The dreaded acronym - it can easily confuse

Have you ever had one of those days when just about everything you touched or came to your attention was bigger, more complicated, more difficult than it, at first, appeared? Someone asks an innocent question or an email arrives and your first answer needs qualifying in some way and then that answer triggers another train of thought and so it goes until you wish you hadn’t answered the phone or opened the email in the first place! At  the close of just such a day a while ago, it occurred to me that at the root of this type of problem we often find the issue of implied, implicit or assumed understanding.  If your understanding is not clear in the early stages of the conversation or transaction then you will labour under the misunderstanding for quite a while, usually until someone realises that you have been talking at cross-purposes.

Take the ever-present acronym.  Life is full of them.  We hurl them about with abandon and construct sentences out of whole strings of the wretched things.  It takes a brave soul to stop the conversation to ask for an explanation.  Most disciplines and activities have more than their fair share.  Next time you have a conversation with a colleague, try to imagine what a bystander from outside the discipline would be able to derive from your jargon and acronym-filled conversation.  Not much, I would hazard a guess.  Out of curiosity, you might like to try keeping a running total for a day of the number of acronyms you have employed in conversation or in written communications.  I am certain that it will be a frighteningly large tally.  Multiply this by the potential for confusion if you and your colleague have assumed different interpretations for the same acronym.  For example, you would think that the combination of letters “PLC” is innocent enough but it  takes only a few seconds with any glossary to find three very different definitions:-

Public Limited Company

Project Life Cycle

Programmable Logic Controller

Plenty of scope for confusion there!

Misunderstandings of this nature, pre-conceived ideas or holding fast to long-held opinions can colour one’s attitude to a range of issues.  I could offer CPD as a prime example.  CPD is a very simple idea at heart - the idea that we all benefit from ongoing learning - but it is easy to overcomplicate it.  Even the explanation of the acronym itself is interestingly open to challenge.  Most are happy with the phrase Continuing Professional Development but I have, in the past, used Career Planning and Development as this may offer a more precise understanding of the major benefit of CPD, depending on where the discussion is taking place.

A colleague has recently asked what we can do about it.  For me the answer is in the way we communicate and stay awake to the needs of others.  Ensuring that everyone around you understands what you are saying and, if necessary, providing a glossary or crib sheet to assist newcomers into your common working language will help.  The most extreme example I have ever come across (in an organisation which shall remain nameless to protect the not-so-innocent) meant that I needed to have someone at my side throughout the meetings to whisper translations in my ear for complete sentences made up entirely of strings of acronyms.  I was so grateful that he took the time to help as I could not otherwise have contributed to the discussions in a meaningful way.

We all need the shorthand that acronyms provide but they are probably best used sparingly in order to avoid permanent confusion.