The New English Babble: Or The Words You Must Now Know To Get On In Life

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The Independent Online
IT USED to be said in the bad old industrial Britain of the 1960s and 1970s that management and workforces 'did not speak the same language'. A great deal has changed since then on both sides, much of it doubtless for the better, but one thing has not. The language gap is still there, indeed it is probably wider now than ever.

Up and down the country, in private and public organisations, a new breed of managers is taking over, and what they speak is often not recognisable as English. When they open their mouths or commit their thoughts to paper, what spills forth is an amalgam of euphemism and jargon that is beyond the understanding of lay people.

Some talk of 'the cost-benefit matrix', 'core conditions', 'frameworks', 'performance review', 'flexibility' and 'strategic and pro-active responses'. Others of 'mission statements', 'business plans', 'audit facilitators' and 'exchequer service managers'. And with this language goes some particular habits, most of them associated with a constant, almost obsessive desire to count, measure and define things.

We live in the age of job insecurity. Even the steady, grey jobs of yesterday are no longer safe today. London alone lost 86,000 banking, insurance and business services jobs between 1992 and 1993. Few of us can count on being in the same job ten, five or even one year from now. Nobody would blame this on the new managers or their language, but one thing is sure: if we want to survive in the workplaces of the future we all need to understand this language.

The case of one person who crossed the picket line at the BBC strike last week highlighted the plight of the ignorant employee. 'I've just been given an 18-page review of my programmes to fill in,' he said. 'One section is headlined Efficiency and one Effectiveness. What the hell is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness?'

In the National Health Service, which, like the BBC, has been a target of new management techniques intended to increase efficiency (and effectiveness), the trade union Unison has kept records of the babble and its accompanying oddities.

The Department of Health, for example, has attempted to claim that the sick no longer die but have 'negative patient episodes' and to reclassify complaints as 'negative performance indicators'.

The Brighton Health Care Trust has a 'Sellotape Working Party', complete with four managers, which John Spiers, the trust chairman, established to 'eliminate irrelevant notices'.

The union also quotes a 200-word definition of a bed from the Value for Money Unit of the NHS Directorate, which begins: 'Bed: A device or arrangement that may be used to permit a patient to lie down . . .' and then gives five paragraphs of further explanation.

At the BBC, few would deny that alienation provoked by the management's way of speaking contributed to the strikes. 'It's like dealing with an alien life form,' said one member of staff. 'The BBC prides itself on making sure the public can understand every word it broadcasts. But inside we've been taken over by management consultants and their disciples who are earning a fortune by talking rubbish.'

Rubbish is probably not the appropriate term. The words and phrases usually have meanings - although better, simpler ones are usually available. And the words matter since, as our accompanying glossary shows, many of them - delayering, delevelling, downsizing and flattening - are euphemisms for three of the most important words of all: 'You are fired'.

Some may find consolation in the fact that managers themselves, particularly middle managers, are also victims of these processes: they also get fired.

Tom Peters, the American author of the best-selling In Search of Excellence (and whose columns appear in the Independent on Sunday Business section), is considered by many to be the high priest of the new management ways. Last week he was in London to deliver the message that 'flattening' white-collar workers was essential if firms were to get closer to their customers.

Chaos and excitement are vital for success in business, he said before a pounds 500-a-head seminar for British managers. Middle-class professionals are suffering 'uncertain times' now because they were used to pampered lives in Xerox, IBM and the oil companies in the past and were, as a result, 'incapable of real work'.

At the London-based Institute of Management, researchers have no doubt that global competition, new technology and shrinking corporations are bringing disorganisation into tens of thousands of previously well-ordered managerial lives.

A survey of 5,000 managers, which will be published later this year, has found that significant minorities expect that they will have to work from home, become consultants or earn, if they can, a living as a freelance. Promotions are decreasing and demotions increasing, the managers report. Stress is on the rise everywhere.

The BBC and NHS, the most high-profile management experiments in Britain, are exceptions in this respect. Cameramen and nurses may face hazardous futures, but administrators have never had it so good. This is mainly the fruit of the audit obsession: so determined are managements to measure performance, opinion and results that they are having to hire large numbers of managers to do it.

But New English Babble is not just about sacking. Beside the language of delayering and flattening there is a democratic vocabulary of empowerment, ownership, work teams and participative management.

Neil Millward, a former civil servant at the Department of Employment and now a senior research fellow at the Policy Studies Institute, believes that all this is largely fraudulent. There is no new attempt to communicate to staff, he says, and few employees have any way of contributing to the operation of their workplace.

