HR learns to talk the talk

If HR professionals want to
take their place alongside colleagues on the board, they must learn to speak
the same business language. But what is the language of business? Is it a form
of  clever shorthand for technical terms
or simply intellectual snobbery disguising insincerity? Jane Lewis investigates

There are two purposes
to language – the first and most obvious is as a means of communication. But we
also use language as an important differentiator of who we are – it helps reinforce
a sense of group identity and cement a set of common goals.

"He speaks my language"
is a common enough expression, and is almost invariably used in the context of
praise. The clear subtext is that if you can talk the lingo, you’re allowed
into the club. If you can’t, expect to be left out in the cold.

This might explain why so many
assorted luminaries – from Tony Blair to CIPD director-general Geoff Armstrong
– have lately been urging the necessity of talking "the language of

The importance of this from the
point of view of the HR professional in particular becomes evident when you
study the findings of a recent research project Tomorrow’s Organisation: New
Mindsets, New Skills, published by London Human Resource Group. As the report’s
author Amin Rajan concludes, "The picture that emerges is distinctly
uncomfortable. All the more so since HR professionals and line managers
participating in our research presented a similar assessment."

The report shows that although HR
managers usually share a set of common goals with their peers in line
management, the language both groups use to communicate these aims is
remarkably different. The consequence is that mutual misunderstanding has
become almost inevitable. "It’s like a dialogue between two deaf
people," says Rajan. "HR people talk about processes, line managers
talk about outcomes. HR wants to know how much something will cost, line
managers ask where the added value is. HR thinks about budgets, line management
wants to know how to maximise profits." And so on.

You don’t need to be a language
expert to understand the serious ramifications that such a state of mutual
bafflement can have on the health and vitality of a company. Indeed, Rajan
maintains that the failure to find a common language is the main reason why so
many change programmes fail.

"People involved in change
programmes don’t have a common picture of what they want to achieve, and they
don’t have a language to express it. You need a common metaphor, and you need a
common language. If these groups are going to communicate on the same
wavelength, HR needs to use business language."

This is hardly revelatory news to
most in the profession – indeed, senior HR managers have been banging on about
the importance of scrapping a process-based approach in favour of following a
"business agenda" for some time.

"The board is not interested
in elegant processes, it is interested in outcomes," says Stephanie Monk,
group HR director at Granada, speaking at the HR Forum nearly two years ago.

And even then it was a case of
preaching to the converted. "This is not a gathering of HR people, it is a
gathering of business people discussing business issues," asserts Cap
Gemini HR director, Robert Ingram at the time. "It is not about following
an HR agenda, it is about following a business agenda, but with an HR solution."

So how then do we explain what is
obviously a continuing gap between desire and reality? If HR people know they
should be acting as mainstream business managers – in which case talking the
"language of business" would surely follow fairly naturally – why
isn’t it happening?

Turning nouns to verbs

The most likely explanation, at
least for the language part of the conundrum, is that the concept of business
language has itself acquired a bad reputation over the years as an exclusive
form of jargon, more caught up in the snobbery of the unfamiliar than in any
serious attempt to convey real meaning. Business language takes nouns and turns
them into verbs – employees are "incented", opportunities

The widespread adoption of
acronyms, again frequently used as verbs, makes it even more difficult to
extract proper meaning. Businesses can be MBO’d, TQM’d, CEO’d and IPO’d – and
that’s before you get down to the real nitty-gritty of shifting paradigms,
benchmarking metrics, and maximising the return on investment from your
strategic alliances.

In many ways business dialect can
be seen as the new Esperanto – an international communication system that, to
the outsider at least, obscures more than it elucidates.

But at least Esperanto could never
be accused of corrupting a perfectly good existing language, which is the
charge that the growing number of opponents of "business-speak" now
lay at its door.

Last year, even the BBC Radio 4
programme Today weighed into the fray, attacking the meaningless babble that is
seeping out of the boardroom into mainstream language.

