Jargon Can Be a Process Killer


Successful process improvement initiatives rely on achieving a common and shared understanding of a whole range of important factors.  In order to analyze and improve a problem we need to work with stakeholders to define a common understanding of how the process works, any problems that exist, and any improvements that are sought.  It is likely that we’ll work with our colleagues building up an iterative view of the situation to ensure that we are all “on the same page”.  We’ll have many conversations, sketch out many diagrams, and converge on a mutually agreed solution.

Yet sometimes communication can seem to be a real challenge.  It often feels like industries, disciplines and organizations have their own specific language and “jargon”, which can seem impenetrable to an outsider.  Even within an organization, different departments may use the same term in different ways—words which have a very specific meaning in one context might have a very different meaning in another context.  Throw in the challenge of abbreviations and acronyms and it becomes clear that if we don’t pay attention to terminology, there is the real danger that we’ll misunderstand (or be misunderstood).  

This challenge is compounded by the fact that as business analysts and business process improvement practitioners, we have our own language!   To take an example, when we use the acronym “SME” we probably mean Subject Matter Expert – but to others it might mean Small or Medium Enterprise, Secure Message Exchange or even Senior Management Executive.   If we inadvertently ask “Can you tell me whether there are any other SMEs that I need to involve in this project”, we might get a puzzled look in return – or even worse we might get a simple “no” as the person has interpreted our question in a different way.  A simple misunderstanding like this might mean we miss the opportunity to gain vital insight that will help us understand the issue we are investigating in more depth.

It is therefore crucial that we consciously and continually strive for a common and shared understanding.  Here are a few practical steps we can take to help achieve clarity:

1. Glossary:  When working on a project or initiative, it is very useful to create a centrally accessible glossary.   Terms which have a specific and nuanced meaning can be defined once in the glossary—this saves us needing to define them time and time again in different documents.  In fact, the very act of putting together a glossary can create a useful debate—often people will have subtly different definitions of what is meant by the term “customer” for example—which may lead to different, and more descriptive terms being used instead (e.g. Retail Customer, Internal Customer, Business Customer etc.).  And the best part is that a glossary can be shared between projects, teams or departments.  Once it is created it can be re-used and incrementally added to time and time again.

2. Modeling:  It has often been said that “a picture speaks a thousand words”.   If a picture speaks a thousand words, then perhaps a well formed visual model speaks two (or ten) thousand words! When analyzing process models, it is extremely useful to put together a process model—using a shared and commonly understood notation.   If all stakeholders understand the notation, then some of the challenges of communicating in written text are avoided.    Not only this, but a well-drafted model will also help us to create different ‘views’ on the situation—perhaps being able to zoom in/zoom out to different levels of abstraction.

3. Validate understanding:  Having elicited information from a stakeholder, it is very useful to play it back to them—either verbally, or perhaps in a short e-mail.  It is worth unpacking any acronyms and testing any assumptions, so that we have the opportunity to have any of our inadvertent errors highlighted.  This has a further advantage too—on hearing the information played back to them the stakeholder may well pick up on further detail that they simply forgot to mention the first time round.

Communication is a thorny issue, and the list above is by no means extensive, but these three tips can be very useful to ensure that we avoid a range of common pitfalls.

In summary:  Clear and consistently understood communication is crucial for successful process improvement initiatives.  By placing a conscious effort in ensuring we communicate unambiguously, and also that we are truly understanding our stakeholders, we avoid a range of common risks and pitfalls.  This will increase the chance of our initiative succeeding.