Why you should treat language like finance

Business meeting

I was talking at an event recently on the role language can play in business. I set out a case that language is a business resource that should be treated in the same way as any other business resource.

What I meant, I went on to explain, was that when it’s deployed strategically, language has great value:

  • It articulates and communicates ideas, positioning them in a marketplace – and explaining why they’re relevant and necessary
  • It prompts action
  • It reduces or eliminates confusion and associated inefficiencies and expense
  • It conveys personality and suggests the type of relationship you can expect to have – as a consumer or an employee – with an organisation
  • It’s a vector for culture – literally providing a framework for people to walk the talk and talk the walk, setting a tone for working, thinking, planning and interacting with others

“I’m not sure it’s doing that in our organisation,” said a member of the audience.

“It probably isn’t,” I responded, “But it could be if your organisation treated it in the same way it treats any other valuable resource.”

Recognising language as a valuable business resource

I asked the audience to imagine if time wasn’t recognised by organisations as a valuable resource. We’d be looking at a working world where hours of work weren’t set out in contracts of employment. Where people could keep their own time – come in when they wanted, work when they wanted, stay off if they were tired or it was too nice a day not to be sitting in a park.

“There’s evidence that a four-day working week is a more productive week,” said one person. “OK,” I said: “But even with a four-day week, there would still be rules about the amount of hours you have to work and what it’s ok to do with your time. What if there were no rules because the workplace didn’t think time was worth putting rules – or at least guidance – around?”

General consensus was that nothing would ever get done. Or that some people would abuse the lack of structure – and maybe wouldn’t even realise they were doing so.

“So we agree,” I said, “That without a broad framework around the amount of hours we each work and are paid for – and what we do with those hours and when we do it – business becomes difficult?”

We agreed.

“What about finance?” I asked. “What would happen if instead of having a system for, say, expenses, you just had direct access to your organisation’s bank account and could dip into it to pay for whatever you wanted?

“What if there was no bookkeeping system and no forecasting?”

“That would be stupid,” said one lady, “The company wouldn’t know if it was coming or going.”

I agreed.

Putting systems in place to get the most value from language

For every resource that’s valuable to a business, it makes absolute sense for there to be a system in place to guide and check its use – and at a more advanced level, to use this resource and the knowledge that exists around it to help achieve strategic goals.

If your company makes electrical transformers, there will be checks and balances for the copper it uses – from purchasing and allocation through to scrapping. If you run a transport company, you’re likely to enter into advanced contracts on fuel so that you can manage the impact of its price on your organisation.

In all businesses, valuable resources – whether they’re tangible or intangible – have systems or frameworks built around them. These frameworks are what safeguard the business – and allow it to plan and strategise.

Yet language is a resource that is often completely overlooked. It’s valuable because it can do everything from persuading a customer they need your product, through to establishing and maintaining workplace culture.

So why isn’t it routine to have systems and frameworks in place to guide its use and measure its impact?

Why is language overlooked?

One reason that businesses overlook this valuable resource could be a fundamental misunderstanding of what language is and how it works. For a start, when you use the word “language”, most people in the UK think “foreign language”.  The stuff they use day-to-day to talk, read, write emails etc, was called “English” at school – and was usually reduced to a list of rules involving words like “verb”, “noun”, “participle”, “subjunctive” and “clause”. 

There’s often a feeling that if you did well in English at school, you’ve got this whole language and communications thing licked. But as with so many subjects we learn at school, this reductive introduction isn’t even a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg. Thinking an A* in GCSE English (or in my case, an ‘A’ at ‘O’ Level), is all you need to get the most out of language in a professional context is a bit like thinking you’re equipped to design your workplace electronics system because you learned the right-hand rule in a physics class when you were 16.

Another reason language is overlooked could be because we all take it for granted. It’s ubiquitous – there in everything, all the time. So unless we’re PhD students of linguistics, ethnology, anthropology, etc – we’re unlikely to give a second thought to what language is, how it works and the influence is has on our lives and the way we perceive our surroundings.

Language is just there – like air or water. And unless we start to experience problems with it, we don’t think about it at all.

But in a professional environment, leaving language to its own devices can cause problems.

Harnessing language to avoid silos

One of the brilliant – and often pesky – things about language is that it keeps changing. It really isn’t the simple set of rules you learned at school. Recent research indicates that language evolves in very similar ways to biological organisms. It mutates, blends and adapts to circumstance.

In an organisation, this means that if you ignore it, language will develop in pockets (or ecosystems). It won’t take long at all for your specialist teams – from lawyers and AI people, through to procurement specialists and facilities managers – to all communicate in ways that aren’t immediately understandable to colleagues who don’t work in that particular language pocket day-to-day.

You may not think this is important. After all, why would a non-AI person need to understand how an algorithm works? And why would a non-legal person need to understand legal text? Isn’t that something for lawyers to sort out amongst themselves?

But when teams struggle to communicate with one another, silos form. Diversity and cross-disciplinary working aren’t simply things we should embrace because we’re decent people (though it would be fab if that were reason enough). We need to embrace them because if we don’t get different specialisms together, if we don’t have the ability to collaborate across disciplines, incorporating many different experiences and views of the world, then we stifle our ability to innovate.

Encouraging cross-disciplinary working and innovation

Which means it matters very much if your AI specialists can’t explain clearly what their work involves, what their specialism might be able to achieve and the kinds of expertise they think their company should be developing right now. It really matters if they can’t collaborate with marketing and sales colleagues to understand if a potentially exciting technology is commercially viable. And it matters that they’re able to collaborate with customer services colleagues to understand what customers are frustrated by – and what they prioritise and need.

Language can also be a very effective vector of culture – especially if you take steps to align your language to strategic goals.

We worked with one client who wanted to speed up the pace of work in their organisation. To help address this, we trained their teams to communicate in a much shorter and more direct way. Then because people had to focus getting a message across faster, they also began to focus on how to make their processes work faster.

Using language to shape and embed culture

We’ve also helped scores of organisations to develop a better customer focus by making their language address the needs of customers first. Then, because teams are consciously thinking about how to make their language more customer-centric, and are using guidelines to help them achieve this, they begin to apply the same philosophy to other aspects of their work. Before you know it, processes and product design are more customer-centric too – because the language you use, particularly when you are using it very consciously, rewires your thinking.

Changing even just a handful of words can change the culture of an organisation – for example, if you stop using a word like “staff” and replace it with “team”.

So how can you harness the power of language in your organisation? A first step is to realise the potential it has. The next is to make sure you’re placing systems and frameworks around it that align with your strategic goals.

You can create a tone of voice – an approach to communicating that brings your brand personality and values to life. You can create messaging systems, so that you’re consistently telling customers and other stakeholders the things you want them to know about your organisation. You can create naming systems, so that all your products, services, rooms and anything else you give names to, feel like they come from the same organisation and are part of the same story.

It’s when you think of language like this that it becomes a valuable business resource that can help you achieve even more.

As ever, if you’d like to discuss the language in your organisation and the systems you can implement to get greater value from it, please give us a call.

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