Tongue-Tied? A Quick Lesson in Tech Talk

Rapid changes in technology can leave veterans baffled by techno-babble. To the rescue, we offer a handy directory of key terms. by Jeanne L. Allert

Political doubletalk is considered the second language of Washington, D.C. Empty words and meaningless phrases swirl around as if they have substance, but the only outcome is a beleaguered and bewildered listener.

Some educational leaders might feel as though they’re caught in the same kind of terminology tornado when it comes to technology. They’re not alone. As a former high school English teacher turned informational technology consultant, I too often feel dazed and confused when trying to decipher the latest tech buzzwords. These seemingly benign little words often show up in requirement definitions (such as software specifications), contract negotiations and project implementations and can cause unnecessary problems and costly mistakes.

To help school system leaders become more savvy users and consumers of technology as they sit down at the table with IT vendors, I’ve compiled a list of the terms and phrases that seem to cause the most confusion. If we spend a few minutes talking through these words and their common definitions, maybe we can turn that verbal blender experience from a Frappe to a simple Chop and save you headache and expense in the long run.
Seamless (, adj., lacking seams). “We need a seamless integration between these applications.”

To be seamless is to have no awkward transitions or obvious disparities. Is that even possible when you are trying to avoid spending money on anything new by squeezing the last bit of life out of what you’ve already got and letting someone cobble it all together to make it work? The result probably looks more like a country quilt than a single seamless sheet, but some quilts are amazing works of art and fulfill their function quite well.

The goal is to be without interruption or obvious disconnects, not to be without seams. Rather than telling your vendors you want something “seamless,” explain how you need the pieces to come together. Detail what isn’t working now and what you would like to see instead. A credible vendor will know how to bring it all together so the seams are as artful as the squares. Isn’t that really what we want in a vendor — someone who can work with what we have and bring the pieces we have together with some new pieces to make something both appealing and functional?

Web-enabled (n., something intricately constructed). “This process should be fully web-enabled.”
What are you asking for here? Do you want to be able to access information or a product through a browser? Or do you want an entire process to be facilitated using web technology?

Here is the difference: If all you want to do — or can afford to do — is post your current Microsoft Word or PDF forms on a website so parents can print them, fill them out manually and mail them into the office, you don’t need a “fully web-enabled” process.

For some organizations, the illusion of being web-enabled is the best they can do right now. And that’s fine. The problems arise if you suggest to a vendor that you want to “web-enable student class registration,” for example, and what the vendor hears is “create electronic forms, integrate with the student enrollment database, provide for data security, develop an interactive scheduler and include wait listing, e-mail parent notifications and class-size calculator.”

The key is to lay out your current process first on paper and then decide what aspects of that process should be or could be accomplished online.

Intuitive (adj. arising from intuition). “Our website should have an intuitive navigation scheme.”
Is it even possible, given the diversity of everyone who might ever come to your website, to develop a site that anticipates everyone’s needs? In this case, what you really want is a navigation scheme that will make sense to most people. You can spend time trying to imagine every combination of user and motivation and context, or you can do what most of us have to do: Shoot down the middle of the bell curve and hope for the best.

My recommendation: Spend some time learning about your key target audiences: why they go to your website and what information is most important to them. Conduct a little usability test and watch how they actually interact with the website. Create a profile of your most common users and share it with your vendors instead of asking them to gaze into that crystal ball and intuitively know what you or the users want.

Flexible (adj., responsive to change). “This reporting tool should be flexible.”
When we ask for something to be flexible we usually want it to accommodate a variety of conditions. That can be a challenge because computers are rule-based. So, like that 12-year-old gymnast who seems to have the flexibility of Gumby, there are still limits to what is possible.

When you are thinking through your software system needs, spend time imagining a full range of scenarios. What if your teachers go on strike or your enrollment doubles or you have to produce a series of ad hoc reports for the state department of education? How might those changes affect how you use the system on a regular basis?

Be specific about how flexible you want the system to be. For example, if you want a flexible reporting tool, do you want to be able to choose from a finite set of fields and generate reports? Do you want to be able to add fields and values, customize the output format and export to other programs?

Defining the range of flexibility can be a great role for your resident pessimist (a k a your IT staff person). Get that individual thinking about all the things that could go wrong or ways people could cause havoc and that will give you a good sense of where you need to set limits.

Leverage (n., power to act effectively). “You need to leverage your investment in IT.”
Leverage probably is one of today’s most popular buzzwords. Everyone wants to be able to do it, but few can describe exactly what it is.

To leverage means to gain some advantage through the use of a tool. Imagine a caveman bracing a big stick under a rock to propel it forward. This action makes sense where technology is concerned, but can you or your vendor go a step forward and answer this question: When you’re done leveraging, where will your rock be?

The more important word in our definition of leverage is “advantage.” What advantage are you trying to gain and over whom or what? Clearly define what the problem is and what outcome you desire.

Innovative (adj., creative). “It’s an innovative new technology.”
Webster’s tells us that to be innovative is to introduce something totally new. Are you game for something truly new and possibly untested? Do you have an appetite for experimentation, or are you really looking for something that has been vetted, proven and stable? Innovative is a very appealing word for IT professionals, but being truly innovative means being willing to assume a fair share of risk.

Be careful about tossing around terms like “innovative” or “cutting edge” if your school district’s risk threshold is modest. Don’t bait that hook if you aren’t prepared for what you might catch.

Compliant (adj., inclined to comply). “You’ll want your website to be fully compliant.”
Here’s a word vendors use to scare you because it smacks of rules and regulations. If used within the context of websites and “508 compliance,” then we’re talking about making the site accessible to people with disabilities. That’s a good goal and you or your web person should know enough about what that means so you can avoid egregious errors.

