"The Thinker"
Are your $10 words keeping employees away from your collaboration solutions? It's time we simplify our language PHOTO: Fredrik Rubensson

We’re only a few months into 2018, but I’m calling an audible on how we talk about the employee communication and collaboration space. “Digital Transformation” and its associated lingo have crossed the line into buzzword territory.

Our industry has created an echo-chamber where we wax poetic about social ROI, being “cultural change agents,” the employee experience, talent analytics and multi-step collaboration maturity models. We use this terminology to educate CxOs about the value of employee communities and collaboration platforms. We build PowerPoint decks with complex workflow diagrams to help explain our blatant abuse of syllables and statistics found in an analyst report.

And while this might work for those of us who dream about social network analysis at night, why do we continue to rally around complex buzzwords that make great HBR articles, but have no meaning for the majority of the workforce who have knowledge to share?

Our lexicon of linguistic lunacy does nothing to help the retail associates and flight crews serving customers, the production teams building equipment, the everyday employees doing their best at their job, be it coding, writing or building, understand how open, community-driven collaboration can help them succeed. 

Communication and collaboration friends, I’m calling on all of us to shift how we talk about our work, to focus instead on the 99.9 percent of employees at an organization who will actually be using social platforms. We have the opportunity to change the conversation and share the benefits of social collaboration and employee communication more naturally, in words that all employees relate to. 

It’s time to create a new dictionary for our work that is simple and meaningful for all generations in the workforce and all employee profiles. The result will be better adoption, meaningful engagement, and more valuable, applicable usage of these platforms at every level of our business.

Related Article: Front-Line Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

3 Rules for Making the Switch to Simplicity

When you’re ready to start crafting a new language about employee collaboration and communication, keep these three rules in mind.

  1. Ask, don’t dictate. Collaboration leaders should conduct interviews and ask thoughtful questions about employees’ work, understand the vocabulary that they use daily, and inquire about the value of collaboration across desk-based and field-based workers. Interview a good cross section of people, listening for the language that resonates with each group. This will allow you to capture authentic content and context to build an authentic collaboration dictionary.
  2. Simplicity is king. Avoid any leftover grad-school instinct to add more complexity to your collaboration language than needed. If the values that resonate the most are stunningly basic, like “help,” “chat” or “talk,” embrace them.
  3. The grandma test. Once you’ve built out your new language, try to explain your company’s collaboration program to someone who has never worked in your industry — maybe your grandmother, or the neighbor who works in a totally different field. Something like, “We apply the principles of digital transformation by journey-mapping the collaboration experience across Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z personas,” will undoubtedly result in a blank stare. But one that passes the grandma test? “We run an online ‘question and answer desk’ to help employees get support with their biggest challenges while on the road.”

Related Article: Collaboration Matters Most for Front Line Workers

New Dictionaries in Practice

Recently, we’ve worked with two organizations that have done significant work in building out new languages for their communications and collaboration efforts. 

UNICEF increased its Yammer engagement by 500 percent over the course of two years by completely rebranding the platform and its benefits. With a nearly 10-year-old Yammer network, UNICEF had been using the same formal, academic-style language to talk about collaboration for years. In 2016, a little more than 10 percent of staff were using Yammer regularly. When the Learning and Knowledge Exchange team began interviewing global staff, they learned that Yammer was not well understood in a complex environment of SharePoint, Skype for Business, e-learning tools, email lists and more.

To foster simplicity, UNICEF created the BUILD model, a new methodology for managing communities. BUILD was an acronym that encompassed the four key components of knowledge-sharing that we discovered at UNICEF: B (billboard — how you advertise your community to others), UI (literally you + I, the human element of communities), L (library — where your official documents are stored), and D (dialogue — the real-time conversations people have about important topics). 

Every community manager or leader was, in essence, an architect, and the BUILD model provided a simple approach to understanding the required components of an online community. Today, more than 5,000 users are active on Yammer on a monthly basis.

A well-respected North American equipment rental company recently launched Workplace by Facebook to more than 15,000 employees across the U.S. Uptake by desk-based workers was quick, but it took a bit more discovery to understand how to make Workplace meaningful for drivers, techs and service people in the field. What would make Workplace relevant to these employees who were incredibly safety-focused and encouraged not to use their phones while on the job?

After dozens of interviews with field-based workers, we learned that drivers and technicians were using Workplace as a type of mobile “how-to” guide — a quick reference on-the-go for equipment fixes and best practices. One tech called it the company’s “help book,” and we tested that name with other techs in the field. The term resonated well, and thus, we began a campaign touting Workplace as the company’s “Help Book” to get fast answers from peers with similar experiences. There’s no mention of collaboration, or ROI, or any kind of digital transformation. In this company’s case, branding Workplace as a good old fashioned reference guide made all the difference.

Putting Ourselves in Their Shoes

Fellow collaboration and communications friends, it’s time we step into the shoes of the thousands of employees at our company who work differently than we do. While there’s room for the academic and CXO-worthy language in our work, we must help our companies understand that the language we use across diverse employee populations about collaboration matters. By hearing the language used directly by our employees and putting it to work in our discussions about collaboration, we’ll see more of the true adoption, engagement, and yes, transformation, that we have aspired to achieve for years.