One of the wittier but less visible memes on Facebook reads, “I copy long words from the internet so that I can look photosynthetic.” That’s a very worthwhile topic for this week’s column.
I spent a large part of this week unpacking the various meanings of a single word, and the application and implications of that word in economic terms.
The word is one of the national touchstones, one that you probably see a couple of times a month. It is inevitably used in the context of a national priority.
As I began to set out the understanding of the word, I realised that although I have used it fairly regularly, I did not fully understand it myself. The context of its use, the topic which surrounded it gave it meaning. Now that I have ‘unpacked’ it, I better understand the need entailed in its concept.
The sketchy understanding of the word has been a loss to myself.
I wonder what the impact will be if the work I have done to make it understandable pans out, and stakeholders and the various public begin to understand why it is important.
Catchphrases and jargon are important in the scheme of communication. In most communication there is a limited window to get the necessary points across. If a concept packages five or six points, and has to be explained in a meeting, for instance, that will be a drag on the meeting, and those points will probably get lost among the knowledge that is imparted during the entire meeting. One word or catchphrase can solve the problem.
Unfortunately, the same terminology is often used in different contexts, so the waters become muddied. The word ‘sustainability’ is a good example of this. There are different ways of perceiving economic sustainability and natural sustainability, for instance.
So an economist and a biologist hearing that word at the same time may have different ways of interpreting it, and their expected outputs as a result of the interpretation of that word may lead to very different goals and actions. The economist may for instance, see nature as a resource to be used maximally, while the biologist may see nature as an object that should be used very sparingly.
A clash of goals and objectives is obviously extremely counterproductive, so a common understanding has to be achieved within the context of the project.
This means that time has to be given to the concept before it is used. It has to be defined, it’s outputs have to be understood, and behaviour that leads to those outputs has to be clarified.
Consider that in the context of values-driven systems of corporate philosophy. ‘Namibian’ and ‘innovative’ are two of the most common values that have emerged, across many values systems.
Both can have widely differing interpretations and results in the context of the entity. If the system decentralises responsibility and decision making, and tries to achieve a uniform result, through the values system then everything has to be understood by all concerned.
There are several steps that need to be followed: Firstly, the organisation has to define the word for itself in simple language. The longer the words in the definition, the less effective it will be.
Secondly, the expected results need to be stated very clearly. For instance, ‘Namibian’ could entail a shift in shareholding, an approach to a business model, a marketing footprint, a supplier strategy or a combination of these.
The concept, the definition, must have an operational effect and a bottom line for it to be valuable enough to give time to it.
Thirdly, sample behaviour and decision patterns need to be defined. These should act as guidelines, not as a mould. The guidelines should give staff confidence that their decisions and behaviour will be accepted.
Finally, training will be needed to impart the necessary understanding. This training should be repeated regularly with sporadic reinforcement as well. The long words and catchphrases are important, but without results-oriented management, they should not be used.