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Managing Design 1-6-97

Managing Design 1-6-97

Cross-functional project teams are rapidly becoming the norm for successfully competing in today's markets. Not only must firms remain flexible and innovative, they must also develop and produce high-quality, low-cost products on difficult time schedules. This trend has many interesting implications. Achieving meaningful communication is certainly one of them.

Failings of function. Using traditional thinking established before the mid-1980s, firms were organized by function--R&D, manufacturing, marketing, sales, distribution. Though not necessarily by design, members within these functions tended to surround themselves with invisible walls and create isolated fiefdoms. These self-centered functional cultures honed their own jargon while developing unique perceptions of the other functions. How well a company develops a successful cross-functional project team greatly relies upon its success in tearing down the "walls" traditionally separating the various functions.

Jargon is defined by Webster as "the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group. It is sometimes obscure and pretentious." Unfortunately, the relative ease of using jargon also makes it habit forming. Users justify the practice as a shortcut method to help them encode complex subjects simply and accurately. However, the big disadvantage (or advantage, depending on your perspective) is that accurate use depends upon the familiarity of both parties with the terms. Just as a listener unfamiliar with the jargon will decode the message inaccurately, so too may a careless speaker turn jargon into meaningless jibberish. A confused listener may assign some meaning to misapplied words that ring with plausibility but will miss the precise message. Further, this listener might hesitate to ask for clarification for fear of not appearing knowledgeable, especially if the speaker talks with some authority.

Sound familiar? To illustrate this point, choose any three-digit number, one from each column, and read the corresponding words from the Buzz-Concept Generator (see below) with conviction, e.g., 334 = flexible benchmarked driving-force or 243 = integrated matrixed value-chain. Both concepts may sound familiar, but they are meaningless. The problem is that jargon can be just as confusing.

If we want effective cross-functional communication, we must avoid the jargon trap. To do this, the sender must not resort to jargon to conceal insufficient knowledge, and both the sender and the receiver must strive to assure a common understanding when jargon is used.

0. strategic 0. empowered 0. corporate vision
1. self-managed 1. discontinuous 1. learning organization
2. integrated 2. cross-trained 2. network
3. flexible 3. benchmarked 3. value-chain
4. horizontal 4. matrixed 4. driving force

Ask the Manager

Q:What can be done to make the "new covenant" between employers and employees a reality?

A:There are no easy answers. For starters, Business Week (3/11/96) suggests:

"Government policy must boost human capital. Tax incentives are currently geared to increasing bricks and mortar, not knowledge. In an Information Age, this whole system of incentives is archaic. There are accelerated depreciation taxes, R&D tax credits, and a whole host of other carrots to promote building things, but few tax incentives for improving knowledge and skills. The federal government spends billions on re-training programs, few of which are effective. Take the money, turn the programs into training vouchers, and give them to individuals and companies who are close to the job markets. For youngsters, getting into college is critical. With college the defining wedge between haves and have-nots in America, tax incentives, such as expanded IRAs for tuition, should be considered.

"Boost growth. Of all the things that should be done to increase wages and curb inequality, nothing is more important than simply raising the economic growth rate. The solution to economic anxiety is not to redivide scarce jobs and opportunities, but to expand them. For 100 years following the Civil War, as America moved from agriculture to industry, the economy grew at 3.4% annually and wages doubled every 35 years. Each generation did better--until the 1970s, when economic expansion slowed to 2% and average wage growth stopped cold. That extra margin of lost growth would have relieved a lot of economic anxiety. With inflation low and productivity high in manufacturing and services, there is room for raising growth to at least 3%."

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