IT managers and the ‘name ease’ effect

 I didn’t think I needed another reason to hate IT industry jargon, but here it is:

A recent paper published in Psychological Science examines the trend whereby researchers try to give a catchy name to the results of their work. According to Aparna, Labroo, associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, the natural tendency to make research more accessible and marketable has a significant downside: we start to devalue the concept or findings. She calls this the “name-ease” effect.

“People usually invest effort to understand important information but also mistakenly infer the reverse—namely, that information that requires effort to be understood is important,” she writes. “Economic principles, math theorems, jury cases, and decisions to fund medical research can all show these effects.”

What about technology-related research findings or concepts? That wasn’t part of the study, but it’s not too difficult to see how the name-ease effect works in IT. Cloud computing, SaaS, service-oriented architecture, business intelligence – all jargon that has become common parlance within the data centre and on the conference floor, even when few people can agree on a common definition.

In the publication Miller-McCune, Tom Jacobs interviews Labroo to explore the impact of name-ease more fully. “In a finding that will be of intense interest to her fellow scholars, Labroo discovered that study participants who read an academic paper with a focus on understanding it had a “reduced willingness to fund the research” if a name was attached,” Jacobs writes. “Labroo noted that this research could have public policy implications, in that naming a problem — or a potential solution — can have a great impact on public support for the initiative. The name ‘global warming,’ she noted, paints an oversimplified picture of what is happening in the atmosphere, and as such, it may be easy for people to dismiss.”

This is not only relevant to scholars but IT managers who are trying to make the business case for increased capital investment for various projects. Of course, many technology professionals probably avoid technology jargon entirely when they’re presenting to a management team. The problem, however is that the jargon may reach senior executive ears by another means: a pop culture reference on TV, an item in the business section of the newspaper or a IT department document that got posted to the intranet. “Is that cloud computing you’re talking about?” they might ask. And if the answer is yes, the name-ease effect could set in.

There has been a tendency among IT industry experts to encourage the dumbing-down of complicated technology concepts to CFOs and CEOs who control the purse strings but lack the background of those implementing software and hardware. Labroo’s research suggests it might make more sense to respect senior management’s intelligence by patiently walking through the difficult thinking behind such projects. If it’s tough to understand they might see how critical it is. Just don’t say you’re doing so to avoid the name ease effect. That’s too catchy a piece of jargon for anyone to take seriously.

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