The road to failure is paved with glib buzzwords

The road to failure is paved with glib buzzwords

What happened to re-engineering, the paperless office, zero administration costs and portable open systems? What happened to chief information officers who bet their careers on thin clients, defect-free software and the architecture of information? All those ideas seemed great but disappeared as fast as they showed up.

With the publishing of a thesaurus of managerial fads, Management Tools and Techniques, by Darrell K. Rigby, Bain & Co, 1998), the time has come to inoculate against buzzword-itis. When it becomes a chronic condition, manifested by frequent attendance at conferences that peddle such emanations, buzzword-itis can cause permanent damage to a person's capacity as a decision-maker. Sufferers can be easily diagnosed - their incomprehensible presentations suggest radical instant fix-it schema that call for new funding but without benefits that anyone can prove.

The rapid pace of technological innovation has spawned an outburst of verbal gymnastics on how to cope with rapid changes. In an era where knowledge and vaporware are peddled like detergent, the purveyors of ideas need not produce any proofs of novelty or value. Proponents of a new buzzword can rarely, if ever, show verifiable benefits.

New spins

Some buzzwords are just new spins on old ideas. For instance, Gartner Group has coined a new phrase, Zero Latency Enterprise Strategy, and labeled it "one of the most important new computing trends of the next five years". After closer examination of what it means, it's only a rephrasing of ideas I heard 30 years ago, when real-time computing was sold to me as the solution to my batch-processing difficulties.

Buzzword-itis is cheap and easy to spread. The manufacturing cost of new buzzwords is negligible, as is their distribution cost. Book reviewers, journalists and particularly consultants are always looking for a new twist and will readily spread the word. Punchy phrases such as failure-proof computing or ready, fire, aim planning are worth a lot of money on the lecture circuit and at consulting engagements.

So, if buzzwords cost little to produce, enjoy widespread popularity and can be enormously profitable, why not enjoy the experience as a form of mental stimulation? Well, buzzword-itis can be harmful - it has unintended after effects.

Mostly camouflage

Take electronic commerce or made-to-order manufacturing. Sounds great. But they will cripple your company's logistics if an order for 100 widgets is transmitted as 100,000.

Take re-engineering or concentrating on core competencies. Fantastic! But they will demoralise employees as they recognise that such wording is mostly camouflage for head-chopping.

Take data warehousing or knowledge management. Obviously useful, except that the consolidated archives become easier targets for information crime.

Take balanced scorecards or satisfaction surveys. They're known to produce meaningless statistics when the participants tell management what they think management wishes to hear.

According to some theologians, the devil exists because otherwise true goodness wouldn't be discernible. And so it goes with attractive ideas. Somebody must play the devil's advocate. Every organisation must find a way to limit the damages from unconstrained expectations that overemphasise the benefits from the latest technological miracle.

IT people are among the largest generators and most eager consumers of buzzwords.

To be trusted, they must not only lead on the upside by demonstrating what technology potentially can deliver, but also protect their clients on the downside by discussing what computers can mess up if safeguards fail.

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