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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Buzzwords Hide Corporate Chaos

Memo to Associates:

In benchmarking our company's performance against a peer group since our re-engineering, we realize further rightsizing is in order to achieve the efficiencies needed to return to our core competencies. To ensure that this continues to be a high-performance workplace, we will begin outsourcing our human resources functions and convert other departments into cross-functional teams. ...

Management mumbo-jumbo like this has become fodder for pundits from U.S. humorist Garrison Keillor to cartoonist Scott Adams, whose Dilbert is the the fastest-growing strip in the United States.

Spawning the patois proliferation is an unprecedented level of corporate turmoil. Fretful managers -- desperately seeking to hold on to their own jobs -- are displaying a voracious appetite for the quick fix. Academics and consultants happily oblige, churning out management tomes -- and buzzwords -- by the score.

"People are throwing these buzzwords on the wall to see which ones stick," said Charles Wendel, co-author of "Business Buzzwords: Everything You Need to Know to' Speak the Lingo of the '90s."

Given the endless quest for a successful business model, it doesn't take long for a mouthful like "imaginization" or "activity value analysis" to take on a life of its own.

Business-ese can have its strong points. For those in the know, buzzwords can be a handy way of distilling complex theories into a digestible dollop.

But beneath the ready acceptance -- and the ridicule -- lies a serious problem: The potential for buzzwords to become a surrogate for thinking, as misguided managers latch on to poorly understood concepts without puzzling out what ails their companies and tailoring an appropriate response.

Blind adherence to a management theory can backfire, damaging a company's reputation and making managers the butt of jokes. Consider the accounting firm that barred the use of the term "cubicle" (too demeaning) in favor of "zone of value." Or ask anybody whose job has been sacrificed to the profit gods: Does it feel better to be "downsized," or just plain fired?

Scores of terms lurk within the "popular" management books that publishers gleefully turn out by the truckload. Many of them are quickly adopted into the nomenclature of managers, who use them as a shorthand way of expressing ideas that warrant pages of explanation in management textbooks.

At their best, experts say, buzzwords create an efficient form of communication for members of the "management club."

At their worst, they can mask managers' inability to figure out what is wrong and fix it. Rather than elucidate, they often obfuscate.

Buzzwords themselves start sounding antiseptic, tending to dehumanize the intensely human process of managing people. "The use of these buzzwords anesthetizes you to the truth," says University of Southern California management Professor Warren Bennis.

The end of buzzwords is, of course, nowhere in sight. Many managers -- and even some workers -- swear by the results. Or, at least they like the idea of purported experts pointing them toward possible solutions.

"The value of buzzwords is that they put new ideas and thinking on your radar screen,'' says Barbara Kaufman, a Manhattan Beach, California-based consultant. "[But] you have to look at it in context: What's your organization trying to accomplish? What's the fit?''