eLA Podcast | Ep. 3 | The Language of L&D

Welcome to the eLearning Alchemist podcast, I’m your host Clint Clarkson and in this episode we’ll talk about the significance of language to Learning & Development and how we’re perceived inside an organization.

Language of course is a mechanism we use for communication, and, generally, the goal of communication is to create mutual understanding. However, language is a tricky thing. Even when speaking the same language, misunderstandings often occur.

If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country that speaks the same language as you country, or even different regions of your own country, you’ve likely noticed differences in language. Accents, expressions, connotations, and verbiage can all impact our understanding and each of these things can change by region… and, also by context.

Take the expression, “That’s sick.” for example.

If you’re a forensic investigator and arrive at a murder scene, when someone says: “That’s sick.” The expression means they’re disgusted. But, if you’re an X-Games competitor and you hear someone say: “That’s sick.” they’re communicating their approval of a particular performance. In this example, tone is as significant as context. If a fellow X-Games competitor landed incorrectly and shattered her leg… it might be just as appropriate to say: “That’s sick.”

The most interesting part of this example is that neither of these expressions match the literal definition of the word “sick” – they’re both colloquialisms, or informal expressions.

As learning professionals, we often emphasize the importance of not using jargon in training programs, at least not until it’s been explained. Then we turn around and use our jargon within organizations all the time!

Tripping Over Jargon

Then, there’s jargon. And, L&D has a lot of jargon – just like many other industries and professions. Yet, the ironic part, is that as learning professionals, we often emphasize the importance of not using jargon in training programs, at least not until it’s been explained and is understood. Then we turn around and use our jargon within organizations all the time!

  • Andragogy
  • SMEs
  • LMS
  • SCORM
  • Level 3 and 4 Evaluation
  • Summative Assessment
  • The Socratic Method
  • Triads and Diads

And, we haven’t even started with the buzzwords.

It’s not hard to see why jargon is problematic. If your audience has never heard these words before, they have no clue what they mean.

But, there are other issues with our jargon as well:

First, jargon isn’t always used the same way in all organizations. Take SME as example. At an L&D conference, no one would assume that SME meant anything other than Subject Matter Expert. But, if you work for a Chamber of Commerce, it wouldn’t be unusual for SME to be used to reference, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises. Or, if you work in mining, it wouldn’t be unusual to assume SME is referencing the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration. So, said more simply – jargon can be misunderstood, but it can also be misinterpreted.

Second, jargon can be problematic for L&D because, while your clients or coworkers may not understand what you’re saying, they will still automatically try to interpret why you’re saying it and what your intent is by saying it. If you work for a construction company, and you want to explain the difference and importance of Formative and Summative assessments in Andragogy to the “field leaders,” using these terms probably isn’t going to come off well.

  • Are you trying to show them up by using language they don’t understand?
  • Do you lack confidence in front of this audience, so you’re trying to bolster yourself by using technical terms?
  • Do you not really know what you’re talking about, so you’re throwing around $50 words in hopes know on else will catch on?

This last one can be particularly problematic if someone asks you to explain a term and you can’t explain it simply enough for them.

And, the last reason jargon can be problematic for L&D is… it can make us sound stupid!

Really… what the heck does “gamification” mean? It’s not even a real word. How about Triads and Diads? Are you kidding me? I never want to have someone ask me what those words mean – I’d be ashamed to admit it means 2-people and 3-people… like I couldn’t have just said that.

The Language of the Business

Alright, so that’s a quick and dirty, explanation of why we shouldn’t use L&D jargon and expressions in our business environments. But, what’s more important for L&D team members is to speak the language of the business.

Businesses use certain words in very specific ways – look at the word “efficiencies.” In some organizations, efficiency gains are part of a specific organizational program like Lean or Six Sigma. In these cases, efficiency might be used to explain process improvements, or refer specifically to employee behaviours and actions. Other organizations will use the term more loosely and could mean a variety of things in different situations and contexts.

Another example occurs when businesses use very specific words instead of others. Take these three terms for example:

  • Action item
  • Commitment
  • And, To-do

Do each of these mean the same thing? Or, are they each something different from each other? Depending on your organization, it could be either.

Finally, some organizations – or industries entirely – just make up words. Trucking companies often refer to late deliveries as “lates,” even though it’s not a real word, because it’s 1 syllable instead of 5. Airlines on the other hand use D15 and A5 to express their on-time performance, because saying Departed within 15 minutes of the scheduled departure time… well, that just takes too long.

How Business Language Impacts L&D

So, how does all this affect L&D? Let’s go back to the travelling example from earlier. When you’re not from a country, even if you speak their language and without an accent, the words you choose, how you construct sentences, your idioms, colloquialisms, and terms, will quickly give you away. If someone is in doubt about your “localness” because of your attire or your sense of space, it’s the language you use that will give you away for sure. You don’t fit in.

