Translate IT into English for Big Business Benefits

Ann All

One of the main tenets stressed in my journalism courses many moons ago was to write to an eighth-grade level -- that is, don't use language that an average eighth-grader can't understand. It's a shame that more business people don't follow this advice. It cuts down on frustration. And, as the state of Arizona is discovering, it often cuts costs and boosts efficiency as well.

The Arizona Republic reports that the state's Department of Revenue is in the midst of an initiative to make its letters to taxpayers shorter, clearer and more informative.

So far, the agency has produced new versions for about a quarter of the 400 form letters it hopes to rewrite. The results: Its unclaimed property division fielded some 11,000 fewer phone calls in 2007 and was thus able to process an additional 30,000 claims. Perhaps even more important, satisfaction levels have risen among both employees and constituents.

The agency applies the same standards to its internal communications. "Our intent is to make plain-talking part of the culture of the Department of Revenue," says its director, Gale Garriott.

While I think just about any business can benefit from using plainer language, IT is an especially obvious candidate. As I've blogged before, IT often struggles with communicating with business users in terms they can understand.

Many of us have suffered through the experience of trying to work out a support issue with an IT staffer over the phone and coming away wishing there was an "IT to English Dictionary" we could consult. Some of us end up so frustrated we try to fix our tech problems ourselves.

According to a spring 2007 survey of office workers in the UK, an amazing 9 percent of respondents say they'd dismantle their PC themselves in an effort to solve a problem rather than calling IT support. Only 30 percent of respondents routinely turn to support staff for help.

Now this isn't good. Not only can self-sufficient users end up making problems far worse, but the IT staff has less visibility into the overall network. Better that IT should follow the advice of the Center for Plain Language, a Maryland-based non-profit that helped the Arizona Department of Revenue with its initiative.

Among its goals, according to the article:

  • Make documents understandable on the first read.
  • Utilize better design, headings and bullets to make them useful and easy to scan.
  • Use language geared for the intended audience.
  • Avoid jargon.

On the other side of the support issue, IT could help users handle common issues on their own by providing them with understandable documentation. This is especially important in light of the dwindling ranks of support staff. As CIO Insight reports, CIOs would like to increase their tech support teams by some 40 percent.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 23, 2008 3:29 AM IT Guy IT Guy  says:
I wholeheartedly agree with the article in that terms, phrases and specifically acronyms can impair communication, but I think the root of this problem is that every profession - not just IT - places a value on the smug feeling from the ability to spout these, comfortable knowing that they are on the 'inside' knowledgewise. IMO, as a PMP who is an SME on ERP's for SMB's, I can relate. Much like a Dr. who orders a CAT scan for an ER patient, or scribbles a prescription so unlegible even the pharmacist can't decipher it, and who hasn't heard of the term "legalese" to describe the language lawyers love to confuse outsiders with. The professions 'language' code is what distinguishes them and provides a 'barrier to entry' for their occupation- otherwise - it could mean any hick with an 8th grade education might be able to do their job. Reply
Jan 28, 2008 8:00 AM datadoodle datadoodle  says:
Why IT guys write that way... “IT Guy” hits the spot with his response to Ann All's post “Translate IT into English for Big Business Benefits”: I wholeheartedly agree with the article in that terms, phrases and specifically acronyms can impair comm... Reply
Jan 31, 2008 6:20 AM Mike Unwalla, TechScribe Mike Unwalla, TechScribe  says:
IT Guy is right to say that every profession has its own language code, and yes, that code can give people a sense of being on the inside. However, the language code is one distinguishing factor; it is not the major barrier to entering a profession. Knowing the jargon does not mean that someone is a professional. That takes years of training. Reply

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