Language and Business-IT Maturity

Language has some interesting relationships to Business-IT Maturity.  As a management consultant, one of the things I have to do is quickly calibrate a client’s situation – sometimes, in just minutes (e.g., with a new, or potential client).  I’ve had some version of the Business-IT Maturity model in the back of my head for many years – it’s become a lens I use to calibrate where a given company is in terms of business maturity with IT, the maturity of the IT organization, how progressive the appetite is for business demand, how progressive the ambition is for IT supply, and so on.

Often, clues about these characteristics are found in the language people use to talk about thier situation.  Many years ago, there was a quiet move afoot to stop calling business clients “end users.”  As one wag said to me, “The term ‘user’ has a narcotic connotation – they become dependent upon IT, and we act as if we are drug dealers, fostering that dependency, then abusing the relationship!”

More recently, I find clients struggling to distinguish between internal business customers, and the external “consumer.”  These terms never quite work right – there is the age old debate between client and customer.  Generally, client is used where services are being delivered, and customerwhere products are the object of delivery.  Unfortunately, IT organizations, in some senses, deliver both services and products, so the distinction is somewhat limited.  I have clients who have banned the term clientas connoting a service provider model, and therefore implying “order taking” behavior.  I’m not sure I agree with this connotation, but if your CIO has a passion about terms she hates, or terms she’s trying to inject, logic does not do much good.

Anyway, with the Business-IT Maturity model in mind, I listen for these audible clues in the client’s use of language.  If I hear a lot of “us” (IT) and “them” (the business), chances are they are Level 1 or low Level 2.  If I hear the customers/clients referred to as “users”, chances are they are low Level 1.

If the conversations seem to be mostly about costs, they are Level 1 or low-to-mid Level 2.  If the conversations are mostly about value, they are high Level 2 or Level 3.  If I hear lots of discussion about Project Management, but none about Program of Portfolio Management, the client is likely low Level 2.  If I hear the terms Project, Program and Portflio being used in ways that consistently differentiate between them, and imply the relationships among them, they are probably high Level 2 or Level 3.

If the dialog is mostly about ERP, and major transactional systems, they are probably Level 2.  If the discussion is more about innovation, growth and IT as a source of new revenues, they are high Level 2 or Level 3.  Increasingly, if the conversation has a heavy dose of “collaboration,”  “social networking,” “Next Generation Enterprise,” or “Web 2.0,” at least I know there are some ambitions for Level 3 – though possible a long row to hoe to get there!

Of course, these points about listening to the language is simplistic – I have 30+ years of experience that helps me calibrate Business-IT maturity.  Sometimes, the earliest impressions prove to be wrong – but rarely.  Usually, my early instincts are correct – the things I learn subsequently are more “fine tuning.”

By the way, there are also visual clues, if you are physically with the client – books on people’s shelves, scratchings on whiteboards.  Increasingly, I’m finding office layout to be a clue (amount and quality of team rooms, coffee break areas for social networking, etc.) is a clue to maturity.

So, what does the language and terminology in your company tell you about Business-IT maturity?  How would you expect the language to change as a reflection of increasing maturity?