Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Breaking Down The Language Barrier

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There is a well-known saying, "Two nations separated by a common language." Where the saying comes from, nobody really knows, though most would attribute it to George Bernard Shaw, who in a 1951 book of quotations, and without attributing it to a source, was credited with saying, "England and America are two countries separated by the same language." Then, there is Dylan Thomas, who said in a radio talk in the early 50's, "European writers and scholars in America are up against the barrier of a common language."

Now, the relevance of these sentiments may not at first seem obvious, however, unfortunately, the sentiments are all too relevant to the everyday issues facing people in the Business Process and Architecture worlds. Management gurus such as Michael Porter, Geary Rummler, and Tom Peters, have attached meaning to words like "Value Chains" and "Business Processes" and "Activity" - meanings familiar to senior business executives and managers.

As with most words in every day use, different groups ascribe different meanings to the same words or phrases. In the case of the business manager and the IT manager, the tragedy is that these differences inevitably fuel a misunderstanding of needs and wants between them. In fact, most observers would agree that the issue of a common vocabulary is one of the biggest obstacles to fully integrating business and IT.

So, it was with great interest that I noted that many of the presenters at a recent Gartner Symposium were scheduled to talk about business processes and value chains, and the management of business processes. At last, respected IT analysts were going to use their influential position within the IT community to clear up some of the confusion. How wrong I was!

I heard speaker after speaker continue to talk about the importance of business processes, when in fact they were only talking about what I will refer to as ABPs (automated business processes). I listened to them talk about value chains as simply linking Supply Chain Management systems with Customer Relationship Management systems. They talked about business process management, referring only to the libraries of ABPs a company has.

As I left the conference I could not work out whether I was more disappointed by the fact that they were misusing the terms, or the fact that, inevitably, thousands of senior IT professionals were leaving the conference believing they had a better understanding of how to communicate with their business colleagues.

On a positive note, there were four notable exceptions to this trend, one of whom was Dr. Tony Murphy. The presentation from Tony was like a breath of fresh air, and certainly inspired me to buy and read his book, Achieving Business Value from Technology. (I highly recommend it.) Tony spent his time explaining how we no longer have IT projects. We have business projects supported by IT. He also suggested that the old ways of measuring ROI were out of date and suggested new ways of measuring success. Now, I don't want to go into great detail here, but I do want to point out that 90% of Tony's referenced definitions were from a business perspective and not from an IT perspective. Indeed, Tony actually used the word "Enterprise" to describe the entire business of an organization, where every other presentation I heard used the term to refer to a company's "IT Architecture." – or, to mean "big" or "scalable." Afterwards, when I asked him why he and his colleagues were talking about completely different things when using the word "Enterprise," he seemed bemused.

If we are to truly integrate business and IT functions in order to create the flexible and responsive enterprise of the future, we really must find ways of getting both parties to use a common vocabulary. (BPTrends has included a very comprehensive "Vocabulary" section within the "Resources" section of the portal, in the hope of promoting such a common understanding.) Beyond that, though, we need the help and support of the IT Research community, as they, more than anyone, are in the best position to influence the entire IT community.

So, as we start the spring conference season, I urge the analysts at Gartner Group and other IT research firms to ensure that they use everyday business terminology in the way that business people do, and to refrain from taking commonly understood business terms and redefining them to describe IT specific meanings or functions. For if this doesn't happen, the problem will persist and they will have missed the opportunity to become a part of the solution by helping to bridge the business/IT language gap.

For IT managers wishing to improve their own understanding of the issues, I would recommend reading some of the books your business colleagues are likely to be reading - books like Competitive Advantage and Competitive Strategy, by Michael E. Porter, or Improving Performance, by Geary Rummler and Alan Braches, and of course, look for the new book, Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning and Automating Processes, by our very own Paul Harmon.

Note: This article first appeared in March 2003 on Mark McGregor's "Postcard from Europe" Series of articles on BPTrends

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