Lighten Up on Language

It's awfully hard to get legislators or the public excited about an IT program when the words that describe it sound like gibberish.
November 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

I wish I didn't have to be bilingual to do my job. People often talk to me in Tech Speak, and I have to translate it for readers. I've gotten so used to Tech Speak that sometimes I utter it in my off time. I've been known to drop "GIS" into a conversation about my job. Friends stare at me blankly.

But this isn't about me. It's about chief information officers, also known as CIOs, also known as the people who oversee technology -- even though their titles don't say so. Recently, I heard that constituents sometimes call the chief information officer to ask questions such as, "Can you tell me if I can park near city hall?" It makes sense to the callers. An information officer -- the chief information officer, no less -- should have all the answers.

This would be funny if it didn't bleed over into communications between CIOs and governors and legislators. Tech officials long for "technology champions" who can help get important projects funded. Is it possible more champions would emerge if they weren't stumbling over the terminology? It's awfully hard to get them excited about proposals that are incomprehensible. Ditto for the public. If tech projects sounded compelling to citizens, maybe they would support funding them, too.

At the National Association of State Chief Information Officers conference in Milwaukee this September, the first thing one of the speakers -- Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg School of Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania -- asked her audience was whether they could explain in one sentence these terms: denial of service attack; virtualization technology; hoteling; webinar; i-government.

Jamieson's point? Language matters. It shapes how people interpret concepts -- or whether they think about them at all. And whether, in a serendipitous elevator ride with a mayor or governor, a CIO could quickly make his or her case.

People in government, Jamieson points out, often use words that dull their message. Such as infrastructure and architecture. Infrastructure is a loser, Jamieson says. "It doesn't sound like something that affects me. I don't want to pay my tax dollars for it." Better to use words such as roads, bridges and computer systems. No one, she points out, is going to "rush over to help those people with their infrastructure."

As to architecture, people think of it as an important part of the building process -- the plan that's needed before constructing a bricks-and-mortar building. "If someone told you, 'we built this building without an architect,'" says Chris Dixon, a manager with the consulting company, INPUT, "you would be leery about getting into the elevator and going up in that building." In tech speak, "architecture" is just a highfalutin word for planning, and putting thought into, a technology system. Using a big word as shorthand doesn't advance a technology department's cause with non-technologists, who draw a blank when they try to apply architecture to something digital.

Then there's the term "network operations center." John Conley, Colorado's deputy CIO, makes it understandable by saying it's a health record of an IT system. The center takes the network's blood pressure, checking for "normal." Is there a lot of traffic or a little? If there's a blip in the system, is it in the heart or the leg? Simple enough for even the most IT-phobic legislator to understand.

Conley also is good at explaining "e-discovery." He equates that to a search-and-rescue operation for computer files or documents. Picture a hiker getting hurt while on a trail in a national park. The government undertakes a massive search-and-rescue operation. If searchers know the hiker's entry point to the park, it narrows the search. What trail did the hiker -- or the digital file -- use to enter the system? A concept we all can grasp.

Don't even get me started on acronyms. Recently, I got an e-mail with a subject line about the "next generation of broadcast EAS-CAP profile." Quick, what's an EAS-CAP profile? If I can't understand the subject line, I hit the "delete" button. (For what it's worth, EAS is Emergency Alert System and CAP is Common Alerting Protocol.)

Other subject lines now in my e-mail box: "URAC Best Practices." "Enabling IT Challenges with SaaS." "New HR ECM Solution." Ouch. When legislators don't fund a project or executives don't budget for it, is it because they're essentially clicking "delete" ?

Help them out. You might be amazed at what comes of it.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |