Daily Archives: September 8, 2010

Business Jargon: Think Inside the Box

I bonded with a client on the phone the other day. She was telling me about a collaboration program they were launching with other departments, and she said something like ‘we’re trying to discover all the synergies—‘

There was a long pause. ‘I’m sorry. I fucking hate the word ‘synergy’, she said.

If I had a pet project, I think it would be to write a history of management jargon. It’s amazing how terms like ‘synergy’ and ‘value-added’ creep into our vocabularies in spite of having meanings that are poorly defined at best and utterly commonsensical at worst.

Tyler Cowen says we resort to jargon to maintain consensus:

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface.  The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority.  Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone’s opinion or points into an incoherent whole.  Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.

I agree with this, but I think the real purpose of management jargon is revealed in the fact that it never lasts very long. This year’s ‘low-hanging fruit’ is last year’s ‘blue-sky thinking’.

Corporations are under pressure to always be dynamic. They have to constantly expand, constantly evolve. This makes them uniquely susceptible to fads of language and paradigm. ‘Look for the blue ocean’ pulls a company to a slightly more productive equilibrium. Next year, ‘synergy’ pulls them to another one. Each paradigm resolves what it is capable of resolving, and reveals new problems for the next one.

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