The decline in trade unions has not been met by new methods of representing employees' interests and views, his study The New Industrial Relations found. 'The management gurus who come up with these phrases do not address the growing world of sweatshop, non-union Britain,' he said. 'There is a gap between language and reality. Employees in Britain, unlike those in virtually every other European country, just do not have the mechanisms to bring their influence to bear. We keep looking to America.'

American management gurus, American language, American practices. Some Americans, conscious of their own economic decline, are surprised we listen. Cary Cooper, who came to Britain to become Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says: 'The US has more aggressive management and less real employee participation than Europe or the Far East. It's bizarre that British managers look to it when the real success stories are Japan, Korea and Germany.'

Tom Peters was asked last week why Britain continued to seek inspiration from the US, in spite of the American economy's recent failings. 'I don't know,' he said. 'I'm dumbfounded.'


AUDIT: Every activity, no matter how trivial, must be accompanied by an audit. Once an accountancy term, this is now used to lend an air of importance to the humblest exercise in checking or measuring, viz transparency audit, stress audit, technology audit, light bulb audit.

BRITISH STANDARD 5750: Say you comply with this. It is an official measure of quality intended to ensure that goods and services reach a consistent standard and that quality is monitored in every activity a firm undertakes. A cynical view is that complying with 5750 does not guarantee better widgets, just consistent widgets, possibly consistently bad ones. You do not of course subscribe to this cyncial view.

BUDGETS: Never mind about the product, this is the be-all and end-all of management, the font and instrument of power. People who run it get performance-related pay; people who don't run it get downsized.

BUSINESS PROCESS RE-ENGINEERING: A phrase to be used liberally in all meetings. It means looking at how work is done and attempting to improve customer satisfaction with results. Lots of audits are needed. Closely associated with flat hierarchies.

BIRT, JOHN: Your role model. The Director-General of the BBC is highly paid (if not always highly taxed) and a master of New English Babble. He is changing the culture of the BBC by setting up an internal market that requires producers of programmes to 'buy' services and technical skills from other BBC departments, or to outsource them. This has meant hiring more middle management and management consultants, and has caused strikes, all of which help identify victims for future downsizing.

CHOICE: Use this word a lot. Widen it, extend it, enlarge it, even increase it. Choice is always a good thing so long as it is compatible with company aims.

Competencies: (Also competences; no relation to incompetence.) Important-sounding way of describing what you can do. Staff can be judged by checking off a list of (or auditing) each person's competences. There are also core competencies, the belief that companies should concentrate on what they do best. This usually means downsizing.

COMPETITIVE SALARIES: Two distinct meanings, not to be confused. Competitive salaries are low for workers - who must compete against workers' salaries in the Far East. But they are high for managers - who must compete against managers' salaries in the US.

CULTURE: What you are changing by using all these words. Nothing whatever to do with opera or literature.

CUSTOMERS: Anyone who uses a service, public or private; paid for or free. British Rail does not have passengers and Dulwich Park does not have visitors (see picture); they have customers. You change the name, the theory goes, and your staff will have a whole new attitude.

DELAYERING: Sacking middle managers to produce a flat company. Also known as delevelling.

DOWNSIZING: Firing staff. See rightsizing.

DRAINS-UP MEETING: American expression meaning a meeting to sort out a problem. Based on clearing a drain by sticking a rod up it. Likely to be fashionable here, but only briefly. Use it now.

EFFECTIVENESS/EFFICIENCY: Companies become more effective if they are leaner, fitter and meaner as a result of delayering, downsizing etc, and more efficient by getting fewer people to do more work.

EMPOWERMENT: Employees are 'empowered' when they are able to get on with their work with the minimum interference from management. Managers talk about this but are usually not quite ready to deliver it. The 'power' in question is imaginary and has nothing to do with European ideas about giving workers the right to seats on the board.

EUROPE: A dangerous place, full of successful economies that allow workers' representation on boards and social and trade union rights. Never refer to Europe, except as a market; the only models for managers are in the US.

FLAT: Successful firms are flattened firms ie they have eliminated middle managers from their hierarchies to bring organisations closer to customers.

HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGERS: Used to be called personnel officers. The 'human resources' are so called to distinguish them from other resources such as cash, computers, company cars etc. The HRM's main task in the 1990s is to tell the human resources they are being downsized.

