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CAREERS: TRAINING MANUAL | TRAINING WITH TECHNOLOGY

Bridging the Communication Gap

Roadblocks: Getting techies and non-techies to understand each other is often a major challenge.

May 19, 1997|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gentle reader:

Technology's vast reach has by no means always enriched our lives, as each of us who has ever been startled by a beeping pager can attest. There are, however, some astonishingly effective computer training applications that redefine the learning process (see test on this page) and help older workers stay competitive (Page 12).

The men and women who bring us these electronic marvels, however, often struggle o communicate with ordinary mortals. Writer James Bates comes to the rescue with a report on how to teach techies to talk turkey (Page 12).

Ms. Work Wise

Readers of the Careers section first met Ms. Work Wise last November when the etiquette-savvy fictional character created by our readers joined real-life columnist Judith Martin (a.k.a. "Miss Manners") to address problems related to rudeness in the workplace. Ms. Work Wise returns in this issue to introduce stories on different types of training and will continue to appear as a voice in careers.

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You've spent a fortune on your company's computers, and another fortune hiring people who run to the rescue when a worker, who barely knows how to turn on the machine, can't locate the command key.

To make matters worse, the computer techies and the nontechnical workers might as well be speaking different languages. In some cases they are: One uses Java; the other drinks it and thinks Plug and Play is a Fisher-Price toy for preschoolers rather than a feature Microsoft built into Windows 95.

So debugging may not be your biggest challenge. "Degeeking" your organization might be.

The gulf between techies and non-techies can be as wide as the gap between Bill Gates' bank account and everyone else's. If the task-oriented left brains can't mesh with the creative, emotional right brains, a company has big problems. The result: bad feelings, job frustration and lower productivity because people can't take advantage of all the high-tech gear piled on their desks.

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Earlier this year, a survey of technology executives and consultants by Menlo Park, Calif.-based RHI Consulting found that their biggest challenge was conveying technical information clearly to end users. And a growing number of management consultants are specializing in trying to get techies and non-techies to understand each other.

"Techies can no longer stay in a cubicle and develop software," says Wendy B. Warman, a Florida speech pathologist and employee trainer who co-wrote "Loud and Clear" with consultants George Morrisey and Thomas Sechrest, on teaching technical people to make understandable presentations.

One place to start is to train techies not to relate everything they know about a subject each time they are asked a question. Ask a techie why your computer is freezing up or the hard drive is giving you problems, and you'll likely get a half-hour lecture on the history of the Pentium chip, whether Apple Computer has a future and maybe some thoughts on the fourth "Star Trek" movie.

"Techies tend to give us 'data dumps.' They want to tell everything they know about a subject, whether it has any relevance to the subject or not. They live in their own world. They focus on what they want to say, not what people want to hear," Morrisey says.

It's strongly suggested that techies use analogies (the Internet is like a highway with a lot of SigAlerts) to get a point across.

Still, it's not always fair to pick on the techies.

Nontechnical people infected with computer phobias can stubbornly resist even the most basic efforts to learn technical skills on the level of operating a toaster oven.

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Ed Caldwell, president of Productive Learning Systems Inc., a training and development consulting firm in suburban Atlanta, recalls that at one company where he was consulting, a technical support person spent half an hour guiding a worker through a basic routine.

The support person kept asking the worker to hit "control 4," as in pressing down the "control" and "4" keys simultaneously on the computer.

The worker was finally asked to read back exactly what he was typing in. "C-o-n-t-r-o-l 4," the worker responded.

Experiences like that can lead to the tensions found at many companies: Techies see non-techies as unsophisticated and unwilling to make an effort to adapt to the modern workplace. Non-techies see techies as arrogant know-it-alls unable to put themselves in the shoes of someone lacking their expertise.

Also getting in the way is jargon: Few nontechnical people want to hear about single in-line memory modules or enhanced integrated drive electronics.

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Add to that the occasional annoying Generation X-like Netspeak that sounds as if it comes from the pages of Wired magazine. Maybe it's time to ban the word "cool," or tell anyone using the acronym IMHO (Netspeak for "in my humble opinion") that YWBT ("you will be toast") if you don't learn to communicate.

Caldwell says technical workers need to stop periodically and ask whether they are doing a good job of getting across their message. Try asking non-techies to repeat instructions in their own words. Don't ask, "Do you understand?" because it can sound arrogant and superior.

"Technical people need to accept ownership of their own communication and realize that even when they are communicating clearly and effectively in their own minds, they may not be to someone else," Caldwell says.

The trick, Caldwell says, is to get technical and nontechnical workers to recognize the importance of learning to talk to each other. Ironically, he says, both techies and non-techies often rate better interpersonal skills as one of their goals.

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