Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Speaking in Tongues

In any company, many “languages” are spoken, and the “language” of one group within a company is often as foreign and difficult to comprehend by other groups as if one group spoke English, another group Chinese, and yet another group Russian. The “language” of finance & accounting is very different from the “language” of marketing, which is very different from the “language” of engineering. Everyone in the company may speak English, but that is no guarantee that people will understand each other. They may understand each of the words (and sometimes even that is not the case), but they may not understand what is really being said or meant.

Among their peers, people tend to speak in their native “languages”, and there is generally a good understanding of what is being said and what is being heard. Even among peer groups, however, there are different “dialects” that are often difficult for other peer group members to understand. Let’s use Engineers as an example. For engineers, their “language” tends to be fairly technical, often jargon laden, often discussing esoteric and foreign sounding concepts often totally unrecognizable to non-engineers. Even within engineering, different “dialects” often make communication and understanding difficult for other engineers. For example, hardware engineers typically speak a different “dialect” than software engineers. There are many “sub-dialects” even within a specific “dialect”. For example, within hardware engineering, RF engineers speak a different “sub-dialect” than computer engineers. Reaching a common understanding even among different engineers can be difficult. However, when engineers meet with non-engineers, the communications chasm can be wide and deep, with a view by one group that the other group is “speaking in tongues”.

This difficulty in understanding is quite understandable. After all, what are engineers most interested in? They’re most interested in solving technical problems, not in financial issues or marketing issues, although they’d like to be aware of what those other issues may be. Similarly, finance and accounting people concentrate on their specialties and have little knowledge of or interest in the bits or bytes of engineering. In general, people concentrate on what they know and do best, leaving the other issues to people who know and concentrate on their areas of specialization. It is extremely unlikely that one person will be an expert in many “languages” (he who knows a little bit of everything is generally a master of none). Such islands of specialization generally serve a company well, with people concentrating their efforts on what they do best.

However, no company can long survive if the company as a whole cannot come together to work toward common goals (see Poor Company Vision Clouds Everyone’s View). Reaching such common goals may mean different things to different groups within the company, but there is a clear need for each group to understand how they can best contribute to meeting these goals, and how the other disparate groups will contribute as well (see Does Everyone Really Understand?). This means that there is a need for a common understanding among the many different “languages” spoken inside a company.

To effectively accomplish this, there must be people who are “multi-lingual” in the different “languages” spoken within the company. Such people can effectively “translate” between “engineering”, “marketing”, “sales”, “finance/accounting”, “manufacturing”, etc. Such people may not be fluent in every “language”, but they must be sufficiently fluent in at least two “languages” to effectively enable at least two groups to clearly understand each other and how they can best interact to achieve mutual goals. There are no formal training courses in the “languages” of different groups. Most often the “translators” are home grown people in the company who, of necessity, have worked closely with each group and have learned to speak their “languages”. Such “translators” are invaluable to a company, but recognition of their value is often overlooked because the different “languages” spoken are unrecognized (after all, everyone is speaking English!). The extent to which these people can clearly “translate” between the two “languages”, the goals can be effectively accomplished; the extent to which they cannot, there will be a muddle between what is expected by one group and what is delivered by the other. Since achieving company goals is essential to company success, this role is clearly critical.

Even with good “translation”, business people and engineers still may talk at cross-purposes, because their underlying motivations are often different. Business people most often are looking at the impact of a given decision on the near-term revenue such a decision can help generate and on the profitability to the company (see Keep Your Eyes on THE GOAL!). Engineers may look at the technology involved and how the implementation of the technology may position the company for the future (or some other motivation). In such cases, a crystal clear “translation” and unmistakable understanding must be reached so that both groups are working to the same goal; a “master translator” may be required.

The key to the success of a company is to have everyone in the company working toward the same goals . To accomplish this, every group must clearly understand their roles and the roles of others in achieving these goals. The fact that different groups speak different “languages” makes this more difficult, but having “translators” who can enable groups to effectively communicate with each other can prevent the problems of different groups “Speaking in Tongues”.

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