posted 22 Mar 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 6
Watch your language
David Gurteen lists some of the phrases and terms that he thinks should be avoided when discussing KM
One of the problems I see in the knowledge management (KM) world is that we are not too careful about the language we use. I think we need to take the time to think about this. Fundamentally, I think we should work hard to:
Avoid KM jargon;
Use everyday language;
Use the specific language of our particular business; and
Think about how our language and the metaphors we use shape our view of KM and the perception of others.
When talking to business managers or people in the organisation who are not familiar with KM we should avoid the jargon that is used in KM circles. Terms such as ‘tacit’, ‘explicit’, ‘community of practice’, ‘peer assist’ and such like turn many people off. We need to use simple, everyday language to explain things and, importantly, use the specific language of our business when talking to people.
We should think about words that are often used loosely and are frequently not appropriate. Here are some suggestions of mine. You may not agree with all of them but, hopefully, you will get the idea.
1. We should never use the word ‘solution’ or the phrase ‘KM solution’, which are so often used in KM circles. There are no solutions to complex business problems. You cannot solve most business problems in the same way that you fix a broken machine. You can only respond in various ways that result in outcomes. Some of these outcomes are desired but along with these there will be undesired outcomes and adverse side effects – but certainly no solutions. There are NO ‘solutions’ to complex business issues, only ‘responses’ to them.
2. We don’t ‘solve’ problems – again in a complex world we ‘respond’ to them.
3. We should never talk about ‘doing KM’. It is not an end in itself. We should talk about using KM thinking, tools and techniques to address business issues.
4. We should use the term ‘KM project’ rather than ‘KM initiative’, as the word project better describes the process being undertaken.
5. We should use the phrase ‘business issue’ rather than ‘problem’ as it covers not only problems but also opportunities and risks and the word business helps focus our thinking on the real business issue not on activity or symptoms of the issue.
6. We should use the word ‘we’ rather then ‘you’. For example, ‘We need to work better together’ rather than ‘You need to work better together’, which results from ‘us and them’ thinking.
7. We should avoid the words ‘optimal’ and ‘best’. In complex systems there are no ‘optimal solutions’ or ‘best practices’.
8. We should avoid using sales metaphors, such as ‘selling an idea’ or ‘getting buy-in’. KM is all about ‘working together’. ‘Selling’ is not part of this!
Personally, I also dislike terms such as ‘human capital’ as they seem to demean us as human beings. I am not even fond of ‘human resources’ but I think that is here to stay. ‘Intellectual capital’ is another phrase that I find irritating, but again that seems to be well established. Whereever I can just use the word ‘people’, I do!
We need to think about our language all the time and we need to question it. Is our language appropriate to our listeners and to what extent do our words confuse and mislead people, ourselves included?
David Gurteen is the founder of Gurteen Knowledge and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.gurteen.com