Language, Deception And Power

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jul 18 2002, 05:30am hrs
While global attention is focused on accounting disclosures of leading corporate icons, there is a more pernicious aspect of American business that deserves priority attention, and that is the cacophony of empty buzzwords and messianic messages. Corporate leaders are regularly anointed by management gurus as revolutionaries and are praised for their creative destruction. No business journal ever mocked the managing partner of Accenture for claiming the firm was seeking to bring innovations that improve the way the world works and lives. Big companies and small regularly announce that theyre changing the world for the better, and some, like Enron, liken themselves to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Oil exploration and curing cancer have been put on the same pedestal.

A recent editorial in The Guardian quoted an employment ad which ran as follows: This key role manages corporate planning and performance processes within a Best Value framework to drive business improvement. Operating at a strategic level, the successful applicant will be required to manage the corporate planning function and a performance review framework, including key system processes. The job was for the Hertfordshire police force.

We are fast becoming victims of our verbal creativity, drowning in a sea of buzzwords. The MBA types hanker on about delivery outcomes and quality benchmarking, and no one can ever guess if they are in manufacturing, services or anything real. It has become very easy to create new gobbledygook for any occasion. For instance, mix up any three or more from a long list of dreamy words that have been disembodied from meaning such as integrated, balanced, transformation, response, capability, leveraging, value framework and of course the evergreen favourite, strategic and form an elegant combination that can both befuddle and impress. These blow a little smoke our way, at first making us feel good and then getting us addicted to the point that we never question the outlandish drivel.

This trend actually started in the late seventies in the US, and in education and not business. Flexibility, openness, independence: the language of almost all major universities in the US has over the years become boring, with the underlying sentiment, now gone horribly out of control, being that traditional disciplines are inventions of dubious value and a barrier to personal expression. I was a close witness to this evolution: in 1980, my university in America started an undergraduate major called Bowling Management. I am serious. You study, graduate and then go on to managing bowling alleys. It gets better. There was another programme called University Without Walls where it was possible to get a full Masters degree, no less, by taking all kinds of disparate courses, say dance, meteorology or Math for the Artist.

The US may have invented hype, but most Americans are plain speaking and irreverent enough to lampoon anything esoteric. And so, the US will move on beyond Enron and WorldCom. But we Indians take ourselves very seriously, including buzzwords we have acquired. Next to America, India is where the word strategic is used frequently to describe routine events, from ministerial delegations to buyer-seller meets. The MD of an Indian healthcare company, once every fund managers darling, said this in an interview: We are reorganizing our structure horizontally, and we plan to operationalise a system of strategically inter-linked environment with built-in management contingency. At that time, I thought that either this guy is too smart or has lots of idle time. That company is now approaching bankruptcy. The Lucknow Development Authority last week issued huge ads asking for consultants to help it prepare a vision statement. Theres a crisis of electricity, water and parking space but they need the Vision Thing.

In fact, pretentious verbosity acts as a substitute for purpose in every field. While in India some years ago, Noam Chomsky was asked a lengthy question about Post-Modernism by a smart-alecky chap. Chomskys response: Post-modernism I dont know what it is, but I suspect its a scam thought up by intellectuals. And there is no politician who hasnt said We are fighting on ideology, not personality. The combined effect of so much empty rhetoric is a society of baffled and helpless citizens.

(The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors)