As the underlying technologies of IT, telecom, and media converge, the executives of the leading firms in each industry have more and more reason to communicate with one another. Alas, sometimes the best of intentions lead to unintended outcomes, not for lack of goodwill, intelligence, or experience, but simply from persistent mutual misunderstanding. How is this possible?
When I say the three sectors are separated by a common language, what I mean is that each speaks a different dialect in which the same words take on different meanings. Let me illustrate this with three examples:
- Open. A simple enough word, you would think, but here are its three meanings in the dialects of IT, Telecom, and Media & Entertainment:
IT: A published set of shared protocols that allow third parties to co-opt the resources of a system to achieve novel ends. The opposite of proprietary and closed.
T: A network that has no controls, either for security or billing purposes. The opposite of a walled garden.
M: A system in which media content can be transferred from one modality to another without additional payments made. The opposite of a publisher-controlled distribution system with strongly enforced IP protections.
IT: Available whenever an end-user clicks on the appropriate icon. Measured in seconds.
T: Linked directly to the laws of physics. Measured in nanoseconds.
M: Live performances. The opposite of recorded and edited.
IT: Refers to the extended reach of supply chains and distribution chains, and the need to redesign processes and products accordingly. The opposite of national.
T: Refers to service level guarantees that operate in real time across many geographies without compromise or failure. The opposite of local.
M: Refers to the repurposability of media content to expand markets beyond regulatory or linguistic boundaries. The opposite of regional.
Now the long-term solution to this Tower of Babel, no doubt, is for Larousse to publish a set of interoperating dictionaries for IT to T, T to M, and M to IT. Or perhaps this could be a Wikipedia project. But in the short term, the trick is to know which languages you speak and be able to identify what language someone else is speaking.
For example, as a consultant I speak fluent IT and have Telecom as a second language, whereas I speak pidgin Media at best. Many technology infrastructure executives have this profile. By contrast, executives from the cable industry, raised speaking Media, are becoming bi-lingual in Telecom, whereas CEOs of web properties, raised speaking IT, are becoming bi-lingual in Media. I can only think of one tri-lingual CEO of my acquaintance, and that would be Paul Sagan of Akamai, who has had to do so as his media content delivery business lives at the epicenter of this converged universe.
That said, the majority of sector executives, I believe, are mono-lingual, which is unsurprising since their careers were shaped in a pre-convergence era. This is not meant to be a criticism, nor is it incumbent on these folks to go to a language arts training class. They need, however, to become dialect-aware in both their speaking and listening if they are to avoid talking past each other in converged industry dialogs. Specifically, when things get contentious and frustrations build, they must continually be checking the perceived meanings of the key terms in the argument and making explicit how they themselves are defining them. This is awkward, to be sure, but much less so than the consequences of failing to do so.