It was sweltering Saturday in my Florida backyard, so I took a break from my lawn work and grabbed an ice cold pop to quench my thirst.
Yes. And here’s why: A while back, a cool graphic circulated around the internet showing the various regional differences in what people in the United States called their soft drinks. It was created by Alan McConchie and his admittedly unscientific research process involved having people visit a website (see the link below) where they would contribute two facts about themselves:
- what they called soft drinks,
- and where they grew up.
The data was plotted on a detailed map of the United States which showed the stunningly clear regional variations in bright colors. (He did a map for Canada too.) The three most popular terms for soft drinks in the US turned out to be:
- …and “Coke”
I grew up in Minnesota, where we called it “Pop”, but I have since traveled around the world and I’ve experienced the differences in soft drink labels first hand. I’ve even had people laugh when I ask for a “pop” and inquire where I was from. So Alan’s research into regional terminology variance is probably accurate in a general sense, even if it’s not scientific.
So the Obvious Question to Pop Is…: What does this mean for Change Agents?
Change Agents need to account for terminology differences across their stakeholder base in order to avoid miscommunication. In the interest of clear communication, terms should be reconciled where they can be. By “reconciled”, I mean two things:
- Everyone agrees to refer to the same thing by the same term.
- Everyone agrees to quit using the old terms once the new terms are accepted.
Where duplicates make sense, they should be clearly pointed out. By “duplicates”, I mean two things:
- The case where two different terms are used to describe the same thing.
- …and the case where two different things are referred to by the same term.
Where Do Terminology Variations Come From? A lot of factors can generate differences in what things are called. Regional language variations like those described in the soft drink example can show up in business processes as well. I once worked with a joint US/UK negotiating team that would repeatedly get sidetracked by language subtleties. For example, the Americans thought the Brits wanted to suspend discussion of a given item when they suggested “we should table that issue” when in fact they were saying they wanted to “get that issue out on the table”.
Besides cultural language differences, other common sources of terminology variation can include:
1. Homegrown Processes: The localized meaning of various terms can depend upon how the local staff learned or created the buzzwords associated with their processes. For example, I once heard these significant differences in the definition of terms used in one of my client’s product distribution warehouses:
- One site’s “order” was another site’s “pick list”.
- One site’s “completed order” was another’s “finished order”.
- One site had five numbered levels of priority for filling orders (1-5) while another had only two: “Immediate Fill” and “Regular Priority”.
3. Parallel Organic Solutions: Sometimes new terms arise from people solving the same problem in slightly different ways in multiple corners of the org chart. It’s probably okay that this variation exists as long as the business processes never have to integrate… but the luxury of isolation rarely remains available for long. When the time comes to integrate processes and blend the mix of buzzwords from across the map, Change Agents should be careful to include representation from all organizational units.
4. Strong Local Leadership: In most larger organizations, there will be some variation in the leadership styles and communication preferences of those who guide the different business components. In some cases, the unique words used by the “local boss” can even trump the corporate vernacular. I once worked with a client who habitually referred to their project status dashboards as “Buffy Graphs” because the first boss who demanded that specific reporting data was named Mr. Buffington.
Can You Hear Me Now? In summary, Change Agents who work to implement new ideas, new methods or new thinking across a diverse organization may discover pockets of terminology variation. They should listen closely for what things are called locally.
It’s not a big deal when one fellow calls a soft drink “Soda” or “Pop” while another bloke calls the same thing “Coke”. But it may be critical when one part of the customer support team uses the term “Support Ticket Closed” to mean what another part of the team calls an “Issue Resolved to Customer’s Satisfaction”. (Can you guess what problems this might cause?)
In my next article, I will address what Change Agents can do about these terminology differences. Hint: It starts with working through a methodical process of buzzword mapping and synchronization. It ends with Change Agents helping their team avoid potential communications missteps.
Questions for Chatter:
- How can teams most effectively gather the data that may show “regional dialects” and differences in terminology within their organizations?
- What do you call soft drinks? Have you had an experience similar to mine when ordering in your “native tongue”?
- The Great Pop .vs. Soda Controversy Rages On! You can visit Alan’s website for the Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy by clicking here: http://www.popvssoda.com/.
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