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It is well known within scientific circles that Star Trek was in fact a series of promotional videos for future technologies. As the following quotation suggests, Star Trek displayed great prescience in predicting how the language of new technologies was likely to evolve:
“The core elements are based on FTL nanoprocessor units arranged into 25 bilateral kelilactirals with 20 of those units being slaved to the central heisenfram terminal. Now this is the isopalavial interface, which controls the main firomactal drive unit . . . The ramistat kiloquad capacity is a function of the square root of the intermix ratio times the sum of the plasma injector quotient.”
It may also explain why senior executives have been known to mumble: “Beam me up Scottie,” when exposed to people that display all the characteristics of a Monte Carlo random buzzword generator.
This is a problem, given the important role IT has to play in business today. Poor communication across the business-IT department boundary is the most pernicious form of IT value-damping.
My view is based on more than two decades of experience, both as a technologist and as an IT value advisor. Until technology becomes sufficiently pervasive to obviate the need for humans in both the creation of new IT systems and the support of existing systems, humans will continue to be a major cause of IT related problems.
First, let us dwell on the underlying issues:
●Geek chic: The IT industry has its roots in science and, on day one, those in IT were indistinguishable from scientists. Subsequent advances in technology have in effect dumbed-down the skills needed to be a technologist.
Despite that, they have retained the “scientist” mindset and so display many of the associated traits. Communicating effectively with lesser intellects (ie users) unfortunately is not one of them. To the outside world the IT department can seem like an exclusive club, where users are not welcome.
The feral nature of some technologists can also lead to pack behaviour, which results in younger techies mimicking the behaviour of the “alpha technologist”. So the ability to confuse users is passed down from generation to generation.
●Tensions: Tensions between the IT department and users underpin the evolution of the IT industry. In essence there is an ongoing dispute over who controls the IT assets. Much like a restaurant where the customers (users) are constantly vying to bring in their own food and cooking utilities, and the staff (IT department) are insistent that all the cooking is done in the kitchen using restaurant produce.
This leads to mutual suspicion and ultimately a breakdown in trust. Some technologists will use jargon as a form of verbal chaff to confuse and disorient the users; a technique that gives the technologists a sense of power over their “adversaries”.
●Emotional Intelligence: Traditionally, IT people generally have high IQs. Anyone who has ever argued with a techie will have felt the full brunt of their logic.
But sometimes it is not smart to be right. Business people generally recognise the wisdom in not alerting the boss to the fact that he is an idiot – or one’s partner that they should lose some weight. Many technologists fail to understand this perspective.
As well as being a little too direct at times, the problem manifests itself through a lack of empathy or emotional intelligence. Such technologists happily talk to users as if they are also technologists and so make no allowance for the fact that they do not understand technical jargon. The lack of an empathy gene leads to jargon-rich communications from the IT department.
●Technology vendors: The battles raging in the IT industry are often literally a war of words. If one technology company can be seen to be associated with a given buzzword then this makes subsequent marketing easier.
Hence the marketing departments of many technology vendors spew out new terminology in the hope that some of it will stick to the market. This often results in technologists confusing each other, sometimes by accident and sometimes to assert the techno-pack pecking order.
An overall lack of standards in the IT industry in respect of terminology has led to many synonyms and homonyms. This has a lubricating effect on miscommunication both within and across the IT department sand bags. Perhaps this is where industry regulatory efforts should be focused?
The business implications of obfuscating terminology are profound. The resultant sub-optimal use of IT leads to poor cost management across the business, reduced competitive advantage, poor business decision making and in the extreme, prison for board members.
Support industries such as IT recruitment and training are similarly left in a state of confusion. Their buzzword bewilderment leads to poor talent acquisition and inappropriate development, which in turn leads to poor IT value realisation.
So what can be done to reverse the IT industry’s “speaking in tongues” condition? Here are a few suggestions:
Ensure the CIO is user-centric in mindset and so at least acknowledges this problem. Ideally the CIO’s remuneration needs to be index-linked to user-happiness. Consequently, smart and financially motivated CIOs will address this issue as a priority.
Recruit only business-literate IT staff. The propeller-head nerdie geeks need to be fast-tracked to extinction. Where such people are critical to your organisation, ensure that they are kept away from users. The HR director needs to be aware of their role in this.
Challenge IT staff on their use of IT jargon. Highlight that if they have any interest in building systems that actually help the business, they must use language that is rich in user terminology and light on technology jargon.
By the time a technologist reaches maturity, the technobabble condition is irreversible. We need to address this problem while our future technologists are at school and university. The teachers and professors have a critical role to play in this respect.
Many organisations get around the issue by using business/systems analysts to patrol the demilitarised zone that sits between the user and IT communities. Organisations that have happy users and a very low analyst to technologist headcount are ahead of the curve. In my view, analysts are a workaround and in an efficient business-IT ecosystem they would have no place.
Technobabble is at best a symptom of technology staff indifference to the plight of users and at worst a political tool for keeping the users in check.
Either way it is unacceptable. Technobabble reflects poorly on the IT industry and diminishes the value that the sector might deliver to both business and society. Nothing less than genetic reprogramming will address this and so a cultural overhaul is required.
As we have seen, Star Trek recognised the problem, and as the extract below highlights, it recognised that some technologists are beyond recovery:
Captain Kirk: “You’d make a splendid computer.”
Mr Spock: “That is very kind of you, Captain!”