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From the Director’s Chair: Business as a Second, Third and Fourth Language

Posted by Sarah Nichols on 9/30/2016

e-2-b-hs.jpgThis is the third post in a series in which I share experiences from decades as an Information Services Director, including my best tips, my worst mistakes, and lessons learned. Please read on for some thoughts about the importance of speaking the language of your senior management and of your organization as a whole.

Every organization has its own particular vocabulary. It’s usually drawn from sector-specific parlance, with special additions that signify “belonging” and serve as shorthand for everyone in the know.

With language, we include certain people and we exclude others. It’s that way with librarianship: there is professional jargon that makes sense to us, and only to us. When we use it inside our organizations, its relevance is limited to our own team members, and others may feel shut out; they might even end up feeling that we’re different, and that we don’t belong.

Special librarians need to keep library or KM jargon to a minimum except within the team, and speak three additional languages in order to thrive and stay relevant in the workplace:

  • Sector-specific
  • Company/organization/firm-specific
  • Leadership team-specific

Dive in

Whether you work for a management consultancy; a law firm; a financial services company; a partnership of architects; a manufacturing multinational or an educational testing service, you must learn and use the vocabulary of that sector. Ideally you will have some professional development budget that will allow you to purchase reference materials, e.g., Barron’s Dictionary of Banking Terms—or to take online courses that will ground you in the fundamentals of your organization’s field. (If there is no budget, consider paying out of pocket; it’s worth it.) This will give you credibility with your non-library colleagues, make you feel more confident and engaged, and speed time to results in your own role.


Jargon specific to your workplace is the second language you must learn and employ. This often involves acronyms and shorthand for clients, products and geographies that are incomprehensible to anyone new on the scene. It’s related to the sector you’re in, but it takes exclusivity up a notch. Outsiders won’t know that “MECE” refers to a style of communication that is “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive;” new staff members won’t know that “BPN” stands for “best practice network”—which isn’t actually a network, but a network member with specific characteristics not shared by other network members. Special librarians are in a great position to capture organizational jargon and acronyms and publish them to the intranet as a key tool for onboarding new employees. This is a valuable service that helps build relationships and again, establishes your credibility and cements your reputation for supporting organizational priorities.

Sorry, what did you say?

Finally, there is the language of individual leaders. I’m not advocating slavish imitation, but you do need to understand what your CEO means when she says “put together a fake book for me on that,” or exactly what your CFO wants when he says “give me the so what on last month’s departmental expenses.” Depending on his sense of humor, you could even beat him to the punch and proactively send a monthly email with the subject: “Here’s the So What!” Even if you think their terminology, grammar or vocabulary is peculiar or unhelpful, go with it. I once had a manager who told me we would “need to carefully manage the optics” of a controversial strategy we were rolling out. Plain speaking it wasn’t, but “manage the optics” was in her lexicon, and it was obvious what she meant—just as it was obvious what I meant when I later used it myself.

Think of these three languages as equally important to your credibility, relevance, visibility and success in the workplace. Let your colleagues know that special librarians mean business!

Topics: Library Management, Knowledge Management, Solo Librarianship