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Are you sabotaging capability with language?

By Ben Berghauser  | June 2022

How it all started

Onneer’s founders have a long career experience with GIS capability management.

Successive career decisions for the two founders drove them deeper into GIS and capability management roles over the decades, crossing paths at numerous points.

Eventually they ended up together in twin senior roles within a high-performing GIS team and all that experience combined. They were able to focus on GIS capability as a holistic endeavour, beyond just the software, based on many previous experiences. Together, they spent many years manoeuvring around the planning, delivery and ongoing management of GIS to improve the outcomes.

These experiences led to the application of a range of holistic management techniques which Onneer now uses to derive the highest value from operational GIS.

This article is a summary of their experience and it is hoped will inspire others in their own capability management role.


The language barrier

It was during the initial days of working in a high-performing GIS team that the awareness of language and its importance became apparent.  

Being part of such a team made it an exciting time. The team had remit to deliver a much needed GIS with good managers, enough resources, and people with an amazing depth of skill and diversity of experience.

​Winning was only a matter of time.

Strangely, stumbling blocks started to appear. They began to experience trouble explaining things between themselves. How could this be when they had a great team and all the experience you could possibly want?

When they spoke to each other, they all inherently understood what their colleagues meant but found themselves increasingly rolling back a conversation to correct an assumption— sometimes even hours or days after it had occurred.

This was not just frustrating—it was starting to erode the client management conversations. They found themselves doubling back to these discussions as well to correct something they said because it was based on an incorrect interpretation of an issue.

Looking far and wide, nothing seemed to adequately explain the source of this problem.

The epiphany

Then they stumbled across an obscure blog post by an equally obscure author. He published one single post on communication and since then has focussed on personal finance with bitcoin. He only has a handful of short, self-published opinion pieces and a low online presence.

This single post, though an island in a metaphorical sea of investment advice, had four main points which really resonated with the issue the team was experiencing: 

  1. Thoughts are delivered through language
  2. Imprecise language flattens complex meaning
  3. Imprecision becomes habit, spreads and reduces the group lexicon
  4. Reduced group lexicon limits complex communication.

There are probably experts who have written fantastic academic literature on this subject, but the team had what they needed in this single blog post.


It’s not you, it’s me – discovering the issue

​When considering GIS, the first thing that comes to mind is that it is complex and resists simplistic definition.

So, it goes without saying that GIS is complex. It is also multifaceted; it is broad and encompasses so many different backgrounds and specialities. GIS is hard to define.

Many will have resorted to “I make maps”, or “basically I work in IT” or something equally simple when describing their GIS work because trying to explain it is too much effort.

This is where the team discovered the problem. They had fallen into a trap of what was easy, not what was correct.

Thus began an experiment of sorts, applying a collective team effort to use more precise language.

Correcting behaviour

The team started to make conscious decisions and discuss what they were trying to do with their language.

They debated and agreed on key terms and when there were common terms which were highly contextual, the team agreed on methods to preface them such as the difference between a business service and a web service.

They practiced slowing down the conversations and allowing the other extra time to consider a response. This extended to also reinforcing the need for the originator of that knowledge to spend extra time and effort to describe it.

Collectively, they started to reinforce language which was further helped by the typical way human beings process understanding in conversation by repeating what they just heard back in their own words. With conscious effort, they could either subtly or quite bluntly correct language which was imprecise or recognise language which was excellent.

The team also gave themselves license to help each other correct bad habits and everyone benefitted.​


Benefits ahoy!

Clear communication meant the team worked better together and the shared goal of precise language was facilitating a stronger bond between members. Solving complex, multi-dimensional technical problems was enhanced and even the most difficult issues were able to be resolved.

Their relationships also improved with key management stakeholders and by presenting clearly articulated messages, a range of assumed knowledge, which was sometime incorrect, was removed from the message.

A range of organisational behaviours changed, too. Issue reporting became more precise and easier for the team to resolve. Additionally, users who frequently engaged with the team improved their ability to describe what they were doing and what was happening when things were not right or as expected.

The user community further benefitted by having the language to engage with online resources better and between each other. Users started to drive the capability needs harder, self-identifying what they needed and requesting it in clear, capability-appropriate language.


Improving language behaviour

So how can your capability team drive improvements through their language?

  1. Foster an environment where everyone grows. All team members bring something to interpreting language and the more input received, the more you will get it right.
  2. Know the authoritative source. When working with COTS software, always take the software vendor’s lead, as complicated and as ever-changing as that may be.
  3. Slow down. No one knows what you are describing more than you. Take your time whether in written or verbal communications to describe the topic thoroughly and accurately.
  4. Correct language wherever you can. Repeat and rephrase in conversations and include the correct language. Never miss an opportunity to help someone else communicate with you by giving them an indication of the right language to engage.
  5. Talk about it. Have the conversation with your team often and get everyone onboard with what you are doing.


Don’t ask for a thingamee

Consider how imprecision might impact other professions. Could a surgeon operate safely without being able to request the correct surgical equipment or assistance in the operating theatre? Could a military commander expect their troops to successfully complete a mission and return safely home if they could not communicate properly?

Spatial capability professionals should be the same. If the software has a name, use the correct one. If you are discussing a concept as ambiguous as a ‘service’, preface it to give context.

Stop. Think about what you are trying to communicate and do not go for the easy shortcut. Your capability outcomes will benefit from this and perhaps, you might just avoid sabotaging your capability with words.