Sat, Sep 09, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Jargon sorts the savvy from the deadwood

By Malcolm Burgess  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Gap analysis ... customer offer vision ... paradigm shifts ... thought leadership ... Today a meeting isn’t a meeting without a thick sludge of corporate jargon to separate the high flyers from the rest of us. Love them or loathe them (and most of us do) we can’t escape the growing avalanche of bizarre words and phrases entering the workplace.

Like many people I’ve had a number of careers and found myself the innocent target, and even the occasional purveyor, of management-speak. In book publishing, as it moved from gentlemanly to cutthroat, I sat in meetings where we talked of “vertical integration” and “brandwidth” without batting an eyelid. In further education everyone seemed to be pursuing an elusive “quality.” And, as a local authority manager, I was forever trying to work out who my “stakeholders” were.

For maximum effect, as every successful corporate bullshitter knows, the most effective jargon is abstract, latinate, and comes from the US. Acronyms are excellent for full impenetrability (try Swot, MMM and KVI for starters) while an arbitrary capital letter may even suggest divine origins.

Work has become the new religion and needs its magic phrases for the priesthood to bamboozle us. Ideally, these will be from a lexicon invented by the new faith’s gurus, mainly elderly right-wing Americans who seem to know the Way Ahead. Hence, most of us spend every working hour “pursuing excellence,” “making a difference” or ensuring some “continuous improvement,” while feeling that we must be missing something, given how meaningless these mantras are.

Another tier of jargon seems to emanate from US manager jocks who either borrow their sayings from sports or toilet stalls. Since the 1980s they’ve been making sure we “cover all our bases,” “punch above our weight” and appreciate the need for a “level playing field,” while also advising us not to “piss outside our circle.”

But why do we use so much jargon and should all perpetrators be taken out of the meeting room and quietly shot? Not quite. The next time you sit fuming next to someone who says “win-win situation” 15 times in a credit control catchup, try reflecting on the reasons why we end up speaking in corporate tongues.

One-upmanship must come pretty high up the list — nearly all of us have used the latest piece of jargon to impress a superior or interviewer. But this pales into insignificance beside the seasoned operator who uses constant corporate-speak and lets you know when an existing term has been superseded — “core competencies” are just so 2005. They know that using old jargon is professional suicide.

Equally, getting it right means joining an exclusive club that can help your career. Perhaps this is the real reason why more of us are finding romance with our colleagues (with the boss’s permission of course). Nobody outside our office has a clue what we’re actually talking about.

And then there are times when we use jargon because we can’t remember what we said before it existed. Just what is a “portfolio of skills”? It might only mean making all those unsuccessful career starts sound sexy on your resume, but sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow and just get on with the important business of not being “empowered” (taking on so many extra duties we don’t have time to notice our salary hasn’t gone up).

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