In the IT Services industry you have to be able to write code. And English. In fact, not being able to write code may be alright. But without English you just can’t function.
And yet, it is surprising how little attention is paid to written communication skills. The BPO industry trained thousands of people in spoken English, often accompanied with accent training. But English writing skills get little attention.
Why are English writing skills so important?
Internal business communication in an IT Services company is entirely in English. The offshore model means that business matters that could have been transacted in a meeting or over the phone, necessarily end up on email. If an email, or design document is not well written, a whole day might go by before a clarification or correction can be made. Big waste of productivity!
Second, Indian offshore service providers work with clients who are used to dealing with consultants who typically have excellent writing skills. In western markets particularly, writing with clarity and even flair, is a mark of a good education. That’s what you get compared with.
Over time, most clients on the IT side of the house have adjusted their mental models and no longer automatically connect good writing skills with IT skills. But as we start going in front of business, the same problems will start surfacing again with a new set of clients.
Nominally, Indians in the IT Services industry were educated in English medium schools. I would guess that over 90% of the industry took their XII board exams in English medium. But when it comes to writing English, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much.
Indian high school education is all geared towards college entrance exams. Entrance exams for engineering colleges don’t test on English. The Physics, Chemistry and Math exams are entirely (?) multiple choice. As a result, nobody cares about English at school. Correction – nobody cares about any language, period.
And then came the mobile revolution. The kids coming out of college now write emails, the way they text. Short, unintelligible sentences full of typos. Not surprising since for them words texted far exceed words written in full sentences in email or any other form of writing.
Go to the comments section of any Indian publication online. You’ll see what I mean. I can’t understand half of what’s written there.
This is actually now a crisis. I believe that with the new generation, writing full sentences is just not cool any more. Every idea must be conveyed in 140 characters or less. Much of it will be SMS English. There will be typos galore, because, you know what, I am too busy to review what I just wrote. If you can’t understand what I’ve written that’s your problem.
As always, the industry will have to come up with its own solutions. We can never rely on the Indian education system to meet our needs. But unlike technical knowledge, it is really difficult to start writing well if you have ignored it in school and college.
I think Indians have sold themselves the “large English speaking population” spiel. The origin of this positioning probably lies in the IT/BPO industry, which sought to differentiate itself from other destinations with cheap labor (pssst… China). Unfortunately, there is a big difference between the positioning and the reality.
The problem isn’t that SMS/twitter force people to write briefly, the problem is that it offers people with bad English a crutch. I haven’t seen anyone who knows the language well use SMSese.
Indians are progressively selling themselves terribly short when it comes to communicating well in English! But the English are doing worse. So, there is yet hope that the language will survive, revive and hopefully thrive in this erstwhile English colony!
I agree with you basab. I have seen this happening at where i work. The new joinees writing mails which i find it difficult to understand. It’s high time that the companies teach English writing as a part of induction training. Also have you noticed that the interest to read long writing is almost dead ? How often do you see a guy/girl with a novel in his/her hand and how often do you see a guy/girl with a mobile on his/her hand ( Doing SN). Being in India my perspectives are based on what’s happening in India.
If Basab triggered it, I think Param nailed it… Fantastic observation… Crutch – is the word, that texting protocol (if I may call it) have offered up to linguistically challenged also-ran. And then the *illusion of control* the Indians have over the western world over digital dominance, even if it just means a few call centers and low caliber outsourcing work that needs just some basic coding talents, blissfully unaware of the stellar feats of an Apple or an Amazon that come up with truly life altering solutions… Another area, unrelated to language skills is the attitude of some Business analysts (of BI firms) I’d recently encountered, that recommend *solutions* for trans-national businesses with their limited exposure to the world of business that has hardly gone much beyond buying stuff with their father’s money till recently, while they were in college…!!! Fancy designations also kill.
Why just English language writing, we are not taught writing in any language. I think we do not recognize writing as a basic skill required by everyone. Even if we were taught to write in our own mother tongues, we would be better communicators in writing. Writing is a very thought through expression compared to other forms of communication and is also a recorded mode of communication weather you used pen or keyboard. We are far more conscious of what we write than what we speak. Our education system, even the one within large organization ( almost all of them have a parallel education system running internally) needs to recognize this and then the rest will follow.
Even if we were taught to write in our own mother tongues, we would be better communicators in writing.
I agree 100%.
140 was once a measure of genius, now it represents idiocy. I had raised this concern as a PIP (process improvement proposal) in 2006 when I used to work for a large IT firm. HR rejected the idea. At that time, I had everyone in my team writing parts of the design document. It was a nightmare. I would spend hours after the team left just correcting and re-writing sentences.
Very true. Almost every document that comes for review asks the same question – should the English be reviewed. Where do you start and how much you can do?Sometimes I feel may be I am old fashioned or not able to cope with change as people seem to be doing fine without paying any attention to this. It is difficult to acquire at a later stage unlike analytical subjects and unfortunately in Indian schools (may be except a few good teachers) average quality of language teachers is bad.
Thanks for triggering this discussion. It is unfortunate to see the low standards in the written communication. Usually the consultants in Indian IT services companies perform a good technical task. However the standard of the documentation differs with the western counterpart. Eventhough the companies are putting effort towards increasing the standards, this needs to be part of the education system.
I had always wondered why people with excellent spoken language often prove to be poor writers. Your post sheds some light on this. Until the education system is improved, probably the corporates themselves might need to address this issue. For example, the company where I work has got a library in-house offering English books, magazines, and American movies. We also had a full time English teacher whom I used to call ET) who used to conduct English improvement classes. Our former Quality Manager (from REC, Trichy and IIT, Chennai) fell in love here with the language so much that post-retirement he went for a full-time English MA course.
Very true. This has been a major concern for many IT firms. My PhD proposal was rejected 18 times before the final version was accepted. Comments from my supervisor read something like this “…..need serious improvement in language and connectivity of thoughts…” Google (my former employer) had a written (non-verbal) training class which later helped me improve my writing skills. I was pleasantly surprised to realize importance of writing skills Vs domain expertise.
I always used to wonder why quality of documentation is so poor compared to our western counterpart. Your post has provided an answer if not the answer. We are so consumed with analytical and mathematical skills, partly because medical and engineering were the only accesible profession for masses, we have completely neglected the mastery of language skills.
Unfortunately, no one seems to bothered about it and by the time we realize it may be too late. In order to please parents by letting everyone score more than 90% our exams, especially 10th and 12th class, have become complete farce.
Moreover, building language skill is difficult and long drawn process and with reality shows, facebook etc present generation does not really have time.
It’s one thing, to communicate in a grammatically right and coherent manner. It’s totally another to articulate one’s point of view lucidly, that the receiver of the communication totally “gets” what one says and gets “only” that perspective/notion that has been intended, by the originator of that communication.
At least 70% of our (Indian IT) workforce, irrespective of the years in the industry, just won’t articulate unambiguously. I think its laziness in thought process than command over the language.
Well said Basab i totally agree with your point of view about the writing skills in English in IT sector. English composition and business English in college and graduate school is more helpful. I himself take care of these things in my study but now in practical field often face difficulties sometimes. Objective pattern of exams and mobiles usage also affecting the writing skills of new generation.