Alice consulting with an industry expert

  `As I was saying, that seems to be done right — though I haven’t time to look it over thoroughly just now — and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents –‘

`Certainly,’ said Alice.

`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there, by Lewis Carroll


Yesterday I was moved to post the above section from one of my favourite books on the LinkedIn.com Organisational Change Practitioners forum. The precise thread was entitled, Commitment during Change (as ever you need to be a member of LinkedIn.com and thr group to access the preceding links). The context was an increasingly intricate discussion about what constituted a “burning platform”; if this was a good thing to be standing on, or not; and whether such a situation was likely to lead to a positive or negative reaction on behalf of those standing on it.

My first contribution to this section of the discussion was as follows (with some light editing):

A burning platform tends to suggest panic and an imperative to do something (anything) right now. Think about it; the burning bit and… well… being on a platform. I am not sure that this is the best metaphor for instilling commitment.

Commitment may be passionate, but it is more rational, more of an active choice as opposed to, “what do I have to do to get out of here, my toes are getting hot?”

Telling someone that they are on a burning platform will certainly get their attention – they may also be willing to listen to you if you have some suggestion that might help, but this does not sound like instilling commitment in them to me; more like instilling fear.

Commitment tends to suggest a belief on behalf of the committed that what they are being asked to do is right for them and necessary for the broader organisation (despite it potentially being difficult and/or painful).

Commitment is not fleeing a burning platform – that’s just a survival instinct. Instead commitment might be exhibited by a person deciding to return to a burning platform to rescue some one.

The Alice quote came after I had posted the above thoughts, but before the post that I wanted to focus on in this article. This was about professional jargon and was as follows (again lightly edited):

When I was studying Mathematics, the use of words to mean something other than their ordinary meaning became second nature. The uninitiated would never have guessed the recherché meanings we ascribed to everyday words such as “ring”, “field” or “group”.

Early in my IT career I went over to the dark side, quoting impenetrable acronyms with the best of them. However as my role became more part of the business, I had something of an epiphany. I realised that people were not really that impressed by jargon, that they were more likely to assume (sometimes correctly) that the jargon-user was trying to cover something up or sound clever, and that maybe there was a better way.

Nowadays I am sometimes guilty of using complicated English, but I hope that it is mostly just English (as opposed to English 2.0 – now with even more terminology and even less meaning). I will crave your indulgence about the bit of French above of course :-o.

I think that jargon is both useful and inescapable when communicating efficiently with fellow professionals in a field (no not the Maths meaning of “field”); in all other cases it is mostly a hindrance to being understood.

Now I am sure that an assidious reader would have no problem whatsoever in finding counter-examples to my call for plain-speaking about IT; they are probably sprinkled liberally throughout this blog. Maybe this is a case of doing what I say, rather than what I do. However, it is interesting the number of commentators who have suggested that it would help IT professionals to increase their standing with their colleagues if they dropped the technical jargon and learned to speak more like a business person (e.g. see my comments on Ilya Bogorad’s article about Talking Business).

While getting business people to terminate their love affair with their own version of jargon might be wishful thinking, it is pleasing to go beyond Ilya’s recommendation and contemplate a world where a spade is called a spade and not a terrain relocation appliance.

Sadly it is all too often the case that the number of words used in a business context is inversely proportional to the quantum of meaning that they convey. Perhaps it is time for professionals in all walks of life to take a lead from Humpty Dumpty and begin to better assert their mastery of vocabulary.

8 thoughts on “Jargon

  1. Quite interesting, Peter. Scholarly, in fact. I was glad to see that in your discussion of burning platform, you recognized that you could just as easily be running to the fire (rescue) as you could be running away (flight from commitment).

  2. Thanks, Peter, well written as always.

    You are right about the “business side” of the house in that they are just as much in love with their parlance as the “IT side” with theirs. In fact, the world of finance is full of terms that mean different things to different people and organizations. When a CFO talks about the “margin”, one will be best served to inquire about the CFO’s definition of the margin, for it may be general margin or operating margin or profit margin or any other product of elementary arithmetics derived from the income statement, which also goes by a handful of names, such as the statement of operations.

    • Hi Ilya,

      I think that works in lots of industries. In Insurance when someone talks about “improving the ratio”, it makes sense to ask if they mean the reported loss ratio, the incurred loss ratio, the expense ratio, or the combined ratio (lots of other nuances behind this as well).

      The other classic for all organisations is “profit”. Is that EBITDA, or operating profit, or “profit if we exclude unprofitable bits that we don’t want to talk about”?


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