You say potato – or the project that nearly wasn’t

I recently presented to colleagues the findings from a study that I have been working on, looking at segmentation and social media. Data collection took place in the summer and autumn of 2011 and we interviewed 28 senior managers. By all accounts, this was a really good number of interviews and the findings were most interesting.

However, this study nearly ended before it even started!

When we contacted these managers asking to interview them about how they use social media in segmentation (and segmentation in social media) several – OK, many – replied that, regretfully, they could not participate in our study because they did not use segmentation. Upon further discussion we realised that they did use segmentation – it’s just that they called it something else.

This made me think about the role of labels and, specifically, the importance of agreed definitions.

Many will say that it’s the idea that matters. However,  if you and I do not  agree on what we call that idea, then we will have a very frustrating conversation… or not be able to understand each other at all and be unable to work together. At the panel that Sarah Quinton and I hosted, earlier this year, at the Digital Research event, participants agreed that having a common language was crucial for digital research academics and managers to work together – we need to use the same tags and terminology if we are to find (and use) each other’s outputs.

In addition, words are consequential. They can have positive or negative connotations that influence what we think about a person, a product or an event, as I discussed in a previous blog post about the role of language in decision making (available here).

Plus, words structure our thinking and how we approach a problem as discussed in this short Ted Talk (and one of my favourites):

Semantic problems crop up when designing an information system, as discussed here, when costing a project or when setting up a consulting assignment, for instance. Have you been at the receiving end of one of these ‘semantically-charged’ conversations? How did you bridge the differences?

6 thoughts on “You say potato – or the project that nearly wasn’t

  1. Interesting question. And I think I do not fully agree with you. I think semantics can be helpful in a specific project. Like you said: building software, or cost calculation. If there is a common language, that makes life easier. But… semantics are names we give to things or ideas, they are not the things or ideas themselves. By not focusing too much on semantics, it helps you to understand others better, and realise you are actually talking about the same thing. Just like the example you gave with the research and segmentation.
    In my life as consultant, I have run into many occasions where language that seemed so clear and obvious to some, was totally confusing for others. Maybe one of the best compliments I ever received from a client was that I was one of the few they could actually understand. My trick: trying to understand what others were saying, and translating (into) the terms they used.
    By focusing too much on the semantics, you risk falling into the jargon-trap. By understanding that semantics are important agreements in specific cases, you keep the rest of the discussion more open.
    When you translate this to research, I think it would be valuable to address this. For example by saying: ‘we chose the term segmentation for this phenomenon, but we’ve also encountered terms like x and y’. A section with definitions is an important part of reports, then.


    1. Hum… I agree and disagree.

      I agree that the ideas are THE important thing and what I was suggesting is that if we do not know each others’ languages, we can not even realise that we are talking about the same (great) ideas. But it is also true that labels, or names, are consequential – sometimes they become the idea (e.g., stereotypes).

      But, yes, you are right that I/we need to do more ‘translating’.


      1. The discussion you open here is an important one, Ana. And as you state: mutual understanding is the key to success here. Sometimes speaking the same ‘language’ is very helpful in that.


  2. Hi Ana

    I too am seeing that language/words can be a stumbling block. In my technical professional life this isnt the case – labels are explicit and codified and everyone knows what they are talking about (I hope! It underpins tangible choices) but when looking at softer concepts its often confusing.

    What i have seen in academic writing is that language can be very efficient but not very accessible and leads to confusion when you try and make concepts stick in practice. Its acceptable to use words like contingent, nascent, tacit etc in academia but these words are not fully understood when used in wider circles

    When I started out on my dissertation I was asking SME’s about how they undertake Open Innovation. In some circles this is a hot topic – but there is a gap between the innovation literature and the practice of ‘real people’

    I hunted out 12 companies that were doing this but found that half hadn’t heard of Open Innovation (even though they were doing it convincingly), they didn’t know what tacit knowledge was (its called “know-how”) and explicit, codified knowledge is in fact just IP. The interview form was tweaked constantly to remove these language barriers.

    I did find though that there are words we like to use but that they are ambiguous. We like to talk about trust, collaboration and values – these are popular words but have very subjective meaning. We all use them but it takes some digging to make sense of them in a particular context. (oh dear I just said ‘context’…how nerdy )

    I recently had some input on Frans committee work – looking how the pre-school builds a brand and engagement in community. Trying to be logical we looked at ‘salience’ first – we came up with some practical goals but the word ‘salience’ stuck. While we had built a shared understanding of ‘salience’ illustrated through a plan – the word salience doesn’t mean anything to the rest of the world.

    Salience is efficient but maybe its better to just say “How do we get the preschool known to village mums?”.

    I too recently used the term ‘segments’ to look at positioning for different customers – given that nothing materialised from that conversation Im thinking people didn’t know what I was saying and I need to try a different approach. The principle of segmentation is undisputed but the language didn’t compel a shared view.

    Maybe the only time we should talk about ‘segments’ is when sharing a ‘piece’ of satsuma or Terry’s chocolate orange with a friend?



    1. Yep – it was exactly the same scenario: the organisations were doing it (and well), but they did not use ‘my’ term (I hope they did not think I was talking about satsumas!).


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