No value added: Corporate tongues run amok


“…With rational syllables
I’m trying to clear the occult mind
and promiscuous violence.
My linguistic protest
has no power.
The enemy is illiterate.”
from “Vowel” – Nina Cassian (Romania)

Earlier today it felt as though the word “value” had jumped up and slapped me in the face. Thinking of all the overused applications of “value” (particularly “value chain” and “value proposition”), it has lost all meaning. And, once I posted something on Twitter about banishing this word from my vocabulary, someone else pointed out that there is no value added by value-added tax. Not for the one paying it, anyway. “How can we add value?” This question, triggering such irritation, is packed with no meaning. What do these things even mean anymore?

“Managers” (so appointed but not necessarily qualified) seem to be among the worst communicators I know. On a very surface level, I deal frequently with managers and directors who are non-native English speakers; there is some awkwardness to be expected then. Fine. What gets dicey though is how all managers of all nationalities turn into corporate cheerleader automatons – newspeak anyone? – in all the same ways. Incessant talk about value chains, low-hanging fruit and a lot of the lingo that has trickled down in large part from the management consulting industry triggers something in me. Hearing it, it immediately makes me think the person doing the talking has no idea what he is talking about. He needs these mutually understood (in this business community) BS words and expressions to obscure the fact that he really has nothing at all to say. Everyone must know it but everyone accepts it. To go outside of the confines of newspeak, to say in plain language exactly what is going on, would be a thought crime.

This wholesale adoption of meaningless language lacks precision.  All this “marketingspeak” could be reduced to just a few simple words that everyone could understand… simplify. Yet, these manager types (in fairness, not all of them are on this sinking ship) would lose some kind of self-importance and peer credibility if they suddenly started speaking straight English. In one previous job, a manager reviewed a paper I had written and had no problems with it but tried to get me to add in a list of his most beloved expressions because he felt sure it would help get other people to take it more seriously. Yes, adding “tipping point” and “crossing the chasm” and other such absurdity (he literally included a list of six or seven “additions”, which I ignored) will bolster the integrity of a data-driven case study?

I don’t know what it says about me, but it seems that I can only find real meaning in words like “value” and “strategy” in direct applications, such as “strategy” as it pertains to the a military operation and “value” as it pertains to something tangible like a “high-value asset” in the intelligence community. It is clear exactly what a strategy is in the military. It is not this vague, unclear, half-baked idea (well, it might be, actually, considering how modern militaries and warfare are going) – but in theory, it makes total sense. And value in a recruited intelligence asset is equally clear – you want information that the asset is in a unique position to obtain. End of story. In a business setting, especially when you unleash a whole unruly homeless dog shelter on it and let the mutts tinker with “strategy” and determine “value”, you are asking for it.

Layers of fluff and meaninglessness are my biggest conflicts with corporate life. I will not obfuscate the facts to comfort people who cannot let go of the pretense and poppycock of devaluing real language.

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