The Importance of Shared Language in Decision Making

The Importance of Shared Language in Decision Making

July 11, 2018 | Jess Haven


“Shared language” is a topic NCCD touches on a lot in our work with the Structured Decision Making® (SDM) system. As we begin collaborating with an agency or jurisdiction at the start of an SDM® project, we talk about how important it is to agree on shared language throughout the process. We aim to learn jurisdiction-specific terminology based on local policy, practice, and culture that we then integrate into the SDM assessment tools.

Additionally, in the deep weeds of creating definitions to correspond with assessment tool items, we work with jurisdiction partners to develop language that clearly indicates thresholds for application. Sometimes we hear several different terms used for the same concept and see confusion played out right in front of us. We help make the shift to an agreed-upon term or phrase and carry it through to assessment training later.

Reflecting on the SDM system values of reliability, validity, equity, and utility in our work, we can see that shared language is one way to target each of these important elements.

It enhances consistency in decision making (reliability) by promoting same-process, clear guidance to the worker and detailing threshold information.

It aids validity by connecting data to like-data more accurately, ensuring that we are measuring the right thing. If I want to take my temperature and know it should be 98.6ºF, but my thermometer reads Celsius—a system I’m not familiar with, this measurement will not be helpful. Without knowing that 37ºC is the same as 98.6ºF (thanks, Google!), I have to make my best guess in a time crunch, spend extra time and resources looking into the conversion, or perhaps ask someone nearby who may provide incorrect information. Using the same system or terminology helps us know that we’re measuring the same thing in the same way.

Applying the same language and described thresholds when using the SDM system also helps to promote equity by holding our work to the same standard and process regardless of demographics, thus narrowing the potential for bias to influence how we work with families and individuals.

Finally, shared language promotes utility by offering the means to be more concise and expedient. Once a common term is defined and understood, it can be used and referred to without discrepancies in definitions. It helps to avoid process hiccups due to miscommunication.

We also see improvement in cross-systems work due to shared language. Imagine when law enforcement and child protective services can communicate with one another using the same definition for child safety. We see jurisdictions make great efforts to reach out and collaborate on shared outcomes. Often, the first step is to address communication gaps where shared language can be beneficial.

From the beginning of assessment tool customization to the completion of staff training on assessment use (and even beyond the SDM model in cross-systems work), consistent and effective language is critical to strong assessment tools and their use by workers in the field as they make important decisions impacting the children, families, and vulnerable adults they serve. 

Jess HavenJess Haven is a program associate on the NCCD Social Services Practice team.