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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Don't let unclear language doom your next project

October 3, 2005

At a meeting the other day, an acquaintance shared a story about getting a "Webinar" together for his organization. A Webinar is like a seminar, only performed entirely online. The presenter is usually seen in a small, jerky video, but often there's not even that much visual stimulation. In many cases, it's just a series of slides and a voice. Most Webinars are no more interesting than inperson seminars, but at least you don't feel as noticeable if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of one.

Even assembling something as apparently simple as a Webinar can be a difficult chore, as my friend said he found out. And he added, intriguingly, that part of his problem was the various parties he had to work with had different interpretations of the word "Webinar." I assured him the regional dialects of technology have hobbled a great many good projects, and would probably continue to do so.

Mahan Khalsa, the presenter of the taped seminar, "Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play," has a great deal to say about this dilemma. He says, in essence, that to get to a solution, you have to first thoroughly understand the problem. Problems are communicated via language, and language is a lousy way to transmit thoughts, except for whatever is in second place. He uses the example of a salesperson who hears from a prospect that he is thinking about installing a "VPN," which in the trade is short for "virtual private network."

Now, I know what a VPN is, and the guys who put in networks know what a VPN is. This leads us to believe that when we hear "VPN" from a client, he means the same thing we do when we parrot back "VPN." All too often, it isn't. We don't find out we're speaking different dialects until money has been spent and expectations have ossified.

Khalsa offers a commonsense solution: Ask. Never guess. He suggests always asking something like, "You know, we've found in our experience that different clients mean different things when they say 'VPN.' What does that mean to you?" And ask it of each stakeholder in the deal. Find disjoints and fuse them back together before it's too late.

The problem is particularly acute in technology dialects. Those outside my industry frequently assume we technoids are in total sync linguistically. Not so. Words like "database," "server," "storage," "backup" and "system" can mean different things depending on specialty, time in the business, and the brands we're familiar with. Some of these meanings are only subtly different, but those are the most fraught with peril, because they may not make enough noise early in a project to force summit meetings for establishing common ground.

Terms for the newest playthings are the greatest pitfalls of all. "Webinar" is one. So are "broadband," "wireless," "Webcast" and "portal." Clients are fond of reading technology watchers such as Gartner Group (www.gartner.com) or Forrester Research (www.forrester.com) and then confidently proclaiming that "I want a portal" or "I want a VPN."

Lots of technology providers won't inquire further. "You want a portal, you got it!" This is a core reason why so many initiatives don't pan out. If you haven't precisely articulated the problem, the solution isn't likely to be what you thought it should be.

The safest way to sidestep the terminology trap is to get off the solution, and to focus instead on the problem you're trying to solve. People don't want drill bits; they want holes, and drill bits are just a means to the end. People don't buy VPNs; they buy security for their networks. They don't buy Webinars; they buy inexpensive communications for information and knowledge.

The next time you're thinking of specifying some sort of technological solution, do what Khalsa would advise: Walk away from the solution, and get better acquainted with the problem. What are you really trying to do? In my friend's case, he might have gotten the various players together in a meeting and said, "I need to be able to get timely information into the hands of our customers. I need to do it cost-effectively, yet be as compelling, fun and interesting as possible. How do I accomplish it?" Then let the natural course of design drive toward a solution. That way everybody understands what you need, and the terminology is self-defining. Your chances for success go way up.

Khalsa, by the way, isn't a technology guru at all. He's a sales expert. You can read his bio at www.franklincovey.com/letsgetreal/bios.html.


Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting.His column appears every other week.He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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