If the word is used in the context of databases or hardware, it could mean the technology meets today’s standards. In the context of software, being compliant in terms of the Schools Interoperability Framework (“SIF compliant”) means different software programs can connect through a central server and share a common computer language, thus allowing them to work together. So if someone tells you that you need to “be compliant,” ask the question “compliant to what, and what does that get me?”

Virtual (adj., existing in effect though not in actual fact). “We want to function as a fully virtual enterprise.”
The term “virtual” has become almost synonymous with “on the web,” but in some areas of IT, virtual can mean the process or activity does not depend on a physical device (“virtual server”) or that it simulates a process without any human intervention or action.

Explain exactly what you want when talking with vendors. When you say you want teachers to work virtually, do you mean you want them to be able to log in from home and enter their grades into some shared system? Do you want them to be able to interact online after school hours? What does “being virtual” mean to you?

Holistic (adj., emphasizing the importance of the whole). “Your website should offer a holistic user experience.”
Okay, c’mon. You have to laugh with me on this one. After I push the image of incense and meditative chanting out of my head, I come back to the common definition of holistic: the whole is greater than the parts.

But what does that mean in terms of how the system will function? Does it mean that certain processes can’t be separated from the “whole,” or that some additional functionality is gained when certain pieces are brought together? If vendors use the term in your discussions, ask them what it means to them.

Interactive (adj., acting on each other). “We want our visitors to have an interactive web experience.”
Maybe it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine, but the constant use of the word “interactive” in relation to the web aggravates me like nails on a chalkboard. Not only have we beaten this word to death, we have yet to establish a common definition for it.

The standard definition of interactive is mutually or reciprocally active. Is the website experience interactive if I, as the site owner, post an article and you, as a visitor, click on it to read it? Well, that certainly constitutes activity on both parts, it’s just not very engaging.

Perhaps the best working definition I have seen was written specifically for electronic communications and decrees that interactivity requires an exchange of the user’s command with some response. That is, if your website user does something, such as entering information or making a selection, the site (or you) responds in some way.

So as with the other terms, you must define what you mean by interactive. Try writing your needs in the form of a vignette. Describe what users might do when visiting your site and what would happen as a result of their actions. This begins to build out a picture of the level of interactivity that is right for you.

Integrated (adj., made into a whole). “It should be fully integrated and web-enabled.”
In terms of technology, integration usually means making separate systems or databases work with each other to provide a more unified context for information. Integration is generally a good thing, but it usually forces us to change our practices.

For example, when communicating with your vendors, make sure they understand which database takes priority when there is a discrepancy, whether and where you are willing to change business processes, and where you will allow for exceptions. Be clear about the scope of the integration that is necessary.

Robust (adj., full of health and strength). “We need a robust search engine on the site!”
You mean it should be strong in flavor or muscle? How’s that work? I think the intention is that the web application be straightforward and clear, but I keep imagining that a robust application should somehow be served in a wine glass.

In this case, is an adjective really necessary? You want the search to deliver results in a way that makes sense to your users. What would that look like? Sketch out the information that should be displayed and communicate literally, not metaphorically.

Scalable (adj., capable of being easily expanded or upgraded). “The application should be completely scalable.”
Where I come from, if you scaled something, you had a knife in one hand and a fish in another, or you put the object on a platform and weighed it. So do we want to measure the application or take off a thin layer of skin? Probably neither.

What we do want is a tool that can grow as we grow, take on greater capacity or volume as needed and, in some cases, contract or “scale back” when we don’t need that much.

But we still have to specify the range of scalability we require. A programmer is hard-pressed to code for infinite options, so spend a little time discussing the absolute most and least that you need. If you need a scalable content management system because you have only two staff members who work on the website right now but you hope to have more in the future, project forward and imagine the greatest number of people you would give content rights to before you could no longer control quality. It makes a difference if that number is 12 staff members or 1,200.

Redesign (vt., to alter the appearance or function of). “Our site needs a complete redesign.”
This wayward word may be too far gone to save, but if we are going to avoid some of the black holes of misunderstanding, we have to try.

What we mean by a redesign is this: “We want a change.” Think of the popular home improvement and design TV shows. When you say you are looking for a redesign, are you saying you want to improve one or two areas of what you have (“Trading Spaces”); do you just want to improve the face of your website (“Curb Appeal”); or are you looking for a radical overhaul by knocking down the framework (“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”)?

Many IT customers have faced project overruns because the notion of website design to them was aesthetic (color, font, images) but to the vendor it was both aesthetic and architectural (navigation, usability, page layout). Avoid being surprised by being clear about the scope of the web design work you need done. Keep asking questions. Are we talking about aesthetic design or architecture? How much flexibility do we really need?

No Jargon Zone
Education leaders often are too afraid or unsure of themselves to challenge a vendor’s terms. Perhaps they are afraid of looking like techno-neophytes. Or worse, perhaps they use these troublesome terms themselves to mask a lack of understanding.

Get over it! You don’t have the time or money to risk so get what you need, get it right and get it right the first time. Your best defense against miscommunication is question after question, and the best way to look smart and be smart is to spend time making sure you are getting what you need.

If your vendors are promising “an interactive, web-enabled design that offers flexibility and seamless integration so that you can leverage your investment,” escort them down the hall and introduce them to the 10th grade English teacher.

Jeanne Allert, a former English teacher, is president of Ellipsis Partners, 3727 Church Road, Suite 100, Ellicott City, MD 21043. E-mail: jallert@ellipsispartners.com