In 2004, Philip Delves Broughton was working as a journalist for the Daily Telegraph in Paris. His job made him the envy of many, but after becoming increasingly uncertain about his future in the industry, and having harboured a long standing interest in the financial world, he took the bold decision to enrol on the famous Harvard Business School MBA programme.
Instead of getting the clear and succinct grounding in business he was looking for, Delves Broughton soon found himself lost in a baffling world of doublespeak, where lecturers and students alike seemed incapable of expressing themselves in plain English. Most seriously, this, he says, was part of the reason that he – alone among the students – failed to get a job after the programme.
Delves Broughton had imagined that learning the meaning of a credit default swap would be difficult, but at Harvard, he found that even the most simple-sounding confessional exercise was rendered impenetrable through ludicrous language.
In the exercise he and his fellow students were asked to "create a developmental agenda for leveraging their reflected best-self" and "work maximally from positions of strength". At Harvard Business School, even the simple act of urinating against another student's door became a "regrettable property damage incident".
These are just the more peculiar instances of jargon Delves Broughton records in his book, What They Teach You At Harvard Business School, a chronicle of his two years at the world famous institution. Delves Broughton viewed such convoluted language with extreme cynicism, but when his accusations were put to MBA directors, several were quick to jump to its defence.
"Bashing jargon is easy and always makes you popular, but it does not mean it always makes you right," says Valter Lazzari of SDA Bocconi in Milan. Raymond Ouellet of Reims Management School in France says that, "to suggest that his failure [to get a job] might be due to jargon is quite simply foolish."
And as Chris McKenna, the director of the MBA programme at Oxford University's Saïd Business School points out, it is not very surprising that business should have a specialised language of its own.
"Jargon occurs in all walks of life, from the medical profession to the legal profession," he says. "When it happens in business, we tend to think it's ridiculous, because we imagine it should be about being clear and precise. But the fact is that if you work in management or in financial markets then there are going to be specialised words, and if you don't know them you will feel cut out."
Many of the academics questioned agreed that a lot of people who study business enjoy having their own lexicon of words and phrases which only they and their peers can understand, as it gives them an inflates sense of self-importance.
"I think some business fields like using impenetrable jargon, even if they don't need to use it, because it makes them feel more special," says Jim Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Chicago Business School. "It's like my kids talking about the latest Apple iPhone, which I don't know anything about. These names are really just shortcuts to describe an idea, but it makes them feel special."
But only the most hardened cynic would argue that business jargon is purely about sounding good. Academics maintain that if the terms are taught responsibly and the students' understanding of them is sound, they can prove to be very effective at getting to the heart of things quickly.
"In the financial world, phrases like credit default swap can be seen as jargon, but they can also be very powerful shortenings of larger ideas," says Schrager. "An appropriate buzzword is there because it is useful, and it helps you get to the issues right away without having to constantly redefine your terms."
However, there is no doubt in some people's minds that a lot of the terms generated by business academics – especially in the United States – are ultimately pointless. Séan Rickard, director of the MBA programme at Cranfield School of Management, is so irritated by some of them that he insists his students dispense with jargon when they practise writing company reports.
"I can point you to so-called learned articles which are populated with this stuff, and it's like reading a foreign language," he says. "When you manage to cut through all the jargon, clichés and God knows what else, you actually find that they're not saying very much. It's much better to be able to express yourself in plain English, and to explain things in words that everyone can understand."
Rickard, who once took part in a live radio debate with Delves Broughton about the usefulness of an MBA, also points out that British courses contain far less jargon than their US counterparts, as their students are typically older and have more real world business experience. For the ambitious young graduates enrolled on American courses such as Harvard's, jargon is seen as an easy way to access a world they have yet to experience for themselves.
"It's not that business models aren't important, and that business language is unnecessary," he says. "But when the language becomes an end in itself, that's when you have a problem."
And Harvard's view? "As Mr Delves Broughton states in his preface, the book is based entirely on his personal experience and reflects his personal opinions about Harvard Business School. We would not choose to comment on his personal experience or opinions," says a spokesperson. Well, at least that's plain.
'I now feel comfortable speaking the language of business'
Tim MacKinnon, 31, has recently completed an MBA at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School
"I came from Australia, where I was working for the Government as a ministerial adviser, so I was very familiar with jargon. There is definitely a lot of it in the business world, but to some extent, you do an MBA so you can understand it.
I didn't come from a business background, and there were consequently a lot of concepts that I didn't understand. But after one year in Oxford, I now feel comfortable speaking the language of business. Being a student on an MBA is also a good time to ask the stupid questions.
Business academics in the United States do generate a lot of jargon, but I think in the UK – and especially at Oxford – there's a level of scepticism about it and about management fads, and more of a tendency to try to avoid it whenever possible. My professors would get to the point without using jargon, in a wonderfully British, clear and understated way.
I also noticed that the practitioners who came in to talk to us from the business world would use far less jargon than some of the academic publications. So I think that when you really understand things, you don't feel the need to use it any more."
- More about:
- Harvard Business School
- Higher Education
- London Business School
- University Of The Arts London