[ I am an architect. I am an architect working within a business school. In the business world, no one understands me. I do not speak the native tongue. My words are foreign. In this context, I may as well be speaking Greek. ]
Several years ago, I spoke at a conference on Business and Design about the need for a common language between these two disciplines. Since that time, the concept of a common language continues to haunt me.
By definition, language is:
1a : the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community 2b : the vocabulary and phraseology belonging to an art or a department of knowledge
The problem is that language is exclusive. If one does not belong to a particular community, its meaning is lost. To communicate across disciplines, we need a language of inclusion.
We need a Lingua Franca.
BUSINESS used to understand this. The origin of Lingua Franca is in commerce. In the 17th century, traders in the Mediterranean used a common tongue “among people of diverse speech” to facilitate commerce. In today's world of specialization, we no longer seem to understand the value of this and instead use language as a barrier to entry.
When I first began teaching in the Fox School of Business, I quickly became aware of this problem. Words and ways of speaking that are common within the design community were met with blank stares or frustration within a business community. We simply could not understand each other.
This disconnect in communication runs counter to the current trend toward advocating for interdisciplinary collaboration and breaking down intellectual silos. For this to succeed, a common language is necessary. A lingua franca is a middle ground, a combination of the respective languages of all the participants involved in the transaction. For the Mediterranean traders, this involved creating a language comprised of words from Italian, French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic.
In the tradition of a lingua franca, I now craft my sentences using words from both Business and Design. I communicate abstract design concepts using terms like stakeholders instead of inhabitants or communities. The Vitruvian principles of firmitas, commoditas and venustas (firmness, commodity, and delight) are replaced by return on investment, value proposition, and customer experience. These terms cloak outsider concepts in a language of familiarity and make them less foreign. However, this is just a game. To get to the core of the matter, I use the etymology of words to provide their underlying meaning and intention.
A common thread in my approach to problem solving has always been to look at the root of language to better understand what we are all really saying. I rely upon the etymology of words to reveal opportunities for further exploration. This has proven to be a powerful tool for getting to the heart of problems and developing insights upon which to build meaningful solutions. Originally, I used this approach to solve design problems and to better interpret client needs. Today, I use it to translate concepts and ideas from design into understandable actions for my business clients, colleagues and students. The intentions are universal, and universality is the true goal of a lingua franca.
Over time, I was able to solve my communication problem, but it took a great deal of effort and creative thinking to do so. The basic lessons learned:
- Foreign concepts appear less radical when presented using familiar language.
- Intentionally combining vocabularies from multiple domain specific languages enables you to reach a wider audience and lower the probability of rejection of your ideas.
- When it really matters, look to the origins of words to find a common understanding and a more universal application of ideas.
Future posts on this blog will explore language in depth to build a common Business Design vocabulary so that we can all understand what we really mean to say.
[Definitions from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lingua%20franca]
[Special thanks to George Dalagelis for the Greek translation.]