You couldn't make this up

Why do managers keep inventing meaningless words to describe what they do?

When 'The language of business…the business of language' appeared in E&T back in May, the first response it garnered was a grouse.

It was a "typical rant about the insiders by one of the outsiders," apparently. "Rant" was harsh - the article was quite even-mannered, once I'd removed "idiot" from a previous draft - but the insider/outsider bit was intriguing.

It was hardly news that corporate-jargon users regard themselves as insiders: the article pointed out that their mode of speech is deliberately exclusive. That's the very thing that makes it self-defeating - who wants to listen to someone burbling away in what is, to all intents and purposes, a private language?

But that aside, it had never occurred to me that anyone who willingly participates in management-speak - and who, moreover, believes it a useful tool of communication - might imagine that those who know better feel aggrieved at their exclusion. I still find it bizarre. Because let's face it, the jargon-mongers' club is hardly difficult to join. Anyone with half a mind to do so - and you can add your own punchline - can sign up any time they want.

And if the posters on the IET forum are anything to go by, this is already happening.

Creating a buzz

"Sometimes," Vikki Quinn wrote, "purely for entertainment value, some of us mere engineers will create a buzzword and drop it into a meeting and see how long it takes to become jargon and how many managers pick it up."

This is shocking behaviour, of course, and adds yet more pointless verbiage to the mounds of it piling up in offices the length of the land. It shouldn't be condoned in the workplace. But, on the other hand, it sounds like fun.

For several reasons, too, it should prove easy to get away with. First of these is what we might call the Emperor's New Clothes effect. For those to whom business-speak is an unqualified good - let's call them Insiders - there can never be an admission that they don't understand it. After all, to suggest that a freshly-minted buzzword is unclear, unnecessary or downright barking would be to start pulling the whole house of cards down. Thus, an Insider can introduce a new term without gloss, secure in the knowledge that those hanging on his every word will pretend to know what he's talking about - because to admit otherwise would be to identify themselves as Outsiders.

Take "burning platform", which I encountered recently. Apparently, the ability to recognise one of these is the mark of an efficient business manager. It hardly makes for open management, does it, when the criteria for success are effectively laid down in code? Because in the absence of a definition, I can think of half a dozen ways of interpreting "burning platform", each no less credible than the last. Which makes it far more likely to create confusion than to clear it up - but then, that's what you get for fabricating solutions to problems that don't exist in the first place.

As for the other reason why you won't get caught making this stuff up, that's pretty straightforward. It's that, of the two main types who use business jargon - the cynical, who adopt it because it's the way to get ahead, and the stupid, who adopt it because they know no better - one won't care and the other won't notice.

Sincere garbage

So, on to technique. One trusted method - long used by professional jargon-makers - is to take an existing term and give it a nudge.

Again, there's a recent example (sensitive readers may want to skip the rest of this paragraph). It's an offshoot of "infotainment", which itself offers convincing proof that being both clumsy and ugly is no bar to linguistic survival, and appears to have been dreamed up by someone who thinks we need a word to explain what's happening when, for example, someone dresses up as a cow to plug a brand of yoghurt. That word is "retailtainment". I'm going to type that again: "retailtainment".

With any luck, that'll be the last time any of us encounter it, but it's a brutal world, so don't get your hopes up.

Anyway, when garbage like that is being used in all sincerity, it would be nigh-on impossible to come up with a word so ludicrous, so over-the-top, so downright repellent, that jargon-mongers won't embrace it with the fervour of a deep-south fundamentalist handling a snake.

And as if to prove it, here's nhaughton's contribution to the debate, again from the IET forum: "If something can be leveraged, it must have 'leveragability'. The act of developing or changing something to give it 'leveragability' must surely be 'leveragabilitisation', so it follows that a measure of how much leveragibilitisation something can accommodate is its 'leveragibilitisationness'. So one day, in conversation with an American colleague about improving some software, I mischievously dropped this term - leveragibilitisationness - into the flow, and it barely raised an eyebrow. Much to my astonishment a little while later I saw it repeated in emails, quite seriously…"

"Quite seriously" - I can believe that. If anything identifies a true-blue Insider, it's a desperate lack of humour. These guys wouldn't recognise a joke if it arrived on their doorstep saying "knock knock".

Nevertheless, I'm deeply impressed that nhaughton could drop "leveragibilitisationness" into conversation without breaking stride. It took me three attempts to reach the sixth syllable.

The jargon game

But, as much fun as this might be, and however brilliantly we play the game, we have to accept from the start that defeat is inevitable. Because let's not forget: we're dealing with the people who brought us "upskill" here. With the emptyheads responsible for "living the values". With sycophantic drones who can mould this stuff into shapes so brain-numbing, they'd traumatise a grammarian at 20 paces.

Take this, from a website. There may be a small prize for anyone who can explain what the firm in question does:

"XXXX is a leading supplier of solutions and services to non-life commercial insurance markets. The breadth and depth of our product and service offerings, in combination with our vision and commitment, enables risk carriers to optimise the management and control of their operational efficiency, business line profitability, and respond to major upcoming market level changes."

Any idea? The fact that they're pleased with themselves is clear: "XXXX consistently provides market leading innovative solutions, becoming one of the pre-eminent solution providers in the market."

Did you get that? Providing market-leading solutions has enabled this firm to become one of the leading solution-providers in the market. A textbook example of the self-serving nature of the mindset that produces this nonsense. Well, that or evidence of stupidity.

But just to remind us that language, used correctly, can be beautiful, there's a rather lovely word that describes what's happening here: "echolalia". Echolalia is the meaningless repetition of another person's words. It's a soft babbling on the border of sense. Wherever Insiders are gathered together, that's the noise you can hear; not so much an exchange of useful information as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.

And as with many disorders, it would be unwise to assume immunity. I suggested above that two types rely on business-speak: the cynical and the stupid. But to be fair, there's an intermediary group, made up of those who've been overexposed to business jargon, and find it creeping into their speech. And this could be any one of us. It starts with an occasional going forwards; perhaps tips over into discussion of things transformational - and before we know it, we're mainlining. Pushing the envelope. Breaking through that concrete ceiling. Parroting all the weary clichés that seek to reduce the English language to the level of a management phrasebook. Like pod-people, we could all become Insiders too, without realising it.

"I'm a jargon user..."

So what I suggest, before it's too late, is that we set up Jargon Users Anonymous, to offer help and support to those who have to live among the Insiders, and worry that it's rubbing off. It shouldn't be impossible. We all pick up verbal tics. We can shed them, too.

Suggestions for a 12-step programme welcomed. Because the alternative is truly frightening; that we might end up like the man a friend described recently, who attended a neighbours' meeting to discuss their communal garden. "So," he began, "who are the key stakeholders here?"

That guy was an idiot. This time, I'm leaving the word in.

What do you think? 

To have your say go to www.theiet.org/Forums/forum/index.cfm, click on 'Management' and then on 'Management Speak'

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