I'm working with the folks over at the e-Learning Guild on a project and had the opportunity yesterday to get a guided tour through their incredibly rich data. One of the practice searches we ran was to look at which online conferencing tools were being adopted in different sectors. What was interesting was that the tools being used by most businesses were NOT the same as the tools being used by education and government. It was like every sector from aerospace to retail was on the same page and then there were the two outliers--the educational community and government agencies.
This got me speculating on not only why this occurs, but, more importantly (to me) how this illustrates a gaping chasm between what happens in business and what's happening in education and government. Now I'm not suggesting that businesses, education and government should all be using the same tools. I recognize that different sectors have different needs and, therefore, might be more likely to use different tools. But what I wonder is if this doesn't contribute to a communication gap? Using the same technology tools tends to give us a common frame of reference. When we don't have that, it becomes more difficult for us to communicate. Might this kind of thing be both a symptom and a cause of communication difficulties between business, education and government?
I suspect that this is on my mind because I've been doing some thinking about something I noticed during the Comment Challenge. Several of the Challenge activities provoked some surprisingly (to me) negative reactions from participants, which, upon further investigation, seemed to indicate that we were having some issues with the language I used.
The first time I noticed this was in the activity where I suggested that people create a comment "policy" for their blogs. Several participants indicated that they didn't like the idea of a "policy" governing comments--they wanted people to be free to say whatever. This caught me off-guard. I personally hate policies (when used in the sense of rules) and I was thinking more along the lines of guidelines when I came up with the activity. But since most people call it a "comment policy" and I knew what I meant, I didn't think twice--just used the commonly referred to concept. That clearly didn't go over well, though.
This happened a few other times, too--on the activity where I asked people to consider how commenting impacting their personal "brand (another word people hated) and the next day when I suggested developing a commenting "strategy."
What I observed in this process was that the people who didn't care for these words tended to come from education, where "policy," "branding" and "strategy" may have some more negative connotations than I intended. It got me to thinking about the issue of culture and communication and how when we don't share a common framework of understanding--when discussions are framed using words that carry powerful positive or negative emotional weight--they can seriously impact communication and trust. (Read George Lakoff's article on framing and politics to see what I'm talking about).
One of the benefits of homophily, of course is that it creates this common cultural language. If I say "brand" to a group of marketers, that's a really positive word--everyone understands and supports the concept. As soon as we start trying to expand beyond our usual circles, though, (like using the word "brand" with educators), issues of language begin to loom larger, even when we think that we all mean the same thing.
All of this has me wondering what we can do to encourage cross-community conversations by being more purposeful in our discussions about language. I can see, for example, that I should have explained in more detail what I meant by some of the words I used during the Challenge activities. This might have prevented some misunderstandings and helped me be clearer myself about what I meant. It also, presumably, would have improved the learning experience for Challenge participants.
It also has me realizing that one of the key work literacy skills we need to cultivate is cultural competence, and not just in the traditional sense of being able to work with people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds or with people from different countries. There are cultures all over the place--in different professions, organizations, and communities. They may or may not give the same emotional weight to certain words that we do. It becomes critical for us to be able to recognize when language is impeding our communications and find other ways to operate within the same frames of reference.
What do you think? How can we address these kinds of issues to improve the quality of our communications with others who may not share our same frames of reference? How can we nurture these skills in cultural competence to improve both our personal learning as well as our interactions and work?