two meerkats exchanging a secret
PHOTO: Joshua J. Cotten

I have been trying to learn Italian. Not for a hobby or a trip. My goal is to be able to enjoy operas without having to watch subtitles or read translations. I simply want to be able to sit back, relax, close my eyes, and enjoy both the music and story.

During my studies, I often come across a word that seems familiar. It is easy to draw the relationship from the Italian word to a similar word in English. However, sometimes the word translates in a subtly different manner. I understand the intent of what is being said, but lose the nuance.

The same challenge occurs when organizations try to discuss information governance plans. Too often, speakers drop the adjectives that would adequately describe the importance of information. You can easily follow a conversation if you know the speaker’s job and the types of records with which they work. But when it comes to documenting the details in ways that everyone can understand, five different people will read the same sentence and come away with five different meanings.

You Can't Move Forward Without a Common Vocabulary

In the early days of enterprise content management (ECM), there were a lot of discussions around the exact meaning of ECM and other industry terms. Vendors'  definitions, conveniently enough, perfectly matched their products' capabilities. Finding a common language that cut across vendor products was critical in trying to identify and define best practices.

Over time, we came to a generally accepted set of terms. Some were inconsistent in their construction (especially when vendors had created an entrenched meaning), but there was a common language. We could go to conferences, share and learn from each other.

Sure, disagreements still happen. When new vendors enter the industry, they try to create new terms for old concepts. However, looking back, those detailed discussions allowed us to move the profession forward.

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Same Building, Different Languages

Inside an organization, it is easy to introduce new terms and concepts. That is, easy if you explain it in the context of the existing structures. Changing the current usage of a term is much more challenging.

Every organization has people who have been there longer than most of us have been in the work force. They not only know how things are done, they know what everything is called. Often, those labels run contrary to how other parts of the organization refer to similar items. Other times, the same term might refer to something completely different.

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Starting an Information Governance Program? Do This First

Before you can establish a proper information governance program, everyone needs to speak the same language. Defining what a “record” means can itself be a challenge. If you ask a career records manager, they will tell you that everything is a record. Ask a production manager in a factory, they will tell you that records refer to reports on output and productivity. Talk to finance and they’ll point to their financial reports.

People never qualify their statements. They don’t say, “financial records.” They just say, “records.” Other items are not “records” to them, even when they are. They drop the descriptor. This happens throughout the organization. Everyone in each group knows what is being discussed without the added context provided by those dropped adjectives.

Taking the time to reach a common understanding across the organization is important. List the records with which people work, including the qualifying terms. Put those definitions into policy. Then, ensure the policies always use the proper terms.

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Advice That Never Grows Old

Even the most functional and capable organizations have challenges with terminology. Terms evolve over time and reflect a deep understanding of the business. Creating a common language isn’t about forcing people to change, it is about recognizing those subtle meanings before disagreements break out over what is in the end a nuanced difference.

Most importantly, everyone in the organization needs to know when, and why, they need to use precise language. Awareness of the differences in terminology  is the surest way to ensure people will pause to add clarification if things aren't immediately clear. That pause helps avoid situations where people decide to stand their ground to defend a misunderstanding.

Once you are speaking the same language, meetings will go smoother and your information governance efforts will progress much faster.