Friday, December 25, 2009

In defense of BS (Business Speak)

Let's leverage some synergies, the comedian said and all laughed.*

This happened in the middle of a technology podcast, the sentence unrelated to anything and off-topic. Such is the state of comedy: make a reference to a disliked group (businesspeople) and all laugh, no need for actual comedic content.

Business-Speak, or BS for short, does have its ridiculous moments. Take the following mission statement:

HumongousCorp's mission is to increase shareholder value by designing and manufacturing products to the utmost standards of excellence, while providing a nurturing environment for our employees to grow and being a responsible member of the communities in which we exist.

There are two big problems with it: First, it wants to be all things to all people; this is not credible. Second, it is completely generic; there's no inkling of what business HumongousCorp is in. Sadly, many companies have mission statements like this nowadays.

Back when we were writing mission statements that were practical business documents, we used them to define the clients, technologies/resources, products, and geographical areas of the business.

FocussedCorp's mission is to to design and manufacture medical and industrial sensors, using our proprietary opto-electronic technology, for inclusion in OEM products, in Germany, the US, and the UK.

This mission statement is about the actual business of FocussedCorp. Mission statements like this were useful: you could understand the business by reading its mission statement. It communicated the strategy of the company to its middle management and contextualized their actions.

FocussedCorp's mission statement is what was then called a strategic square (should be a strategic tesseract): it has four dimensions, client, product, technology/resources, and geography. Which brings up the next point:

Most BS is professional jargon for highly technical material, just like the jargon of other professions and the sciences. So why is it mocked much more often than these others?

Pomposity is a good candidate. Oftentimes managers take simple instructions and drape them in BS to sound more important than they are. In some cases this might even be a form of intimidation, along the lines of "if you question my authority, I'm going to quiz you in this language that you barely speak and I'm fluent in."

Fair enough, but there's much technical jargon in work interactions and only BS gets chosen for mockery. Professionals and scientists do use their long words to the same pompous or intimidating effect as managers, and the comedian in the podcast is as unlikely to know the meaning of "diffeomorphism," "GABA agonist," or "adiabatic process" as that of "leveraging synergies."

I suspect the mockery of BS rather than other professional jargon has to do with the social and financial success of the people who work in business, and therefore are conversant in BS. The mockers are just expressing that old feeling, envy.

They can't play the game, so they hate the players.

* Leveraging synergies means to use economies of scope, spillovers, experience effects, network externalities, shared knowledge bases, and other sources of synergy (increasing returns to scope broadly speaking) across different business opportunities.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My measurement mistake of this morning.

Oh, my! How could I make such a beginner's mistake in such a public way?

Earlier today I tweeted:
Revealed preference matches stated preference: my favorite jazz tune is Take 5; my iTunes library has 27 versions of Take 5. (=max in jazz)
This is all true: Paul Desmond's Take Five is my favorite jazz tune. I own multiple arrangements of it, 27 of which are on my iTunes library. There is no other jazz tune for which I have more than 27 versions.

But the number of different versions one has on iTunes is not a good measure of preference. What's wrong with it? (And along the way, with other measures of preference that we might consider in alternative?)

First, there's the books by the foot effect. Some people like to have many impressively-titled books in their shelves, but have no interest in what the books say: they own, but never read, the books. Similarly, I could own 27 versions of Take Five and never listen to them.

Second, there's a supply effect. There are many versions of Take Five to choose from, but few jazz arrangements of Marin Marais's Alcione. My favorite tune might indeed be a jazz arrangement of Alcione, of which I have only the one existing version, while the 27 Take Five versions count as 27.

Maybe I should use play counts as the measure of preference. Which bring us to the next problem with being careless about measures:

If I have more play counts of Take Five than of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto (aka Rach 3), that doesn't mean I like Take Five better than Rach 3. (I don't.) The longest version of Take Five I have takes about 9 minutes; the shortest performance of Rach 3 I have takes about 33. If the play count for Rach 3 is at least 28% of Take Five's, I spend more time listening to Rach 3 than to Take Five. Given the different durations and the discreteness of the play count (if I listen to 32 minutes of Rach 3, its play count is unchanged), play counts are not good measures.

Luckily there's one good measure: choice under scarcity. But, you say, there's clearly no scarcity of variations on Take Five, and no shortage of them on my library either. True, but there's limited space on the iPods, and therefore the music that I carry in them reveals my preference. And indeed my main iPod carries six versions of Take Five.

Well, this was an educational mistake. It taught me not to go shooting off tweets with technical terms while my brain is still asleep. But at least I got a post to send to people who ask me about measurement, in lieu of addressing their specific concerns.

