Doing a deep dive into corporatespeak

If you have family or friends in the armed forces, you’re probably used to meetings and/or meals at X-hundred hours and locating people (surreptitiously) at 12 o’clock.

Published: 20th May 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th May 2018 05:48 PM   |  A+A-

If you have family or friends in the armed forces, you’re probably used to meetings and/or meals at X-hundred hours and locating people (surreptitiously) at 12 o’clock. Or getting children to fall-in when you need to do a head count and putting nut to butt (excuse my French) when you need to cram as many of them as possible into a tight space. These phrases may have started life in the forces but are used by military personnel even when they’ve changed into their civvies. You may not cotton onto them at once but this is slang that can be made sense of if you give it some thought. Which is probably why some of these terms have slipped into the general lingua franca.

The jargon that emanates from the corporate world, however, doesn’t make for a level-playing field. The listener needs a master’s degree in ambiguity or, at least, a couple of Brooks Brothers suits to be able to peel back the layers. Yet, even the most obscure terms are all-pervasive and pepper the language of corporate employees across levels. Never mind how ridiculous they make the users sound. Admit it, how seriously can you treat someone who talks of boiling the ocean, making a whitewater change or—wait for it—eating the elephant one bite at a time?

Perhaps because they have no real product to manufacture, management consultants are among the worst offenders when it comes to creating/using jargon. I worked with one at a time and had a hard time keeping a straight face at meetings as people around me plucked low-hanging fruit, herded cats and brought to the table ideas for marination. That is if they weren’t boiling the ocean or spinning their wheels. Every other noun was a verb and if something wasn’t, my colleagues would quickly incentivise it to become so. Why wouldn’t they? Solutionising problems was their core competency.

I often yearned to tell them that they needed to do a deep dive into their tendency to obfuscate but that idea wouldn’t have scaled. That was then. This week, when I heard about an index of trending corporate buzzwords compiled by Chicago-based Grant Thornton, I felt almost nostalgic.For its inaugural list, the advisory services firm has zeroed in on the 83 terms that it says were the most used by Fortune 500 players in the first quarter of 2018. The words have been drawn from company websites and social media accounts. I’ve scrutinised the list many times over and am deeply disappointed by its tameness.

Top honours have gone to the boring ‘best-in-class’ (used 71,729 times in Q1 reportedly), ‘value-add’ (56,657) and ‘game changer’ (48,862). ‘Moving the needle’ doesn’t feature even in the first 15 while ‘blue sky thinking’ is at 69. ‘Circling the wagons’ is down 57.32 percent in popularity, and stands at 54 while ‘sharpening the pencil’ has hit rock bottom—at position 83. Apparently, it was used only 33 times by the biggies in Q1.This is clearly a wake-up call. People need to pivot. Or else, corporate incomprehensibility could move from status quo to status go by Q4.

Shampa Dhar-Kamath

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