Does The Language We Use Make A Difference?

I was reading the article Run IT as a business — why that’s a train wreck waiting to happen and it got me to thinking … which can be dangerous. The article specifically talks about how the idea of “running IT as a business” has unintended consequences, one of which is thinking about folks outside of IT as “partners” or “customers” and how it effects the behavior of the organization.

How does the language we use effect how we behave? Is it possible that the common practice of using terms like “partner” and “customer” causes us to behave in such a way that we are disconnected, at least mentally or emotionally, from the people that we try to make a difference with?

This has long been a pet peeve of mine. I think these terms cause an artificial separation between groups. An example that I used in a meeting recently:

At a company I worked for at one time, it was impossible to get a software release out without incident. There was not enough structure, and it was obvious that tools were required to automate the process that were not available at the time, for the particular platform we were working on.

Thats right folks, this was a time in which even Capistrano didn’t exist.

I wanted to help solve the problem. At the time, with the specific deployment model this company used, solving this problem required access that I did not have. Because I was not part of the group that got this access, I was not able to get it – until I transferred.

Yes, I actually transferred to this group to solve the problem. Two days later, I had the access required.

Same person – different access.

Much feverous work ensued. Finally it was done. The problem was solved.

So I transferred back to my previous group. Guess what went with the transfer?

Yep – the access.

Same person – different access.

It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But it happens – a lot.

In corporate culture we tend to use terms like “Partner” and “Internal Customer” to reference each other. I think it often causes unintended consequences.

It’s kind of funny. As I was telling this story, I thought about the story of the Sneeches. You know, the folks who some had “stars on thars” and some didn’t. Each were treated differently according to the status of the markings on their bellies. In the end, they were all the same – they just didn’t know it. Actually, in the end, when the markings were automated, no one knew Who was Who.

Corporations spend (and waste) a lot of time fighting who is at what level, whose responsibility is whose. Defining roles and their responsibilities rather than getting things done. Its not that defining roles and responsibilities is bad, but we tend to confuse people with roles and in doing so keep them from performing at their full potential. We fail to realize that people may have many skills and can serve multiple roles.

The next time you use the term “partner” or “internal customer” – think about this a bit. It might make you think a little different. It’s definitely been something I’ve been thinking about lately.

One thought on “Does The Language We Use Make A Difference?

  1. The barriers not only detract from productivity by obstructing work but they also turn into an us-them mentality. I don’t want to force business “partners” to be engineers but if there isn’t a sense of shared purpose – a desire to understand the challenges of others – then unrealistic expectations and infighting inevitably ensue. There’s lots of talk about how to bridge the IT – Business gap. I don’t believe that any particular methodology has all the answers. A lot of problems/conflicts could be avoided and/or solved if contemporary corporate culture cultivated the notion that every bit of time spent fighting our own team is time spent working for the competition. Thought provoking post. Thanks.

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