INTERNAL CUSTOMER: Colleague or workmate, as in 'I've got to see some internal customers for a drains-up meeting'.

INTERNAL MARKET: Theory that companies and public corporations such as the BBC and NHS can be made more efficient by establishing hundreds if not thousands of business units, each of which is a customer or supplier to the others. Result: growth in the number of middle managers and consultants, many of them engaged in audits to see if the internal market is working. These managers in turn require human resource management. Downsizing is usually required to cover the cost.

JUST-IN-TIME: Japanese system for speeding up production and cutting costs. Companies supply what is needed when it is needed, rather than building up stocks in warehouses. Use freely; almost doesn't sound like jargon.

LEARNING ORGANISATIONS: These are structures filled with 'knowledge workers' who will increasingly divide their work into a variety of areas of endeavour, or portfolios, according to the theorist Charles Handy. He says organisations depend for success on the level of learning and training of their workforces. Few signs of this being put into practice in modern Britain, although managers seem to get plenty of training.

MANAGEMENT CONSULTANTS: Notionally more objective and 'cheaper in the long term' than thinking for yourself. They tend to stick around longer and cost more than you expect and tell you what you know already. Good with overhead projectors.

MARKET TESTING: A form of competitive tendering. The public sector is commercialised by forcing civil servants to bid against private contractors for the right to manage their work. The Government aims to market test the whole civil service and save money in the process. This will of course change the culture. European law restricts a successful contractor's ability to sack the public sector workforce or cut its pay. Enthusiasm for the idea has declined as a result.

MEETINGS: As always, these are the operating theatres of management, but now they are themed: target meetings, strategy meetings, transparency meetings, effectiveness meetings. A new trick is stand-up meetings, with no chairs supplied (keeps them on their toes).

MIDDLE MANAGERS: In reality you may be one of these, but you never admit it. As in fashion, where there are only top models and supermodels, so in modern business there are only senior managers. Middle managers are history (except in the BBC and NHS) because theory requires that they be flattened.

MISSION STATEMENT: Rallying cry for employees: 'world-beating company', 'high-quality products', 'effective customer service', 'increased choice', 'empowered staff'.

OUTSOURCING: Buying services from outside contractors when and if they are needed rather than employing full-time staff within a firm. BBC TV's Vera Lynn programme last week was outsourced.

OWNERSHIP: It helps employees to feel empowered if they have the 'ownership' of the company philosophy. As with empowerment, not to be taken literally; it just means an HRM has read them the mission statement.

PARTICIPATIVE MANAGEMENT: Treating employees as human beings capable of having a view on how the job should be done. Act enthusiastic about this, but proceed cautiously.

PERFORMANCE INDICATORS: Provided you decide how these are calculated, they will always prove that your ideas are working, or that somebody else's aren't. Like audits and management consultants they are expensive, but you can't expect efficiency to be cheap.

PERFORMANCE-RELATED PAY: Pay freezes for everyone except management (see competitiveness, performance indicators).

Portfolio jobs/careers: People who are being downsized are told that jobs for life are a thing of the past and they should think of working for a 'portfolio' of several firms or have a 'portfolio' of different careers. In practice many older, unskilled and unlucky workers find their portfolios are empty.

RIGHTS: A tricky one. Management must have the right to manage - that is, to make decisions without opposition from the staff, unions, employment laws or government. Workers, by contrast, must not have the right to work or the right to representation.

RIGHTSIZING: The word downsizing has an unfortunate, negative sound to it, so it is being replaced by rightsizing, which implies a company is doing the right thing by sacking people.

TOTAL QUALITY MANAGEMENT: Method of eliminating production faults through a philosophy of continuous improvement in every process of planning, production and service. The American originators of this idea insist that 85 per cent of production faults are management's responsibility. Naturally, these ideas were ignored in the West; it was only when Japanese firms made them work that Western managers had to pay attention.

TRANSPARENCY: This helps with ownership and empowerment, and is vital to participative management. It is achieved by endless repetition of the mission statement and by pinning graphs of performance indicators on notice boards. (Nobody ever expects management consultants to be transparent, which is one of the things that makes them useful.)

WORK TEAMS: Concept arising from the theory that business is a series of projects carried out by small groups of people with complementary skills. A term to use freely; you will give the impression of changing the culture, but you won't have to do anything.

VISION: What senior executives need to survive. Vision is acquired by attending regular mountain retreats for long weekends of brainstorming, outdoor pursuits and company largesse.

(Photograph omitted)