The Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, was an expert in the philosophy of language and famously stated that, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” referring to the idea that our understanding of the world is predicated upon our ability to have concepts and tools to deconstruct meaning from it, which is contained within language. This seems to be a very prescient concept, concordant with the modern zeitgeist. We use our words in a very measured and nuanced way, mindful of their connotations in a politically sensitive age. This seems particularly true of the corporate business world, which is riddled with buzzwords and corporate management speak, and almost indecipherable acronyms. Boardrooms may often be replete with “blue sky thinking” espoused by “thought leaders” and “influencers” versed in the teachings of Agile and Lean methodologies, referring to SLA’s, KPI’s, or even EBITDA. Corporate spiel may be a way to imbue something rather mediocre or unimpressive with the superlative, elusive guise of professionalism; even hitting a machine to make it work can be rebranded as “percussive maintenance.”
The usage of corporate jargon seems to have certain benefits in the business world, it can be considered to lend a certain authority and gravitas, and communicate meaning quickly of an established concept like the Agile workplace methodology, which places its emphasis on collaborative working and adapting quickly to change. It helps to build a sense of community and workplace culture, for instance if everyone is using Agile, practitioners need to be immersed in its concepts, like “the Daily Stand-up,” and the “Scrum Framework.”
In such a politically sensitive era, corporate jargon allows for a lot of codified nuance and euphemism, like the phrase “managing expectations,” which can be delicately used when there may be miscommunication between different parties about the prospects of a situation and it may mean carefully lowering their expectations.
Jargon can also be useful for consolidating a brand’s identity and public relations, or managing bad press. In these aspects, using nuanced language is vital, and its inherent ambiguity can provide a benefit.
However, and partially for some of the same reasons that it can be beneficial, corporate jargon is frequently criticised for a wide range of reasons from being clichéd and confusing to being intimidating and insincere. This critical view has been publicly championed by The Plain English Campaign, an organisation which was set up in 1979, to campaign against the use of jargon and misleading public information. They assist government departments and other official organisations with their documents and publications.
Whatever your viewpoint, it seems that for now jargon is an intrinsic part of the business world, clichéd and ridiculous as it may seem at times, so it may be advantageous to be familiar with some of these signature phrases.
A humorous guide to some key buzz-words:
- “Blue Sky Thinking,” dictionary definition: to think creatively in a way which is unconstrained by current practice, but may be shorthand for: executive, corporate parlance for browbeating your “creative” subordinates into eliciting supposedly radical and abstract ideas for rejuvenating your flagging company strategy.
- “Think Outside the Box,” dictionary definition: very similar to the above, and having its origins in 1970s/1980s management strategy, when employees were tasked to solve “nine dots” puzzles which required lateral thinking. People are liable to label themselves “out of the box thinkers” with a sense of blind optimism.
- “Does it Wash its Own Face?” dictionary definition: a business venture being able to break even financially. May be shorthand for: “Is this investment really worth our time/money?”
- “Touch Base,” or “Touch Base Offline,” dictionary definition: to meet up and talk about business related matters. May be shorthand for: “I want to micro-manage you under the guise of a friendly, informal chat.”
- “Low Hanging Fruit,” dictionary definition: the most easily achieved tasks or targets which help to accomplish the business’s objectives without requiring much effort. May be shorthand for: a company strategy when everyone is too unimaginative to come up with more ground-breaking strategies so they fall back on a simple tried and tested method.
- “Boil the Ocean,” dictionary definition: to undertake what seems to be an impossible task or to make a task needlessly difficult. May be shorthand for: “You’ve gone totally overboard and wasted your and our time with an unachievable, delusional scheme.”
- “Deliverables,” dictionary definition: the tangible product that will be provided when a project is completed. May be shorthand for: “Is this investment really worth our time/money?” or “This is a non-negotiable target that must be met and the whole success of this venture rests upon it.”
- “I Don’t Have the Bandwidth,” – dictionary definition: relating to the use of the internet, a measurement of the amount of information that can be sent between computers or through a phone line etc. In terms of a workplace idiom it means that the person stating it does not have the capacity or time to deal with a requested task. May be shorthand for: “You are not important enough for me to deign to help you.”
- “Thought Leader,” dictionary definition: referring to someone who is on the cutting edge of their specialised field and recognised as an authority on the subject, who is often sought after and rewarded for their expertise. May be shorthand for: someone who knows a moderate amount about a specific field and wants to embellish their CV with an impressive sounding accolade.
- “Going Forward,” dictionary definition: an expression which indicates a progression in time from the present regarding an idea or practice etc. May be shorthand for: “In the future we expect you to have a totally different approach to this.”
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