative to your audience - heck as trainers this should be something we're used to.  I'm a huge fan of using analogies to put something new or foreign to people into a scenario they understand.
  4. Do ask questions. One of the reason language barriers exist is that we often just gloss over what we don't understand for fear of looking stupid. There's been a number of times I've asked 'what does that mean' or 'put that in layman's terms for me' or even (shock horror) what is that short for.  I remember one time a couple of years back asking what SoMe was on a Twitter post.  When I found out it was short for social media I was amused at myself and the irony, but next time I used the term social media I used the term social media (knowing that if I didn't know SoMe at that point others wouldn't).  In fact I actually went on and blogged on it to explain the phrase so that others wouldn't feel as daft as me :)
  5. Don't use language to create separation.  Easily done and the damage can be devastating.  Sure it can get you out of a few awkward questions sometimes, but using language to deliberately confuse can have a massive affect on future relationships.
  6. Learn and Evolve.  Don't simply accept the language of your profession and shy from others.  Feel free to learn and try to understand a little more about others.  About why in senior leadership it seems to be about return on investment (ROI) and linking everything we do to strategic direction and why in IT databases queries are the way they are.  
  7. Don't drop in stuff you don't understand. Here's one of the biggest pitfalls.  I knew someone who would always hear the latest acronym in IT and try to drop it in anytime they were talking with people from IT.  The results were often quite funny, but not in a good way.  If you don't understand a word or acronym you really shouldn't use it as if you do - it's leading the other party astray and ultimately stops your learning and evolving.
  8. Paraphrase in layman's terms and allow yourself to be corrected.  I find this a really effective technique.  Did I mention I'm a big fan of analogies?  I tend to try to say something I've been told into a language that not only myself but everyone else will understand and then get the other party to either agree or correct me on that.  Often you'll find that they come back with a totally different analogy to yours, but it really helps you to understand and them when explaining in future.  The second part of 8 is perhaps the most important when learning new elements of language - if you take offence when you're corrected then you're more worried about your pride than learning.
If all else fails, then find yourself a really good translator.  If you are engaging a consultant make sure it's someone who can talk to people around and outside your business without leaving them scratching their heads.  Actually a really good consultant will help you to increase your understanding and often bring you closer to your teams by their involvement.

Happy translating!