What's in a name?

2008

Recently the BBC ran a story on "the office-speak phrases we love to hate". It was not intended to be a survey, but email responses to the article poured in from all over the world. Here (in no particular order) are some of the 50 hated pieces of jargon that were sent to the BBC:

  • Going forward
  • Incentivise (or if you're in the US, incentivize)
  • Let's touch base about that offline
  • Loop back
  • I've got you in my radar
  • Looking under the bonnet
  • Pre-prepare
  • Forward planning
  • From the get-go
  • 360 degree thinking
  • Actioning

Other examples of "business-speak" sent to the BBC included phrases that are subtly changing the English language, such as:

  • Using "challenge" instead of "problem"
  • "conversate" used to describe a conversation
  • "How can I help in this space?" instead of "How can I help?"
  • "and also in addition …"
  • "110%" (or even 200%) instead of 100%
  • "granuality" instead of "detail"
  • and a new one sent in by one reader who said her company has now banned the word "brainstorm" because it might have negative connotations associated with fits. The suggested change? "Idea shower".

And so on.

Now many of us have probably played or at least seen the "Business BS Bingo" game which often surfaces after surveys or articles such as this. If you haven't, it's quite simple. People attending a business meeting get issued with a paper grid of 25 business phrases. The first to hear five of the listed phrases down, across or diagonally is the winner! (They are also supposed to jump up and shout out "B... S..t !" – I'm not sure whether that happens very often!)

Now you might say this sounds like a lot of fun. But the sad thing is that some of the genuinely important business phrases that have real meaning are starting to be abused - to the extent that many people now consider they belong on this list of nonsense business phrases.

As a management consultant, my particular concern is for the word "stakeholder". It made it onto the BBC's list of 50 and was cited by one TV news presenter as his personal most hated piece of jargon.

The problem is that "stakeholder" is now being used instead of customer, supplier, owner, employee, community or industry. Unfortunately, in many instances, the word is being used with no real purpose and so the real group that it is intending to describe, is not identified. It has become a "catch all".

"Stakeholder" has been around in the business vocabulary for at least the last 20 years. Serious students of organisational development will appreciate that there are only six stakeholder groups, namely: customers, suppliers, owners, employees, the community and the industry.

Stakeholder mapping of these groups is used by many successful organisations as part of their strategic planning and ongoing management to identify exactly who makes up each stakeholder group. For example, many organisational failures and disasters can be traced to the inability to identify the organisation's true customers.

Having identified this, they can go onto develop a statement of intent as to how the organisation intends to be seen by each stakeholder group – these statements then form the basis of all organisational policy. They can identify how each stakeholder group currently sees the organisation (and particularly its performance), as well as tracking organisational progress against achievement of stakeholder intent (for example the Balanced Scorecard approach).

My worry is that the word – and the idea behind it – has become misused. So misused, in fact, that managers and particularly senior managers, who have responsibility for setting the organisational direction, will see "stakeholder" as just more management nonsense and shy away from the benefits of using it as a genuine strategic tool.

I wonder what we will have to do to change this "going forward"?

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.