Semantics are vital when trying to communicate.
Organizational Leadership

Unlock the Power of Words: More Than “Just Semantics”

Recently a client reminded me of the importance of words and their meanings – the semantics of the languages we use to communicate with each other.

If decision-makers are not on the same page when it comes to word meanings, effective decisions are difficult to make in an efficient manner.

“Operations. Administration. They’re the same thing,” a Board member remarked.


Semantics matter

Instantly I knew where some problems were stemming from in our journey to improve the organization’s operations: not everyone understood what we were referring to when we talked about “operations.”

So I clarified it.

An initial aloof response was “That’s just semantics.”

Too right!

But it seems semantics have a much bigger impact than we’d like to believe. Perhaps it’s just too much mind-effort to think about the meanings of words.

Again… oops.

Unlocking the power of semantics makes meetings more productive and effective.

The thing is, it almost doesn’t matter what the actual meaning is (although it totally does!). What matters more is that the individuals in the group agree what the meaning is. That’s what matters. That’s why semantics are important, if not vital. As long as we’re talking about the same thing, good decisions can be made more quickly and with more confidence.

I was 14 years old when I learned the embarrassing way that in the USA, mistakes made with a pencil are removed with an eraser. Growing up in the UK I had always used a rubber, but the word rubber in the USA has a very different meaning (especially for teenagers). What North Americans call a rubber is often referred to by its brand name in the UK, Durex. Which, to confuse things more, is actually an Australian brand name of sticky tape – equivalent to Sellotape in the UK and Scotch tape in the USA. (Ouch.)

At the same time, it’s also a problem when one small group in society (such as the mainstream media’s journalists-turned-campaigners) wield their influence to deliberately manipulate semantics for their own advantage without telling the rest of the world. That’s what breaks societies apart.

Ops vs. Admin

So, while we’re here, what is the difference between Operations and Administration?

According to the Project Management Institute’s Standard for Portfolio Management 3rd Edition:

“‘Operations’ is a term used to describe day-to-day organizational activities. The organization’s operations may include, but are not limited to production, manufacturing, finance, marketing, legal, information [technology] services, human resources, and administrative services.”

In other words:

  • Administration is a subset function of Operations that is focused on outputs. For example: write, design, print and distribute bulletins for Sunday morning church services.
  • Whereas Operations are the activities that enable each subset function to produce its output. For example: determining and maintaining the processes, tools and equipment for producing bulletins. This might include who is responsible for which admin task, what calendar, MS Office or Google Suite tools are to be used, ensuring there is a printer, paper, ink, etc.

Reducing friction and wasted time

I’m sure you can now imagine how much better the quality of our meetings and decisions became after defining two rather important words that were previously tossed aside as “just semantics.” When you realize that semantics are important, you start using words more carefully, with respect, and accurately.

Friction, frustration and annoyance mutate from “Why are we even bothering with this?” to “Let’s get this item sorted out first,” and subsequent decisions are made much more quickly and with confidence because they are built on relevance and mutual understanding.

What a joy!

The meanings of words are much more than “just semantics.”

Do you have a story about the meanings of words? I’d love to hear it. Share it with me here.