Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Paradoxical Incomprehensibility

Several times in past years, TheHackerCIO has been amazed to see the paradoxical advantage gained by a knowledgeable person shielded by an impenetrable accent. One person in particular had an exceptionally good technology background, but a very thick european accent. Let's call her Karl, in keeping with the PC policy of being as confusing as possible with pronouns.

Whenever Karl put forth her technology proposals, they were sound. But the advantage she garnered came from avoiding any questioning or probing, which uniformly foundered on the shoals of her thick accent. I knew from my own intimate acquaintance with the implementation, oftentimes being coded and tested by yours truly, that these questions were receiving what the lawyers call "non-responsive" answers: that is, the answer was not a response to the question asked.

Was this a deliberate "mis-understanding" of the question posed? At times, I'm sure it was. Perhaps, other times it was genuine. But the misdirection, coupled with the difficulty of comprehension, seemed to provide a cover for Karl, so that no opposition could effectively field a contrary viewpoint.

Notice that this didn't help in the big-picture-sense of the word. It didn't help the policy to be correct, or better, or even succeed. It did help Karl's career and/or her specific goal of implementing whatever technology was desired.

There were two reasons for this:

  • the generosity of the listeners, who naturally, and generously assumed that the question had simply been misunderstood by a non-native language speaker. Also, to actually dig in and demonstrate that the answer was not connected to the question properly would seem very combative and perhaps even mean-spirited. 
  • bits and pieces of the answer were correct, technically, and based upon a deep and proper understanding of the underlying technology, which reassured the listeners that a proper approach was being taken, even if it was surrounded by the fog-of-incomprehensibility of Karl's accent.
To return to the big-picture, note that comprehensibility and communications are the number one issue and problem in technology development and application. A miscommunication of requirements is clearly far more devastating to total cost than any other single item conceivable. From my own experiences with Karl, I know that the objections of the "loyal opposition" within the company could only have led to an improvement in the overall approach taken, because I know from my own firsthand experience that many improvements were missed out by my inability to penetrate the verbal fog quickly enough to be able to tweak or adjust it to suit the particulars of the situation. 

Incidentally, this comprehensibility-overhead has to be factored into any attempt at outsourcing. If you're going to uphold the primacy of communications principle (and I think one must!), then it only follows that you have got to dig in, bite-the-bullet, and resolve each and every communications issue that arises in the course of the project.  Rigorously. At all costs. If that means that you lose any, or all, or even more than all of the cost-advantage that came from outsourcing to a foreign organization, then that's just the way it is. You simply have to find ways to emphasize that you're "sorry to be difficult", and so-forth, to counteract these communications-barriers. And that is true regardless of whether you're outsourcing. 

Because communication is the primary issue. 

I Remain,


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