Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Roger L. Simon: Dumb and Dumber

Roger Simon, writes in his post Dumb and Dumber:

"The headline at The New York Times reads 'What Corporate America Can't Build: a Sentence'. But if you read the article, you find that corporate America is trying to correct the linguistic weaknesses of its employees who were not educated at school. Of course, to the 'highly literate' headline writers at the Times, it is naturally the corporation's fault."


... Try as I might, I did not see the Times writer make any such statement. Frankly, given common attitudes towards pieces critical of american anything, NYT was damned. If they blame schools, people like me immediately open a salvo on how NYT and the "liberal agenda" is in league with political correctness promoted by NEA so that bad teachers who only want more money and less work and who are not accountable to anyone, etc. can teach our children about sex and nothing else. If the NYT dared to blame corporations I have a rant prepared to decry the assault on this bastion of virtue, the one thing that makes America great and the envy of the rest of the world - the corporation.

Luckily, the article avoided these common "liberal" pitfalls. In fact, other than conveying the sense of a dramatic increase in non-verbal communications, and therefore a need for much stronger business writing skills from people whose occupations did not require those skills previously, the article does not say much else. As almost every journalist writing a daily newspaper seems to do, the author is inclined to hyperbole and cheap shots. For example, the memo of a systems analyst below:

"I updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file).. to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with incorrect information ... However after verifying controls on JBL - JBL has the indicator as B ???? - I wanted to make sure with the recent changes - I processed today - before Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to 'C'."

I suppose that since her supervisors found the message incoherent, it must be, but I certainly think it makes enough sense to be useful as a quick status update the email almost certainly is. I would be very surprised if "Murray" did not understand this email, or if "Lenny" became confused by it.

Perhaps it would make sense for the NYT to be more critical of the timelines given to people to complete their work that do not include the time to compose and edit long emails. Certainly, I find, most software projects do not properly account for the amount of time it takes to create documentation and artifacts necessary for an orderly development process to go forward. Nevertheless, pulling a knowingly poorly executed sample does not prove anything about the general state of the workforce business writing.

In fact, I am inclined to celebrate. Is not this issue a sign of good things? Employees are spending less time doing manual labour and more time doing things complex enough to require to be written down? Moreover, some people might be more comfortable writing in Cobol, or Spanish, or Hindu, than English, and others have been promoted on merit and on-the-job performance, not their academic credentials. Would not that be an overall good thing? Clearly employees see this as a minor obstacle to overcome for their otherwise already productive and valuable employees and are providing them with the opportunity to improve in an area they are deficient in. And employees are seeing the problem and stepping up to it in the best American traditions both Mr. Simon and NYT can celebrate. Is not that all a good thing?!

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