Magazine article Management Review

What's the Next Business Buzzword?

Magazine article Management Review

What's the Next Business Buzzword?

Article excerpt

Buzzwords, the words you love to hate. As sure as ants at a picnic, there's a new bunch of them on the corporate horizon.

Obviously, Webster wasn't referring to reengineering or downsizing or empowerment or TQM. Right?

Or zero defections or MBWA or stewardship or EVA.

Or core competency or just-in-time or pay-for-performance.

Or [your favorites here]...

How can corporate America operate without buzzwords? They will be with us always because business organizations are a ready market for them. How many acronyms or buzzwords can you recite that are in common use in your own company? These are internal short-cuts. To outsiders, they might be little understood, but to everyone in the organization, they make perfect sense.

We typically speak in shorthand in our workplaces. For many of us, the set of buzzwords has become a specialized jargon that doesn't leave room for grammar and full sentences. In fact, as new hires, the more quickly we learn the buzzwords of our new workplace, the more comfortable and more acclimated we feel.

So, business is a ready market for the latest buzzword generated by consultants, authors, speakers, teachers and academics - all of whom are searching for the perfect word that cuts through the haze to the heart of the matter. Sometimes they are facetious. What of companies who pride themselves as global thinkers but who really act locally? Are they engaging in globaloney? Or companies who embrace the Internet without careful forethought. Are they engaging in cyberschlock?

But because they usually describe a large and complicated picture, buzzwords are easily co-opted by everyone and usually wind up with a lightweight or negative connotation or fade into obscurity.

Take management by objective, the buzz-phrase coined around Peter Drucker's work in the 1950s. It has fallen into disuse except by the likes of Hewlett-Packard, which incorporated the practice into its founding culture and has continued to use it.

Robert Kreitner, senior lecturer and professor of management at Arizona State University, equates buzzwords with the economic theory holding that bad money drives out good money. "Buzzwords are the literary equivalent of Gresham's Law," Kreitner says. "They will drive out good ideas. For example, the ideas behind TQM will live forever. It's a classic. But people throw out the principles with the buzzword."

Kreitner goes on to cite Drucker's management by objective. "It became a buzzword, took on thousands of other names," he says. "It was about how powerful goals are as a motivator. I can give you a wheel-barrowful of research saying this. But [after the buzzword] it never came back."

Kreitner says he is trying to get into the psychology of buzzwords because they are appealing and play with our minds. Many times they are associated with wonderful business concepts, he says, and looks at three:

Reengineering. "The concept of a horizontal organization, customer-driven. It's compelling. It taught us the value of using modern information technology effectively."

Economic Value Added (EVA). "The beauty of that is you're measuring pure productivity."

Corporate anorexia. "Actually, I like this one - a good buzzword to pick on, a catchy term. When you cut an organization, you cut fat and cancer or you cut so deeply that you've cut meat and you die. This is cost-cutting run amok."

Kreitner challenges businesspeople to go beyond buzzwords. He suggests asking a random sample of 10 people ("professors, writers") to define a given buzzword. "I'll bet you come up with 10 different answers," he asserts. "We think we're communicating, but we're not. Buzzwords are ultimately too superficial, lazy [ways of] communicating. …

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