Beating the buzzword bingo

One of the curses of modern business is the buzzword, a perfectly good word that is ruined by constant use.

The IT industry is particularly prone to buzzwords as people try to distil complex concepts into easy to understand terms – “cloud computing” is a good example of this.

More malign in the tech sector, and many other industries, are clueless managers and salespeople who try to baffle superiors, clients and staff with buzzwords to cover their total ignorance of what their business actually does.

For the canny supplier or contractor, the buzzword-addled customer is a great sales opportunity as the customer’s managers are always grateful to buy a product tagged with some complex sounding terms they can impress others with.

The security software vendors are very good at this, as are management consultants, who’ve literally written books stuffed full of buzzwords guaranteeing them millions of billable hours.

One of the current favourite buzzwords is IPv6, the internet standard replacing the current protocol that has run out of numbers. Saying you’re IPv6 compliant even when your business is more affected by cabbage prices in Shanghai is sure to impress a few people who should know better.

Probably the greatest buzzword of the last decade was innovation. Every company, every new product and even government departments had to be “innovative” or lose credibility on the information superhighway.

Eventually, though, terms fall out of favour and innovation is one of those whose time has passed – those still dropping it into conversations today are usually 1990s MBA graduates who’ve dozed through the last five years of their professional development courses.

Watching out for those outdated buzzwords is useful not just as a sucker indicator for smart salespeople but also for job hunters.

For instance, when a company or recruiter constantly uses “innovation” in their job descriptions, you can be sure the organisation is one the least innovative on the planet, except possibly in the way management have structured their KPIs and option packages.

Generally the use of buzzwords in job descriptions or “mission statements” (another 1990s MBA fad) is inversely proportional to how applicable those terms are in the organisation.

For instance, an organisation that claims it wants employees who are “self-motivated, curious and are selfless enough to seek what’s best for the company first,” is almost certainly run by control freaks practising CYA management who mercilessly punish anyone under them foolish enough to take the initiative or ask questions.

Overall, buzzwords are a force for good, as they let savvy employees identify those workplaces and managers that are best avoided. For those of us running businesses, it could mean opportunity or danger, depending on what we’re selling to these organisations.

The greatest thing with buzzwords though is they are constantly evolving, meaning I get the opportunity to rewrite this column again in two years’ time by just changing a few words.

Innovation is already passé and “cloud” is peaking. What are the next buzzwords we should watch for and enjoy?

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.

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