Eternal vigilance is the price of appropriate measurement.

Post Scriptum: Some people believe, incorrectly, that Dave Brubeck wrote Take Five. He didn't, but Paul Desmond, his long-time saxophonist, did write it for the Dave Brubeck quartet to play, so the misconception is understandable.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Managing my digital life, a continuing series

Some more observations on managing my digital life, focussing on entertainment content and on how I'm thinking of using social media in an upcoming class. I'll let revealed preference speak for itself:


Kindle books I have bought recently: Brian Arthur "The Nature of Technology," which I first got as an Audible book. John Derbyshire "We are Doomed," which is how I feel. Dominick Dunne "Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments." Dalton Fury "Kill Bin Laden," written under pseudonym by the commanding officer of the Delta Force team who went after UBL in Afghanistan. I also downloaded several free books, both ones in the public domain and some that amazon is offering for free as promotion for the Kindle platform. I'm counting on a Kindle App for the Mac soon.

Audible books I have bought recently: Matthew Crawford "Shop Class as Soulcraft." Brian Arthur "The Nature of Technology," yes, both audio and ebook. Levitt and Dubner's "Superfreakonomics." Joshua Cooper Ramo "The Age of the Unthinkable." Niall Ferguson "The ascent of Money," which I already own on dead tree. PJ O'Rourke "Driving Like Crazy," aka the case against letting PJ drive. Stephen Fry "Fry's English Delight."  Ross King "The judgment of Paris." I got two free books, one a gift from Audible to its members, Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," performed by Tim Curry, another a gift from Leo Laporte's podcast This Week In Tech, Larry Niven's "Ringworld," using the URL (Of course I have read it! But now I can listen to it.)

Books on dead tree I have bought recently: Avinash Kaushik's "Web Analytics 2.0," on paper because I want to write notes on it. Alas, the paper has a lot of bleed-through with liquid ink pens! Had to fill it with free-standing inserts and post-it notes.

Music I have bought recently: Jacques Loussier "Play Bach: 50th Year Anniversary recording," from Amazon MP3. The latest recording of Mahler's 8th Symphony by the San Francisco Symphony, with supplemental materials, from the iTunes Store. I have about 1TB of music mostly from my collection of over three thousand CDs (80% "Classical" and 18% Jazz); there's little incentive for me to buy new music.

TV Shows I have bought recently: House episode "Ignorance is Bliss," from iTunes, in HD. I'm not a complete hermit, though: I watched some episodes of other programs on Hulu and some movies on Netflix. Some even on TV!

DVDs, CDs, Magazines, Newspapers I have bought recently: (no entries found).


A school I have had a long-term relationship with asked me to teach a class there next summer. There's a lot of things to do before the class begins, which I'll start doing once the class is confirmed and I have an estimate of the enrollment.  I will also use some social media tools, so I had to create two placeholders:

First, I set up a blog for the class and reserved the Blogspot domain for it. Yes, I use Blogger and Blogspot. Cheap I am. This will be a blog about and around the topics of the class, not the class materials repository. For that the school has a very good content management system.

I'll probably post minor things to the class blog: observations about business topics related to the class, interesting or idiotic things other people write about the topic (with my enlightening comments), links to things referenced in the class, credits for materials used from online sources like Flickr and YouTube, and a list of music I play in class. Unlike my personal blog, the class blog will allow comments (by students).

Major things like supplemental handouts, solutions to class exercises, data and computational examples, rants about the improper use of "exponential" to mean "convex," and such are posted to the class repository in the official content management system. By school policy students are expected to check that repository, whereas reading the blog is optional.

Second, I set up a Twitter feed for micro-blogging specific to the class. This is where I'll tweet things like Today's @WSJ discusses the company in the case we're discussing next week: [link] and other minor observations.  Aside: I use Brizzly to manage Twitter feeds; a tip of the hat to Michael Driscoll at Dataspora for bringing it to my attention.

I considered setting up a class forum. But decided against it, since most students will be part-time MBAs and a forum might create the impression that I expect them to participate assiduously. I was once one of them and I know that time for the MBA is a limited resource, purchased with sacrifice; wasting it is disrespectful!

One important observation here, since I have written a 3500-word post on how I prepare presentations: teaching a class and making a presentation require very different skills. I seldom present anything in a class: there are case discussions, class exercises, Socratic give-and-take, and few lecturettes. Other than "define clear objectives; prepare, prepare, prepare; and then prepare some more," there is little advice on the presentation post that would bear on how I teach.


My use of Facebook is still limited to keeping a placeholder: if at some point in the future I find value in telling a limited number of people things that I can tell a broader audience using a blog and a twitter feed, maybe I'll move something to Facebook.