L&D – and HR on the whole – often isn’t exposed as frequently to the language norms within the organization. And subsequently, don’t “pick-up” the language.

Now, lets bring that into our context. L&D often lives under the corporate HR umbrella. Which is a whole other topic all together… But, the point is, we’re often hidden in our own part of the building and separated from the rest of the business, especially “the operation.” As result, L&D – and HR on the whole – often isn’t exposed as frequently to the language norms within the organization. And subsequently, don’t “pick-up” the language.

The fall-out of this under exposure is that we don’t sound like the rest of the business when we’re presenting ideas or participating in conversations. We sound like a foreigner.

This quickly damages our credibility because we’re seen as an “outsider” or as simply not “in tune” with the organization. This creates skepticism about our ability to impact the business in a meaningful way. If we then pull-out our L&D jargon, we just compound the issue.

Switch to Lead and Lag Measures

While it certainly won’t solve the entire problem, learning the language of your business will help you fit in. When you fit in, people are more likely to listen to you. And, when they listen, you can start to influence them. Let’s take a look at a specific example – Level 3 and Level 4 Evaluations.

We don’t sound like the rest of the business when we’re presenting ideas or participating in conversations. We sound like a foreigner.

Level 3 Evaluations track changes in learner behaviours, while Level 4 Evaluations track changes in performance results. These are the measures that allow L&D to demonstrate their worth to the organization. There’s just one problem – your business leaders don’t understand them. And, it’s no good if you need to spend 30 minutes explaining them at the start of every project. So, what can we do instead?

Each organization will be different, but if you worked in manufacturing or any other heavily data driven industry – which is basically all of them now – you could switch to using “Lead” and “Lag” measures.

Lead measures are indicators predictive of future results. They are the behaviours that individuals demonstrate that are predictive of a specific outcome. For example: If an employee always calibrates their tools before commencing work, this activity would be predictive of fewer defects.

The number of defects is a lag measure. Lag measures are indicators of historical performance. They’re called lag measures because they aren’t available until after they can no longer be changed. The current “number of defects” report is unchangeable – assuming the data is accurate. We can’t go back in time and change how many defects occurred.

We can however, look at the behaviours of employees – the lead measures – and make adjustments that are predictive of fewer defects, which should improve the next “number of defects” reports.

Finding the right “lead measures” can be difficult and requires the active participation of business leaders… but, it’s a tremendously beneficial process to go through and gives you specific, clear direction on how to design your learning objectives.

Learning the Language of Your Business

Okay, so, how do you learn the language of your business? Unfortunately, there probably isn’t a course or job aid to help you out. There’s no Rosetta Stone here. So, you need to do what humans have been doing for centuries… immersion. You need to immerse yourself in your business, spending more time with the people who make your organization run and less time with your HR friends. Not that we don’t like HR, it’s just that they too are speaking the wrong language.

This means meeting with and listening to the leaders of the business, but also spending time with the front-line, the people actually doing the work. You might be thinking: “Where the heck am I going to find time to ‘immerse’ in the business just to learn the language of the business?” To which I’ll reply: “How the heck are you building training programs if you never actually go to where the work is done to understand the learners, their work environment, their constraints, and their challenges?” Yes! Part of your job is going to the learners, in their work environment and learning from them. At least, it’s part of your job if you actually want to make a difference for your organization…

How the heck are you building training programs if you never actually go to where the work is done to understand the learners, their work environment, their constraints, and their challenges?

One More Benefit

There’s a fringe benefit to this as well… actually, it’s not really a fringe benefit, it’s a tremendously huge benefit. When you’re seen “on-the-floor” with the operation, you build credibility. You’ll be taken more seriously and seen as a person who is “part of” the operation, instead of an outsider.

When you’re part of the team, you’ll also receive input that is more candid and feedback that is more actionable. And, who would have guessed, all this just by committing to learn the language of your business.

Wrap Up

Alright, folks let’s wrap this up – here is a rapid-fire recap for your pleasure:

  1. Language varies from country-to-country, region-to-region, and even business-to-business. If we fail to learn the language of our businesses, we remain “outsiders” and building credibility will become incredibly difficult for us. We need to take the time to connect with, meet with, and spend time with the individuals who are making our organizations run. They have the best, the most important information we can possibly gather. And, by spending time with them we will speak more like them, which will allow us to communicate more effectively when we’re trying to initiate training initiatives.
  2. On that note, it would be great to have a resource that provides alternatives to L&D language that are easier for business leaders to consume. Send me your thoughts, what should we include on that list? If we get enough of them, I’ll put up a blog to feature them.

What do you think? Do you agree that learning the language of your business is crucial to success in L&D? Can the language of L&D hurt practitioners when used at the wrong times? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Put them in the comments section or email me at podcast@elearningalchemy.com.

That’s all for today folks, thank you so much for listening.

I hope you’ll listen again next week when we discuss whether or not we learned anything from our unhealthy 6-year obsession with millennials. I hope you’ll join me.

Take care until then,

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