Lost in translation

I don’t mean this literally—though there are certainly some key decisions and lessons to be learned when it comes to doing business in your non-native tongue—but can you definitively state that you and your customers are operating with a consistent understanding of each other?  Think about two of the more talked-about terms in education today—blended learning and adaptive instruction.  Is assigning online problem sets to be completed before class blended learning?  What if you use the students’ results to structure your next face-to-face class structure with them?  Would doing so also qualify as adaptive instruction, or would you have to be using one of the many algorithmically-based or otherwise designed adaptive products available (e.g., Knewton, CogBooks, Smart Sparrow, etc.)?

I recently had the opportunity to meet with the head of educational technology for one of the world’s leading business schools.  His skepticism of adaptive learning was quite strong and an opinion he readily volunteered.  As we ventured deeper into our conversation, however, it became clear that his conception of adaptive and mine were very different.  Further confusing us both, his conception veered us into a discussion of competency based education.  Finally, our conversation was joined by a colleague of his from another world-leading university who had yet a third set of conceptions around what defined each of these terms. 

The point here is not to say that we need universal definitions nor to remark on the vast differences from institution to institution and from individual to individual within an institution.  Rather, it is important that companies do not rely upon buzzwords to convey the nature and benefit of their product.  Nor should these firms assume that when they describe themselves as “an adaptive instruction platform to facilitate personalized experiences for every student in a blended environment” that any two individuals will imagine what they do in the same way.  This can be an advantage in some instances as potential customers project their positive visions of what such a description means onto the company, but it can also be just as disastrous when said company does not meet the customers’ expectations.  At the very least, firms should be making conscious decisions about the language they use in presenting themselves and their product publicly.  The best way to ensure that is the case is to go deep with your intended customers in advance to be sure nothing is lost in translation.

Are you speaking the same language as your customers?