Jargon-busting: a guide

The confusing road to corporate jargon
By Alex Burden, Student Blog

27 May 2019

In your job and your studies, you are likely to be confronted with some sort of jargon, acronym or specialised contractions that are pertinent to your role. We’ve produced our own glossary of ICAS abbreviations but what about the rest of it? Follow us into the world of murky linguistics.

In 2015, the Financial Conduct Authority warned that small print with technical language can confuse clients and result in complaints. It is hoped that by introducing clearer language, the financial industry will ultimately benefit from renewed trust.

You may find an advantage to getting on board with the jargon-dispensers, but what if you don’t even know what the phrase means? Many surviving phrases and buzzwords originate from the 70s-90s worlds of corporate speak to elevate ideas or demonstrate superficial proficiency to colleagues, but the founding ideas go even further back.

In 1924, sociologist George Elton Mayo conducted experiments at Hawthorne Works, an electrical factory in Chicago. He originally wanted to know if the brightness of the lighting affected productivity – instead, he found that workers became more efficient whenever the lights were changed, regardless of what wattage.

The employees felt that their bosses were according thought to their welfare, which resulted in greater productivity. Eventually, this translated to the idea that protecting or paying attention to the emotional wellbeing of staff would enhance efficiency, which connected with the kind of language that would be used in the working environment.

The Atlantic highlighted the origins of some of our most used ‘buzzwords’, including:

  • Synergy: Psychologist Raymond Cattell is behind this one; he adopted the Protestant term for “cooperation between the human will and divine grace” – which is now synonymous with mergers and acquisitions that create greater value than the individual businesses or products.
  • Paradigm shift: Philosopher Thomas Kuhn brought this into popular culture through his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It has come to mean a significant change to a process, such as mechanising a production line. It more generally means a change in method or norms.
  • Disrupt: This one is being used more and more in the 21st century, with new business models being described as ‘disruptive’. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen devised the term; today it is recognised as innovative activity that disrupts and displaces an existing market – such as the introduction of AirBnB which has taken business from the hotel industry.

The birthplace of jargon

Peter Drucker was a management consultant, author and educator, who wrote the Practice of Management in 1954, but went on to work for General Electric in 1981. Peter set about redesigning the management culture approach, which led to the introduction of the Work-Out programme in 1989; here we have the birthplace of much of the jargon that is used today.

Low-hanging fruit (easily solved problems), rattlers (obvious problems) and pythons (bureaucracy problems) all stem from Drucker, but if he’s an originator, the management consultant company Charles Krone, pushed it to the limits.

Their leadership development programme for Pacific Bell, using a technique known as “kroning”, cost $40 million for 23,000 employees and was introduced to help employees communicate better: through phrases like ‘functioning capabilities’.

The programme was eventually called to a halt in 1987 after it was suggested that either customers or shareholders foot the bill.

The jargon continues to this day, however, and phrases that were once ground-breaking ways of communicating within an office are now irritating to many people. ‘Thinking outside the box’, ‘going forward’ and ‘let’s touch base’ were identified as the top overused jargon in a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management.

But no matter what, it has firmly embedded itself in our minds as the go-to phrases when discussing matters with colleagues.

Other slightly-nonsensical jargon phrases include:

  • Strategic staircase: You want to get somewhere and there are steps to take. Most people would call that a business plan, or a strategy.
  • Square the circle: This originally came from a mathematical problem by ancient geometers and involved compasses and a straight edge. It’s now a business byword for doing the impossible.
  • Let’s not boil the ocean: Again, a byword to do the impossible or completing a task by going overboard. A good strategic staircase could avoid boiling the ocean.


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