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.