Corporate Language: Old Wine In A New Bottle? – OpEd


Words are constantly being reimagined, repurposed and synonymised. This process leads to other words falling out of favour with users and even becoming redundant.

Take the example of the current favourite corporate jargon ‘agile’. Corporate communication has unceremoniously given flexible and nimble the pink slip. Wildlife documentaries point out the fact that being agile, nimble or flexible are prerequisites to survival. So being agile, flexible or nimble is actually par-for-the-course to be ahead of the pack – something that denizens of the natural world inherit and the corporate world desires. 

So why the need to periodically repackage and sell old wine in a new bottle?  Given that corporates inherently have to evolve and adapt to remain profitable, the use of new terms is more about communicating to the world that they are attuned to contemporary challenges and in control than to suggest a new way of working. In fact, these new terms become the raison d’être for internal reshuffles, creating flat organizations, and transforming for growth or in lay man’s terms sacking people. Though such eventualities are nothing new, combined with terms like agile they give the appearance of corporates being responsive and ‘future proofing’ themselves. 

Ensuring a competitive edge also hinges on employees. What was once Personnel Relations Department, Personnel Management Department evolved into Human Resources Department (HRD), and even People and Organisation. The evolution of these names is recognition of the changing business perception of employees – now seen as ‘Talent’. Today, within HRD there are Talent Acquisition and Talent Retention teams. Is this because employees have become better at their jobs? Or are employees more discerning while choosing employers? Or do employers want to reduce costs of employee churn? 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines talent as ‘a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught’. Given that today new joiners need to be trained in everything – from corporate ethics to navigating inhouse corporate systems – the idea of talent is more about being open to learn and the individual’s inter-personal skills. As a corollary, ‘talented’ is an investment that must provide a return. 

Other words like ‘pivot’, ‘align’ and ‘socialise’ are also part of today’s business language. Within corporates, pivot means changing business direction while align is used to indicate professionals working together for an objective.  Socialise describes informing colleagues and getting their point of view. These new terms describe old and necessary practices for any business to function. Businesses won’t survive if they don’t respond to external push and pulls. Responding to change requires all employees to work concertedly which can only happen if they are informed.  

But Socialise has competition. Many in the business world prefer to use the term Cascade. Both terms, mean informing others.

So, putting into today’s business jargon an old business practice – to remain profitable corporates need to be Agile so as to be able to Pivot. This can only be accomplished when employees are Aligned. However, for that to happen business decisions need to be Socialised. These are all processes, it is the employees who give life to these activities. It is for this reason that corporates seek Talent.

Probably, businesses use new words to indicate a change in the way employees are handled. But use synonyms to proclaim the re-invention of the wheel. ie. a different way of conducting business.

Will corporates ever stop creating and using corporatese? I think not, given that even ‘stop’, which Merriam-Webster explains as ‘Discontinue’ has got a corporate makeover. ‘Hard-Stop’ is now the no-nonsense term used to indicate a non-negotiable cessation.

Samir Nazareth

Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites.

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