My boss and I speak different languages.
He’s the first to admit that half the time, he doesn’t understand a word I say. Recently, he has adopted the habit of stopping me before I can say anything when he approaches me.
“I’m going to ask you a simple question,” he’ll say, “and I want a simple answer in one sentence.”
He’ll think for a moment, choosing his words with visible effort to simplify his question to the point where I couldn’t possibly turn it into something more complicated. Then he’ll ask me something like, “An employee of one of our benefactors is going to be on campus for a while to do some work with us. Is it possible for him to hook into our network and still get information from his company’s?”
“It depends,” I say.
I know this is exactly what he doesn’t want to hear, and I have to admit I have a little fun saying it. Mainly, though, I’m trying to sort out about a hundred variables in my mind that factor into the answer to his question before I try to translate them into layman’s terms. These are things that my boss wants to hear nothing about–like protocols, messaging systems, firewalls, and authentication methods.
In formulating an answer, I need to balance accuracy with clarity. When I started as a technology coordinator, I thought the most important thing was the accuracy of the information I gave. In my desire to be as thorough as possible, I would detail all of the technical possibilities and variables. What I failed to understand was that even the most accurate of answers is useless if it can’t be understood.
This situation typifies one of the most fundamental problems between school technicians and other administrators. They have a critical need to communicate–but no common vocabulary with which to do so.
School administrators increasingly need the input of technicians to make daily and long-range decisions. Technicians, meanwhile, try to strike a delicate balance between giving accurate technical information and insulting their boss’s intelligence.
As a result of these communication problems, schools often find themselves in one of two unproductive situations. Either the technology coordinator runs the show, making final decisions on any issue remotely related to computers, or technology innovation is severely stunted by an administration that is afraid to adopt any major changes it doesn’t fully understand.
To avoid these two situations, it’s critical for school technology coordinators and technicians to learn how to communicate better with the non-technical professionals in their schools. Here are six rules to facilitate such conversation:
Rule #1: Gauge your vocabulary to your user’s level of expertise.
I’ll answer the same question differently depending on who asks it. Ask questions to get users to clarify problems, and use their answers to gauge their level of technical skill. Adjust your vocabulary accordingly.
Rule #2: Be patient–but not condescending.
When I’ve answered the same question for someone five times, and the information they want is in a manual that took me several days to write, I find it difficult to keep my aggravation from showing. I try, however, to wipe the look of frustration off my face, and explain very patiently to the person how to fix the problem. It’s important to realize how lost and frustrated some people feel, and to treat their problems with legitimate concern and diligence. Remember that the people who come to you probably already feel inept because they can’t get their machines to work. You won’t help if you contribute to that feeling.
Rule #3: Don’t give immediate answers to complex problems.
It didn’t take me long to learn that fast answers to many questions can end up being very costly and time consuming. Instead, I like to give my users a time frame within which I will get back to them. I’ll then gather my information in private where I can explore all the possibilities carefully.
Rule #4: Put answers to complex questions in writing.
Not only will a written report on a complicated problem help to clarify what you are suggesting; it will also serve as a resource that your boss or colleagues can refer to on their own. Additionally, it will document what you have suggested, should something go wrong down the road.
Rule #5: Figure out what users are really asking.
It’s important to distinguish between what users ask and what they really want to know. When your boss asks you how your school can provide remote access to the network, he or she is not asking for a lesson on virtual private networking and strong authentication. Your boss wants to know if it’s possible and what it will cost. Say you’ll look into it, then provide a written report with several options.
When users ask you why they can’t get to the internet, they aren’t interested in a corrupted arp table on your router or misconfigured access rules on your proxy server. They want to know if it’s a problem with the system or something they’re doing wrong, and they want to know when it will be fixed. Tell them the connection is down and it will be up in 10 minutes.
Rule #6: Don’t answer questions that aren’t part of your job.
Due to a lack of technical knowledge on the part of other administrators, school technicians are often placed in the position of having to make decisions that are really the responsibility of the principal, business administrator, or some other administrator. When technical solutions don’t meet the users’ expectations, technicians are then blamed for the failure. Whether to purchase or lease equipment is a decision for the finance director in most schools. What type of internet content to filter is a political decision to be made by the principal or school board.
The technician certainly should play a role in these decisions, but he or she should not be the sole decision-maker. The technician’s job is to make the technical issues clear to the people who understand the finances or the politics of the school, so they have the tools they need to make informed decisions and to do their jobs.
Explaining complex, technical issues to people who don’t often deal with computers isn’t easy. It can be frustrating, and also tedious. However, as technology becomes more and more critical in the daily life of the school, administrators and teachers alike will continue to rely on technicians to provide accurate information in a way that can be easily understood.