The Changing Business Lexicon

By Dr. Barry Mayhew

I am often bemused by comments, mostly subtle, made by my two grown-up offspring suggesting that I am essentially obsolete when it comes to understanding what is going on in the world of business and industry today.

Clearly, there have been a few changes that have had a significant impact on the way in which business is conducted today. Perhaps the most notable has been in the field of information technology. More specifically, I am referring to data storage and retrieval. What once required a full wall of filing cabinets for the storage of documents has been replaced by a microchip no larger than a penny.

The personal computer has also been revolutionary by giving employees immediate access to information in a matter of seconds and the ability to communicate instantly with colleagues anywhere in the world. Email has largely replaced the fax machine and the inter-office memorandum as a means of inter-office communication.

There is, however, a downside to this new age of instant communication. A close friend, a communications specialist in a government ministry, recently returned from a two-week vacation to find about 200 emails in her computer. I asked her how many were really important. Her answer was, “probably about 10.”

There are probably a few more notable changes that have occurred in the past 25 to 30 years but other than that, I am of the view that a good manager 30 years ago would be a good manager in the current private or public sectors of the economy. In my judgement, the biggest change has been in the words we use to describe certain events and conditions. More specifically, I am referring to what are called the “buzz” words.

In the 1970s I was a very ambitious young executive with dreams of someday being the occupant of a large corner office and a key to the executive bathroom. To achieve my dream I was clever enough to recognize the need to make “connections” with people who were in a position to assist me in achieving my dream of corporate stardom.

Now let’s fast forward to the present. Had I been a young aspiring corporation man in the 21st century with the same ambitions, I would certainly be on the lookout for people who might be in a position to assist in furthering my career. But I would no longer refer to this form of manipulation as making connections but rather as “networking.”

If you are a job seeker in today’s labour market you would never tell a recruiter that you have several areas of expertise. To appear you were “with it” you would refer to yourself a as a “multi-tasker.”

One of my employers in the ’70s was a large, international forest products company that was frequently the target of environmentalists protesting the fact we were dumping toxic materials into the oceans and spewing a variety of pollutants into the atmosphere at our pulp and newsprint mills. To counteract the criticism directed at the company our public relations department would issue press releases stating we were making significant strides in reducing the level of toxic emissions that were harming the environment. Today, however, corporate “spin doctors” prefer the use of euphemisms designed to make the public feel less threatened. The word pollution has largely been removed from the corporate lexicon and been replaced by a company’s “carbon footprint.” Others in today’s corporate world might prefer to tell us they have decided to “go green.”

How a corporation or government bureaucracy is perceived by the general public is an important element in that organization’s success. During the 1970s and earlier, large organizations often found it to be in their best interests to employ initiatives and policies designed to improve their “image.” The same process, for the same reasons, is occurring today. The only change is that rather than referring to the process as image enhancing, any self-respecting executive now calls it “rebranding.”

I can also recall as a young manager, how on some occasions senior executives would refer to openness and being “above board” in their attempts to convey the notion they were telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. On rare occasions some would go so far as to say they had decided to come clean and tell the real facts. Today, however, the more appropriate terms to use are “transparent” and “seamless.”

In the 1970s and earlier corporate spokespersons would tell shareholders about the company’s future direction. But today’s hip executive would never use such a tired expression. The appropriate expression today is “going forward.”

In the past when executives wanted their subordinates to discard approaches they considered obsolete, they encouraged “innovative thinking”. Today’s subordinates are encouraged to “think outside the box.”

Corporate managers today are very unlikely to refer to their company’s profitability. To be current with contemporary culture, managers now refer to “the bottom line.”

I recall the days when if you wanted to ensure that one of your business associates understood what you were trying to explain, you might ask, “Do you follow?” In that same situation today you would want to ensure that the two of you were “on the same page.”

Recently, the often unscrupulous real estate development industry has got into the act.

Having recognized that many people are now aware of the pitfalls and excessive profit margins associated with most “time share” schemes, that expression has largely disappeared.

The industry’s response has been to replace time share with “fractional ownership.”

On automobile dealership lots, sales reps no longer refer to certain vehicles as used, they are now referred to as “pre-owned.”

A friend recently told me she was fed up with her job in the public sector and would soon be seeking a new career path. “What I have to do is develop an “exit strategy,” she advised me.

Changing words and expressions has even crept into such mundane things as shopping.

Just the other day I was in the men’s clothing department of a large department store intent on replacing my threadbare nightwear. A clerk approached who was in her teens and asked if she could be of assistance. I informed her I was looking for a pair of pyjamas. A smile came over her face, “Oh, you mean sleep pants,” she replied. Once again I was being instructed in the new world of buzz words.

If I gave it a little more thought I’m sure I could come up with more examples of today’s buzz words but I have to get out of here because I recently encountered a new “window of opportunity” that was too intriguing to ignore and is likely to close if I procrastinate much longer.