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name and address jan 22, 2012
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Book Review
Corporate Failure By Design

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How language contributes to corporate failure

D uring my transition from academia to industry, one thing that really struck me is how thoroughly people in the corporate world lie to each other. We always think of "political correctness" as being epidemic in our colleges (which it is), but there's a different kind of political correctness in industry. It's called Corporate Speak, and it uses language to hide the truth just as effectively as the race- and gender-based language that we have in academia.

In academia, the purpose of P.C. speak is to gain power for your special interest minority group. It's a way of pretending things are different from the way they really are. It's also a way of winning the argument by denying your opponent's right to hold a view that is different from yours. In industry, Corporate Speak also has the same element of pretentiousness, but its main purpose is to avoid being blamed for the disaster that is about to befall your company. This disaster may have been self-induced or it may have been brought about by hordes of grievance-mongers whose ideas periodically swarm, like pestilential bats, out of our ivy-covered towers. It doesn't matter what caused the disaster. What's important is that someone else gets blamed for it.

Corporate Speak has been ridiculed enough times that most people are familiar with it. Who hasn't gotten a chuckle out of someone saying, "We will innovate frictionless deliverables from our core competencies."? There's even a website at www.dack.com/web/bullshit.html that will automatically generate examples for you.

There are many more examples: rightsizing (formerly downsizing, which means Sh*t-Canning all the people you don't like and pretending that a "reduction in force" (getting rid of the staff) is a good way to become profitable—sorry, incentivize revenue generation. Populating the "We must maximize our collaborative synergies and reinvent mission-critical collaborative infrastructures to grow the business." document. Growing the business. Directed synergy (the meaning of which one no one has ever been able to fathom). These are all ways of puffing up one's status by pretending that one is doing something highly technical and complicated, and hence deserving of not getting fired for.

The postmodernists in academia were geniuses at this, and created reams of gibberish purporting to show that language is a tool of power that is created to oppress the weak. Both P.C. and Corporate Speak are ways of pretending the world is different from the way it really is. But Corporate Speak, also known as Bureaucratese, is created not so much to oppress the weak, but to keep the speaker from becoming weak, and thereby becoming unemployed, despite the speaker's evident incompetence and uselessness in the organization.

Like every social phenomenon, Corporate Speak serves a social function. The main one is to avoid the harsh realities of the corporate world. It's no coincidence that Corporate Speak started when companies stopped treating employees like people and began treating them as "human resources" to be exploited (or "raped" as the environmentalists put it, at least when they're talking about trees, oil, and other stuff that Gaia produces). But it also serves several other functions:

  1. To create a barrier of entry, keeping out those unversed in the jargon (the ingroup/outgroup phenomenon).
  2. To create an illusion of technical knowledge, thereby improving job security by pretending that the speaker's job function is complex, worthwhile and important.
  3. To divest oneself of responsibility for failure by using passive voice: "Mistakes were made," which really means "Whoops-a-daisy!"
  4. To avoid personal anger in response to an action. Calling a mass firing a "category management initiative" makes it sound impersonal and makes it less likely the manager will get postalized.
  5. To show that one is hep, I mean hip, to the current buzzwords.

I'm closer to the "Get off of my lawn" stage of language utilization myself. But Corporate Speak isn't just silliness. Its purpose is to impede the flow of information. Knowledge is power. By keeping knowledge away from those who need it, and depriving those at the top from having contact with reality, it contributes significantly to corporate failure.

There was a famous Twilight Zone episode in which Billy Mumy played a small boy who had somehow acquired the power to make anything happen by wishing for it. The boy would "wish" anyone who wasn't nice enough to him to go "into the cornfield," which meant killing them and removing them from sight. His family, what remained of them, had to tell him constantly that what he had done, no matter how evil or horrifying, was "real good." It was a perfect analogy to the corporate world, where the boss must always be told what he or she did was "real good," lest the employee find him- or herself in the corporate cornfield—standing outside the building, with two bruised upper arms, in the rain, next to a pile of boxes.

Billy Mumy in The Twilight Zone You're fired

Not every corp­orate manager is as cut off from their subord­inates as that little kid was, but those who are cut off invariably also lack insight about why their company always seems to be on a death spiral. Their management style prevents them from recognizing that they, not their employees, are the problem. The fact that phony corporate speak has displaced meaningful communication might be a clue.

Corporate Speak Phrase Guide
Corporate Speak English
We have many challenges ahead of us. We are circling the drain.
We need to enhance our competitiveness. Everyone is being replaced with immigrants from Bangladesh.
We are excited about our new direction. The grand jury did not find the old boss's testimony convincing.
We will reinvent mission-critical collaborative infrastructures. Your jobs are all being outsourced to our new factory in China.
We will monetize frictionless deliverables. There is much profit to be made from selling illegal drugs.
We deliver compelling e-business experiences. We add animated Flash, bouncing colored balls, and spyware to your website.
Incentivize revenue generation Threaten the staff into working harder for the same salary
We will disintermediate cutting-edge paradigms. We have stolen everything out of your 401k's.
Directed synergy Our synergy is being pointed, or "directed" in a specific direction ... or something.

If viewing on a cell phone, drag table left or right to scroll.

In such a company, you would never say, "We're going down the drain!" even if you have pie charts and powerpoints to back it up. You have to say, "We have many challenges ahead of us." If you said this in a negative way, you'd end up in the cornfield faster than you can say "You're a bad man. A very bad man!"

The rationale is that telling the naked truth is not "constructive" enough. If you're going to point out a problem, it only serves to undermine what precious little morale still exists unless you say it positively and propose a viable solution. But this ignores a basic point: your solution will simply be ignored unless those in charge recognize that there's a problem urgent enough to require it. By allowing everyone to run around painting little smiley-faces on everything, corporate language gives management a sense that things are getting better, while preventing them from recognizing the seriousness of their situation. So they don't feel any need to take drastic action when it's needed.

In my profession—science—the truth is paramount. When someone's theory is incorrect, or if their data have been misinterpreted, we say, "Your theory is incorrect" or "Your conclusion is not supported by the evidence." It might sound blunt, but it's not intended to hurt their feelings. That's because in science, we accept that finding the truth is the only important goal. We could use more of that in the corporate world.

I know of one organization, a small biotech company, whose economic model was not viable. They were bleeding cash. They had only one product, which everyone in the organization (except the guy at the top) knew had zero chance in the marketplace. They still had an R&D department, but their researchers were prohibited from making discoveries. The scientists were only allowed to work on projects that furthered the development of this one product. Stray from this line, for instance by discovering something new, or by hinting, however tactfully, that there might be a problem, and you would be fired. Eventually, R&D came to be seen as a cost liability—it used resources but didn't produce anything.

Undoubtedly, from management's perspective, it was probably a case where "Those guys in R&D are always badmouthing the product." What that really means is: if there's a problem, we don't want to hear about it, and you better not tell us about it if you want to continue working here. R&D eventually got the message, and stopped giving management the information they needed to keep the company afloat.

The sad thing was, if management had listened to their employees, they could have easily turned their company around. But management set up communication barriers to block the upward flow of information, because as far as they were concerned, the employees understood nothing important. Their opinion was not wanted. It was as if management wanted the company to go under.

In such a world, how do you tell your boss their economic model is unviable? There is only one way: to quit before the company goes under. Right now, talking with your feet is the only real language the corporate world understands. Everything else, the language that happens when their lips are moving, is a lie. If you've ever wondered why this country seems to be losing ground economically, now you know one of the reasons. It doesn't have to be this way.