The corporate world may be awash with buzzwords but less than 10% of senior managers understand what they actually mean, new research by Financial Times Publishing suggests.
A survey of almost 1,000 executives found that the overwhelming majority were “quite unable” to correctly explain the jargon they use on a daily basis. Terms such as “future-proofing”, “core competency” and “leverage” stumped all but a quarter of respondents while less than half knew the definition of “paradigm shift” or the difference between “strategy” and “tactics” in a commercial or managerial context. Just 9% were able to accurately match a list of 10 words and phrases commonly used in modern business lexicon with a description of their proper meaning.
But despite their “admittedly ignorant” understanding of “very confusing” management speak, respondents relied on an average of five buzzwords each day. These are incorporated into presentations, meetings, reports, emails, and face-to-face conversations. Most believed doing so made them “look more professional or intelligent”, or that it “cemented my position of authority”. A small number genuinely believed that what they were – inaccurately – communicating did, in fact, make sense.
Others, still, admitted they often “blagged it” and “hoped that no-one would ask them to elaborate”.
The research was conducted by Financial Times Publishing to mark this month’s publication of its new business guide, How to Think Strategically: Your Roadmap to Innovation and Results. Co-authors Professor Davide Sola and Professor Jerome Couturier said the consequences of misusing or miscommunicating corporate lingo could be costing UK businesses tens of millions of pounds each year.
Sola, a Professor of Strategy and Management at ESCP Europe, the world’s first business school, said: “This research reinforces what we currently know about business buzzwords – namely, that they are oft overused and, in the majority of cases, seemingly misunderstood.
“Using corporate spiel in order to appear more intelligent, or simply because it sounds ‘good’, is clearly not the best method of communicating a direction or message.
“At best, staff and colleagues are left confused or ambivalent. At worst, it costs businesses money as stakeholders are unable to understand the objective and take longer to bring projects or tasks to practical fruition.”
“A prime example is with the term ‘strategy’. Many people in business, even at management level, are very confused about what strategy really means and this leads to hit-and-miss results with as many bad business decisions as good ones.”
Couturier, also a Professor of Strategy and Management at ESCP, added: “’Buzzwords’ are not, by themselves, to blame. Like most other words in the English language, most represent a specific meaning or concept and, when used in the right context, can be an effective way of communicating a vision, target or objective.
“The trick is to use them only when strictly applicable. If in doubt, stick to clear and simple English.”
The use of buzzwords in the business marketplace is nothing new, and their popularity – especially among executives and senior managers – shows no sign of abating. From ‘swim lanes’ – being tasked with a specific responsibility – to ‘moving the needle’, or generating a positive audience reaction, the corporate lexicon is richer, and more confusing, than ever.
But the latest research reveals that only a fraction of those who use business lingo in their working environment understands what it really means.
Sola and Couturier straw polled 960 men and women in management positions with a view of ascertaining how often buzzwords were used, and to what extend they were understood. They were given a list of 10 of the most common buzzwords and asked to pair them with their correct meanings. Only 9% were able to match all 10. When questioned about specific meanings, just 26% understood “future-proofing”, “core competency” and “leverage” – three of the most common buzzwords – while 49% understood “paradigm shift”. Some 19%, meanwhile, were unable to differentiate between “strategy” and “tactics” and thought they were “essentially the same thing”. Respondents used an average of five buzzwords on a daily basis. The most common reason for doing so was said to be “looking professional or intelligent”, 26% , and “cementing position of authority”, 53%. The remainder was made up of people who used the terms because they “felt they needed to” (6%) and because “it is expected” of them to do so by employees or colleagues (15%).
Sola, whose book outlines good business strategy, said: “It appears that a major problem among organisations is a tendency to believe that dropping buzzwords into meetings or conversations is in some way expected.
“This exacerbates the problem because colleagues, staff and board members will then feel obliged to do the same.”
10 most used but misunderstood business buzzwords:
10. “core competency”
9. “blue sky thinking”
5. “elevator pitch”
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