Lost in Translation

April 24, 2011

The myths around words and the use of language to define culture is central to our ability to communicate effectively. This is a light hearted story for the holidays……

If the next time you see a Kangaroo it looks confused the reason may be in the name. Capt. James Cook arrives in Australia in 1770 and sees a strange animal….

He asks local Aborigines what is it called? They don’t understand Cook and reply ‘I don’t know’ in their local dialect “kan-ga-roo”……………

The world then had a new species the Kangaroo. But if they didn’t know and he didn’t know who does??

As with all good stories, this one contains enough truth to be plausible. A later explorer, Captain Phillip K. King, recorded in 1820 a different word for the animal, which he wrote as “mee-nuah” so it was assumed that Captain Cook had been mistaken.

However, the Guugu Yimidhirr people to refer to a certain species of kangaroo as gangurru which is pronounced almost identically to kangaroo so all that may have happened is a specific name was applied to a whole species.

Next time you are tempted to drop a great technical term, or hip jargon into a conversation think of the kangaroo myth first. If you don’t know they don’t know what’s the point?? For more on this see my PM Network article of the same title from December 2010: view the article

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Learn how to Motivate your Manager at PMOZ

March 27, 2011

I have been asked to present a Keynote at this year’s PMOZ. The conference is in Brighton, Sydney from 2nd – 5th August, for more on PMOZ see: http://www.pmoz.com.au/

The focus of the presentation will be Motivate your Manager!  We all know senior management support is a critical element in the successful delivery of projects and programs. Without effective support from executives, project managers have difficulty accessing the full range of resources needed to achieve their projects objectives.

Covering key aspects of motivational communication across generations and cultures, my presentation will focus on a range of communication tools and methodologies project and program managers can deploy to motivate their managers to help them succeed. In most cases, a successful outcome is directly beneficial to the manager; the challenge is making the right connections.

The materials are based on parts of my new book, Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders

PMOZ is always great fun and has one of the best social programs in the business. I look forward to seeing you there!!


Communication or Confusion

February 5, 2010

Whilst preparing my March column for PM Network (available 1st March), I was considering the difficulties caused by language in the process of communication. Albert Einstein summarized the problem nicely: ‘The major problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.’

Communication, is a two way process to build a common understanding. But the process of communication is not helped by words. There are words spelt the same with totally different meanings:

  • The bandage was wound around the wound.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

And words that are spelt differently but sound the same:

  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

These are just a few examples, the meaning of some words also changes by national, regional and industry usage as well as the migration of slang into acceptable usage. The example I used in my column is Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present. What’s really interesting though is most people with a reasonable command of English within the context of the whole sentence would have little difficulty in distinguishing between:

– present = the current time

– present = bestow or give

– present = gift.

Then bring in punctuation to change the meaning of words:

  • Eats shoots and leaves.
  • Eats, shoots and leaves.

The Australian version of the ‘eats shoots and leaves’ joke is:

A wombat walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires it into the ceiling.

‘Why?’ asks the confused waiter, as the wombat makes towards the exit.

The wombat produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. ‘I’m a wombat’, he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

‘Wombat: Mid sized Australian marsupial. Eats, shoots and leaves.’

(The Australian version of this joke is actually eats roots and leaves – wombats live in burrows – but I won’t go there).

In face to face conversations, recognising misunderstandings that can lead to a breakdown in communication is fairly easy; up to 90% of the communication is through body language and vocal tones. Even with telephone calls, the tone of voice tells you a lot about the other person feelings. Traditional writing with proper sentence construction and punctuation falls a long way short of verbal communication but is also a well understood structure for conveying information, if not understanding.

However, the arrival of emails, SMS and twitter has transformed the communication landscape. In a virtual team probably more than 90% of the communication is based on the words in emails and texts. These communication media do not follow the traditional rules.

People in a well established group operating virtually may be able develop language protocols that provide effective communication but to outsiders this ‘new language’ can be almost impenetrable. Cn u undRst& dis? (translated at Lingo2word  =  can you understand this?). Throw in some good old industry jargon and from the perspective of the old rules, it’s surprising any one actually communicates. But they do, or at least appear to!

One study has suggested good virtual teams outperform good co-located teams but poorly functioning virtual teams are far worse than poorly function co-located teams. I need to follow up on this but my first impressions are the breakdown in communication implied in the study has far more impact in the virtual arena.

In this new age of interconnectiveness the rules of effective communication are different and rapidly evolving and the degree of acceptance of these ‘new rules’ is likely to be in part age based. Most people in their 50s and 60s really need to see someone they are dealing with at least once or twice to build rapport and open effective communications; whereas younger people seem totally comfortable building rapport by email and text.

Another aspect is the global nature of ‘web2’. Old communication protocols varied from society to society based on each society’s concepts of formality, social structure and power. Outsiders who needed to communicate effectively in a different culture learned the appropriate cultural norms. How relevant these traditional forms are to people under 30 who can communicate with anyone, anywhere using SMS and email, not to mention the social networking sites such as twitter has not been determined. More things to look at…..

