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An Um By Any Other Name Is Still An Um

Staying current with business jargon is as simple as taking a walk down memory lane.

Repurposing Old Ideas
Repurposing Old Ideas

 

By Colleen Walsh Fong

 

The jargon may change over time, but the same few business strategies recycle throughout the decades. About every ten years they are retitled, repackaged and rolled out as the new and improved brainchild of some budding guru, czar, or thought-leader, depending upon when the creation debuted.

 

Take white papers, which are currently in vogue. Every business, from solo practitioner to multi-national has its downloadable white paper available and just a click away. The first time I was asked to write one for a client I had no idea what she was talking about. Confident in my abilities I took the assignment anyway and then hastened back to my office, where I googled “white paper” as fast as my fingers would fly across the correct keys. I found all kinds of offers to download them from company sites. And guess what I learned after reading several? I’d been writing white papers since I was 12-years old! That’s when I got my first research paper assignment. A white paper is actually more like a “research paper lite,” but that’s all it is. A document designed to persuade readers gradually with a discussion of a problem, proof the problem exists, and various scenarios (we’ll get to that word later) for solving the problem, culminating with the very best option, which of course is the product or service the person or entity commissioning the work wants readers to choose. In the 1980’s and 90’s they were popularly known as position papers, and used widely within organizations to persuade others to take the author’s position on a matter.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first run-in with the clever repurposing process used by business thought leaders occurred in the 1980’s when the newly elected President Reagan gave a speech in which he outlined several “scenarios” to solve a pressing national problem.  We had a lot of problems that year, so I don’t remember exactly which one he addressed that night. But I was struck by how perfect the use of that particular term was for a former Hollywood actor. The next day I was surprised by the arrival of a memo from my SVP, one of the eight top execs who ran the organization I worked for. In it he gave his management team an assignment. We were instructed to individually outline the various “scenarios” we saw for handling some major organizational issue and then explain which scenario we recommended employing. It sounded suspiciously like the position paper process we were usually directed to use, but I thought “whatever” (or whatever word we were then using to convey today’s use of “whatever”.) I outlined my scenarios and recommended the one I liked best, and business went on as usual. Before the week was out everyone who was anyone was talking about this scenario and that scenario, when really all they were doing was discussing optional solutions to the day’s problems.

 

I found the rapid adoption of the new lingo amusing, but declined to participate. I’d always enjoyed the art of coining my own verbal currency. I felt it demonstrated a decent command of our language and some intellectual agility. And mostly, I really liked to play around with words. Every once in awhile I heard one of my phrases parroted back to me and attributed to someone else. It was always gratifying when that happened. But I worried about the ghastly lack of originality in our national articulation capabilities. Here I must confess that while Devo was whipping it good I lsecretly enjoyed Cole Porter songs and the score of “My Fair Lady” because the lyrics were so clever.

 

The ‘80’s were also the decade in which we repackaged “Personnel” as “Human Resources,” a move intended to add value to the function and signal to employees that they were the most valuable organizational resource. Now that we’ve so obviously devalued employees by off-shoring, out-sourcing, and cost-cutting everything imaginable (and even some seriously unimaginable things) we ought to just admit it and go back to calling the function by the former more clinical and impersonal “Personnel.”

 

And speaking of the 80’s, let’s not forget about quality circles. But let’s be honest. That ship has long since sailed and been forgotten. For the great majority who won’t remember them, quality circles were a cornerstone of the “Japanese Style Management Invasion” that took business by storm in the 1980’s. It was similar in its impact to the way the Beatles and the subsequent British Invasion revolutionized the American music industry in the 1960’s, but not as much fun.

 

When researching quality circles to prepare a position paper/scenario /white paper to present to management on implementing them to improve efficiency in our operation, I learned some very interesting things. Quality circles and other Japanese employee involvement programs were developed by American management guru/czar/thought-leader W. Edwards Deming in the 1950’s. Although America had long forgotten Deming, the Japanese imported him and his programs to help them improve the quality and image of their products. And now they were selling it back to us and we were hailing them as the business geniuses of the day when, like Dorothy Gale, we needn’t have looked beyond our own back yard. But everyone and her mother was running quality circles in the 1980’s. Until they weren’t. And then they moved on to the next business hula-hoop.

 

We stopped reorganizing and retooling in the 1990’s and started “reengineering” everything from the organization chart to the salary structure. We were “clearly” obsessed with all things technical from PC’s and Macs to cell phones. Back then we called them mobile phones and we only used them for emergencies or very important calls. It is also the decade when the word “clearly” began opening every sentence. Why does everyone start sentences with the word clearly? Because they don’t want to say “um,” and that’s what “clearly” clearly is. It’s just an um. An unnecessary word employed almost unconsciously to give a speaker or writer the pause needed for his brain to catch up with his mouth—or his thumbs, if the communication medium is texting.

 

Sometimes longer pauses are desirable for dramatic effect, or if the speaker talks really fast. So each era has its cache of 3- or 4-word um clusters. Take the phrase “if you will,” if you will. That one swept across the country in the 80’s, unnecessarily cluttering up sentences. It seemed like speakers felt it lent weight and credibility to their statements. I just wanted to ask “What? If I will what?” One of my colleagues quickly became quite fond of that um cluster after hearing our SVP say it in a meeting. Soon he was starting every thought in the normal way, and then dropping his voice an octave into Tom Brokaw range to insert a theatrical “if you will,” before giving us the meat or in the vernacular of the ‘70’s, the beef.

 

I’m really good with language evolving over time (see, I just proved it by saying “I’m good with” instead of “I approve of”) as each generation puts its stamp on our discourse. But let’s quit hailing every repackaged process as ingenious, and stop anointing the labeler as messiah. Because chances are good that he’s just written new lyrics to an old tune. And if you need to take a pause when communicating, stop whatever “um” is currently in style before it rolls off of your tongue or your fingertips, and just take a pause. It’s dramatic enough and you will retain your originality.

 

Image Courtesy of  the wet / Free Digital Photos

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Brian Moloney - The Freelance Retort March 26, 2014 at 10:41 AM
Way to think out of the box, or in the box or on top of the box...or maybe without a box at all. This was great, Colleen! I miss my greens but this was really cool. I could also say fresh phat da bomb... But cool is timeless and will live forever!

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