Finance: Does jargon add any value to business?

The period running up to the end of a year and the beginning of a new one is traditionally one of reflection. So, given the special significance of this particular year-end, it seems only right that readers should submit themselves to a little test. Simply decide which of the following descriptions best suits yourself.

1. A person who has climbed the slippery slope and has managed to stay there long enough to be recognised or to be seen as important.

2. A person who advocates the changes or other things being proposed by their organisation with the passion of an evangelist.

3. A person able to initiate action and co-ordinate others to take action successfully for a common purpose.

If the answer is 1, you are an "achiever"; if 2, a "champion"; and if 3, take a bow - you are defined as a "leader".

But, before you get too excited, it is important to realise that these are not official definitions. They are borrowed from a just-published "sceptic's thesaurus", DM's Dictionary of Alternative Management Terms. Accordingly, they come with damning subtexts.

Hence, the person who has climbed the slippery slope "may see a little further than others, though that is not a guarantee, and it may be in the wrong direction". We are told that "a culture change programme requires champions, just as it requires jockeys and sceptics", while leadership is - depending on how you look at it - "paying lip service to the idea of involving people as a means of getting your own way", "a rare phenomenon" or "a wide-ranging and complex mix of principle, motivation, morality and action".

Senior executives may well decry the book as a snide attack on business and therefore an undermining of the Government's attempts to rebuild Britain as a centre of enterprise. But we live in an age in which the Dilbert series of cartoon books depicting the downtrodden lives of office workers have become bestsellers. So this dictionary is likely to strike a chord with many.

And it is not as if the person responsible for it is some jaundiced anti- business outsider. The author - though writing under the pseudonym Peter Vaux - is an experienced management consultant. And, while he is partly setting out to have a little fun with some of the terms that have become commonplace in his field and beyond, he also has a more serious purpose.

As he writes in the preface, he wants to inform, "to offer a new way of looking at things, and perhaps, with luck, help in the process of seeing more clearly". Obviously, he believes much of the murkiness stems from the extensive use of jargon.

Experts of all sorts have long used their own words to cut corners and offer precise meanings. But it is impossible to deny that arcane and often meaningless phrases are reaching epidemic proportions in business. Indeed, so prevalent has this sort of language become that in many organisations the most popular method of livening up meetings is to play a form of Bingo that revolves around spotting a set number of catchphrases. Nor is it just business that is affected. Every area of life from the health service to organised religion has been infected by such jargon as "the bottom line" and "critical success factors".

Much of the blame can be attached to management consultants. They are increasingly pervasive, and are also particularly prone to murdering the language. This is largely thanks to their love of three-letter acronyms and their readiness to dress up the simple and obvious in complex and grandiose language to propound new theories and "solutions". Even the best find it hard to avoid phrases that seem more like streams of consciousness than ideas or insight.

But professionals and executives of all sorts are becoming guilty of latching on to the latest catchphrases and trotting them out at regular intervals, often oblivious to what they really mean. Or to the fact that they can mean very little.

"Mr Vaux" has a go at a few in his book. For example, he defines "added value" as "generally, giving the illusion of providing a little extra something for the benefit of the customer to justify a price hike" or "a means of duping the opposition into thinking you're doing something different". "Total quality control" is "a system of management which aims to maximise quality, service to the customer and effectiveness by a comprehensive approach to improvement and integration". But the author also points out that the idea of continuous improvement has been around in the best businesses for ever and concludes this entry with: "Otherwise known as thoroughly questionable criteria."

"Mr Vaux" is right to suggest that the best business people will see the humour in these definitions. They should appreciate that highly worthy business concepts can be turned into objects of fun if they are too widely used or if they are more talked about than acted upon.

But the more serious issue is that, when communication is supposed to be so important in business, so many people are failing at it. As the author writes: "Companies should spend as much time as possible in discovering how bad they are at it, and not believe their own hype."

`DM's Dictionary of Alternative Management Terms' by Peter Vaux is published by DM Productions. Telephone 01359 251092

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