Creating a Common Language: Say You, Say Me

Say You, Say Me - Language and Culture at Black Duck Software

For those of you who may remember, that’s the title of a Lionel Richie song that was a #1 single in 1985 and also won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for best song. Its chorus goes like this:

Say you, say me; say it for always
That’s the way it should be
Say you, say me; say it together

That’s enough of the Big ’80s for now. If you prefer a loftier context, then there is something called the Whorfian Hypothesis in the study of linguistics. It is a long-standing idea concerning the relationship between language and culture — that language determines the way speakers of that language view the world.

A common language is a staple in the development of a cohesive culture. In the context of company culture it is no less relevant. The means to view the world within a company can be more effectively expressed through agreed-upon wording. As the person responsible for nurturing my company’s culture, it occurred to me that having a common language would help.

I thought that if I provided a starting point using regularly communicated language, it might stir discussion, perhaps even some debate. The goal was not to develop a culture, but to uncover it by articulating it. I wanted to capture a few simple concepts that Black Duck employees considered positive “tent pole” aspects of the experience of working effectively at the company. When I say employees, I don’t mean just the management team, or just departmental folks, but a cross section of people, with varying responsibilities, experiences and tenure at the company. That discussion and introspection created a word list.

This is a critical first step when addressing culture discussions within a growing company. I needed a common device, which turned out to be a few words, to be able to talk to folks who’ve been around for 7 years or 7 days and have a chance at building consensus about who we are. Now I must confess, my background in Marketing and Communications made me hope I’d be able to create a consumable communication as well. You know, something between a hit song and an academic hypothesis.

So as it boiled down, a few ideas rose to the surface about working at Black Duck: that knowledgeable people are highly valued; that unusual perspectives are actually encouraged; that attention to customer needs are almost pathological (even at times a distraction from other needs); that dedication tends to be manifested (in the sense that you own your work). Thus, using words like Dedication, Uniqueness, Customer Focus and Knowledge, I began to articulate what it means to be a D-U-C-K.

Creating a Common Language

I took the language and codified it, adding a bit of creativity, to form an internal brand. From there, I came up with a consumable, common language device I could build upon and use as a memory cue to continue the discussion.

Being a D-U-C-KDedication – You Own It

Uniqueness – You Are Unusual

Customer Focus – You “Get” Them

Knowledge – You Know Your Stuff

The exercise in “saying it together” did promote naturally occurring discussions. By labeling what we are, or aspire to be, we created a way to start discussions prompting everyday examples of what it means to be a DUCK.

It has become a useful device. In addition, it’s now the name of a peer recognition award, or the DUCK Award. Co-workers nominate each other by submitting examples of how their peers effectively demonstrate aspects embodied by the culture words. Springing from Human Resources, the yearly performance review forms now prompt ratings and discussions against these attributes as well. This gives managers and team members a reference point for discussion on a performance-appraisal level.

Of course further discussion has ensued on what it means to work and succeed at Black Duck, and NO the first letter of those words do not always fit, but that’s not what’s important. What is important is that, by initially forming some a basic common language, we created more conversations and introspection on company culture, because culture should be a reflection of who we all are.

As Lionel Richie said, “Believing who you are, you are a shining star.”

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