We have a word for that Language: There's little hope of downsizing the jargon overload as truth-avoiding businesses and ill-informed managers use buzzwords as a crutch.


Memo to Associates:

In benchmarking our company's performance against a peer group since our recent re-engineering, we realize that further rightsizing is in order to achieve the efficiencies needed to return to our core competencies. To ensure that this continues to be a high- performance workplace, we will begin outsourcing our human resources functions and convert other departments into cross-functional teams. A paradigm shift is necessary if we are to remain a learning organization in an era of discontinuous change. Our vision is that you empowered intrapreneurs, along with our fast-growing contingent work force, will think out of the box as we implement total quality processes. Our change management expert will contact you to explain our utilization of 360-degree feedback as part of our transformation to a pay-for-performance model.

-- Yours in excellence, Chief Learning Officer I.M. Master

Management mumbo-jumbo like this has become fodder for pundits from humorist Garrison Keillor to cartoonist Scott Adams, whose "Dilbert" is the fastest-growing strip in the land.

Spawning the patois proliferation is an unprecedented level of corporate turmoil. Fretful managers -- desperately seeking to hold on to their own jobs -- are displaying a voracious appetite for the quick fix. Academics and consultants happily oblige, churning out management tomes -- and buzzwords -- by the score.

Once the province of big-picture chief executives, "management best seller" has filtered down through the ranks. Any old functionary can pick up a hot book these days and turn his office into a buzzword farm. "Business best sellers" -- no longer an oxymoron -- can rival top fiction titles in sales. "People are throwing these buzzwords on the wall to see which ones stick," said Charles B. Wendel, co-author of "Business Buzzwords: Everything You Need to Know to Speak the Lingo of the '90s."

Given the endless quest for a successful business model, it doesn't take long for a mouthful like "imaginization" or "activity value analysis" to take on a life of its own.

Business-ese can have its strong points. For those in the know, buzzwords can be a handy way of distilling complex theories into a digestible dollop. And dramatic changes in the marketplace and the workplace certainly dictate the need for re-examining business practices and philosophies at countless corporations.

But beneath the ready acceptance -- and the ridicule -- lies a serious problem: the potential for buzzwords to become a surrogate for thinking, as misguided managers latch on to poorly understood concepts without puzzling out what ails their companies and tailoring an appropriate response.

Blind adherence to a management theory can backfire -- damaging a company's reputation, harming its ability to compete and making managers the butt of jokes. Consider the (( accounting firm that barred the use of the term "cubicle" (too demeaning) in favor of "zone of value."

What's in a word?

Every industry has its jargon, but for sheer potential to affect the lives of workers in the trenches no other lexicon can top the burgeoning lingo of business.

Ask anybody whose job has been sacrificed to the profit gods: Does it feel better to be "downsized," or just plain fired?

Scores of terms lurk within the "popular" management books that publishers gleefully turn out by the truckload. Many of them are quickly adopted into the nomenclature of managers, who use them as a shorthand way of expressing ideas that warrant pages of explanation in management textbooks.

The wave got rolling with Tom Peters' and Robert Waterman's "In Search of Excellence" in the early 1980s, which sought to pinpoint the secrets of high-performance companies. It surged with 1993's "Reengineering the Corporation," by Michael Hammer and James Champy, which spent 26 weeks on the best-seller lists and has sold nearly 2.5 million copies. Twenty years ago, a big title in the field might have sold 40,000 copies.

At their best, experts say, buzzwords create an efficient form of communication for members of the "management club."

At their worst, they can mask managers' inability to figure out what is wrong and fix it. Rather than elucidate, they often obfuscate. And they can serve as excuses for dispiriting, shortsighted strategies -- like the downsizing craze, which now has critics decrying "corporate anorexia" (a favorite term of consultants who, having encouraged companies to chop, now want to share ideas for "growing" their companies).

Buzzwords themselves start sounding antiseptic, dehumanizing the intensely human process of managing people. "The use of these buzzwords anesthetizes you to the truth," says University of Southern California management Professor Warren Bennis.

"We're going through a redesign. Three employee committees directed by management consultants are coming up with new ideas for how to make the company more efficient. People are very skeptical. They suspect the ideas will be used to figure out whom to lay off. The word 'outsourcing' is being thrown around a lot."

4 -- Mark M., engineer at a transportation company

Robert Kreitner, who teaches management at Arizona State University, says most buzzwords are designed to eliminate resistance to change. Because many managers implement the theories without adequate thought and planning, the efforts are often doomed to fail -- a process that further compounds corporate minions' fear of new schemes.

"Buzzwords breed 'me, too-ism,' " says Kreitner, a self-appointed buzzword basher whose fingerprints nonetheless are all over a doozy: "organizational behavior modification," or "O.B. Mod."

"We're like lemmings. We run toward them and then, when the desired results aren't immediately there, we run away from them. It's a shame to run away from (solid fundamentals)."

Academics may love to hate buzzwords, but they have only themselves (and the growing legions of management consultants) to blame.

"A lot of this comes from academics who need to be writing something for the journals so they can get tenure," says Lori Breslow, a communications professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "They've really polluted the language environment."

The end of buzzwords is, of course, nowhere in sight. Many NTC managers -- and even some workers -- swear by the results, or at least like the idea of purported experts pointing them toward possible solutions.

"The value of buzzwords is that they put new ideas and thinking on your radar screen," says Barbara Kaufman, a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based consultant. "[But] you have to look at it in context: What's your organization trying to accomplish? What's the fit?"

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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