What does this mean for a manager developing a communication plan today? The short answer is I don’t know. Effective communication is still critically important in most aspects of business but I would suggest relying on any set of protocols that worked in the past without a careful assessment of their current effectiveness is likely to be counterproductive.

Some of these questions will be addressed in my new book, Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders (publication 2011), many of the others are starting to be worked into our communication workshops but there’s a long way to go both academically and practically to really come to grips with the new communication landscape.

More later.


The Cultural Dimension of Stakeholder Management

December 28, 2009

The importance of understanding culture in designing successful communications to influence and inform stakeholders cannot be understated. But as discussed in previous posts, culture is multi-dimensional. Some of the facets include:

  • corporate culture – how the organisation works
  • industry/professional culture – the way people in a profession work and relate
  • age – baby boomers, Gen X, Y and Z (at least in the western world)
  • national/ethnic cultures

The last of these facets tends to be over simplified in many texts. There is not just an east/west divide! Robert J House in Culture, Leadership and Organizations (2004 – Sage Publishing) reported on the Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) program that is undertaking a long term study of 62 societies.

The GLOBE study identifies ten national culture clusters that have distinctive leadership and management behaviours:

  1. Asian:
    a. South Asia – Philippines to Iran, including ASEAN countries and India
    b. Confucian Asia – China, Japan and Korea plus Singapore, Hong Kong and Tiwan
  2. European:
    a. Anglo – North America, UK, Australia /NZ and ‘white’ South Africa.
    b. Germanic – Germany, Austria and Netherlands
    c. Latin – Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Israel.
    d. Eastern – Poland and Greece to Russia.
    e. Nordic – Denmark to Finland, Iceland.
  3. Arab – Qatar and Iraq to Morocco
  4. Sub-Sahara Africa including ‘black’ South Africa.
  5. Latin America – Mexico to Argentina.

The GLOBE study focused on the interrelationship between societal culture, organisational culture and organisational leadership. Attributes such as uncertainty avoidance, power distance and performance -v- human orientation were considered.

Yoshitaka Yamazaki in Learning Styles and Typologies of Cultural Differences (2005 – Science Direct) identifies six dimensions:
–  Cultural typologies in anthropology
      1. High-context vs. low-context cultures
      2. Shame vs. guilt cultures
–  Cross-cultural management literature
      3. Strong vs. weak uncertainty avoidance
      4. M-type organizations vs. O-type organizations
–  Cross-cultural psychology
      5. Interdependent-self vs. independent-self
      6. Field-dependent and field-independent

High context societies place great importance on ambience, decorum, the relative status of the participants in a communication and the manner of the message’s delivery. Effective communication depend on developing a relationship first, because most of the information is either in the physical context or in the context of the relationship, therefore relatively little needs to be in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. Communication in low context societies tends to have the majority of the information vested in the explicit code transferred by the message. People from high context societies (eg, France or China) may think people from a low context society (eg, Germany or USA) think they are stupid because the low context people include all of the information in a message. Similarly, people from high context societies are unlikely to express their disagreement or reservations in an open meeting, circumstances and relationships are as important as work so they would comment in a more private or appropriate occasion but only if the opportunity is provided.

Shame or guilt considers whether a person has an outwards orientation based on the judgement of others or an inward orientation focused on their core ethical values to encourage high performance and moderate poor performance.

O-Type organisations are where the employees see themselves as a permanent part of the group; they are part of a social collective. M-Type organisations are more focused on individual achievement.

Field-dependent societies adhere to structures and perceive or experience communication in a global fashion. Field-independent societies and people are analytical; they can self-structure situations and have self-defined goals and reinforcements.

These differences in approach were one of the reasons I posed the question ‘do we need cultural extensions to the PMBOK?’ (see: PMI’s Voices on Project Management). But while understanding cultural stereotypes may be a helpful starting point, no grouping or stereotyping will provide the necessary subtleties needed for important communication.

Firstly, everyone’s experience is unique and the person you wish to communicate with will have been moulded by a range of influences including the corporate and professional cultures they have worked within. Second, no study I am aware of has focused on the effect of the global communication network on national cultural behaviours. The concept of baby boomers, X, Y and Z Gen, is very much a western phenomena, there are certainly likely to be age groupings in other cultures but where the divides lie and how technology interacts with the national characteristics is largely unknown (at least to me). Thirdly, people travel widely for both education and work, even after returning home they will have absorbed some of the influences of the other cultures they have lived in.

So how should you approach the planning of an important communication? As a start, try to define the normal communication mode of the person you are seeking to influence or inform. Understanding national characteristics helps, but is not enough; you need to seek information from a wide range of sources. Err on the side of caution if there is any doubt about the optimum mode for communication. Then carefully observe the effect of your initial communication on the receiver and adjust the mode until you achieve a satisfactory result.

My paper for the PMI Asia Pacific Congress, Beyond Reporting – The Communication Strategy, is also focused on the topic of effective communication, as is my next book, Advising upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders due for publication in 2011. So expect more on this subject in the New Year.