Perhaps some of this terminology –
phrases like "ballpark", "mission critical",
"state-of-the-art" and "disintermediation" – originally
meant something specific to their instigators.

But that precision of meaning has
long since vanished: these expressions are now far more likely to be used to
pad out sentences in the hope of impressing the listener. As George Orwell, one
of the great analysts of 20th century language, noted, "The great enemy of
clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and
declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted
idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink".

Surprisingly, this view of business
language as a parlance swamped with sly verbal innovation, has also been
espoused by some of the UK’s leading management experts.

New phrase, old concept

Sean Ricard, senior business
economist at Cranfield School of Management and a key lecturer on the school’s
MBA course, is unequivocal on the subject. "Too often so-called business
people wrap themselves up in language that is opaque when it is clear that the
essence of business is good communication," he says. "I’m very
cynical about it. Almost without exception it’s a case of coming out with a new
phrase to describe an old concept.

"Half the time this language
is invented to sell books. When there are problems to sort out in real
companies, people sit down and talk about them in plain English."

Amin Rajan agrees. "I advise
companies to use absolute simplicity in language – clear, short words that will
trigger actions and provoke the question, ‘What are we going to do?’

"It is intellectual snobbery
to use long words, but underlying that is a more sinister purpose, which is,
‘We’re not going to do anything’," he says.

To counter this, he suggests that
companies should talk about "aims" not "objectives" and
"goals" rather than that ubiquitous catch-all, "vision".

But Ricard does concede that his
policy of avoiding fancy business vernacular terms wherever possible can be
difficult to carry out to the letter when you are teaching something as
business-specific as an MBA course. "If you don’t talk about ‘core competencies’
people may think you’re not up-to-date," he says.

And elsewhere he has remarked that,
"at a senior level, HR directors should be able to talk knowledgeably to
their colleagues in accountancy or marketing, so that if someone comes into the
room talking about ‘stock asset variables’ you are not going to be phased by

 Moreover it is clear that some examples of business parlance,
while admittedly falling into the category of new phrases for old concepts, can
nonetheless represent a convenient shorthand. "Outsourcing" is a good
example of this. Yes, the idea of it is as old as business itself, but how else
are you going to describe the practice quite so neatly without resorting to
complicated sentence structures?

If we can incorporate
"angst", "pyjamas", "cul-de-sac" and
"beriberi" into mainstream English, then why not
"downsize", "multi-task", "outsource" or even
"mainstream" for that matter?

"The point of jargon is that
it can help you make shortcuts to difficult concepts," says Valerie
Garrow, senior researcher at Roffey Park.

Moreover, as she points out, every
different department in any organisation has its own vernacular – and HR itself
is no exception. The real question, therefore, for any HR professional bent on
talking the language of business, is how to decipher what should be embraced
and what rejected.

As Rajan sums up, "There is a
lot of hype out there and HR people have got to learn to sort the wheat from
the chaff."

It has often been remarked that the
native language of business is still numbers – how could it be otherwise when
success is ultimately measured in terms of profit, cash flows and ratios?
Consequently if HR people are to make a real impact in improving the business,
they must be able to understand – and express – some of the basic tenets of
financial management. Given the, ahem, strategic importance of understanding
customer markets and the pivotal role of IT in any modern business, it might
also be a good idea to brush up on what these departments are saying too.

No magic

"There is nothing magic to
it," says consultant Paul Kearns at Personnel Works. "It is just a
question of understanding what is actually meant by real business terminology
that says something specific – things like ‘profit and loss’ and ‘net present

This doesn’t mean swallowing an
accountancy rule book, so much as familiarising yourself with what is important
to how the business is actually run.

Some companies have taken the onus
off the individual by running general business literacy courses across
departments. At the US headquarters of the PR firm, Shandwick International,
for example, the chief learning officer organised an in-house
"university" in a bid to help staff from a range of different disciplines
"to think more like MBAs". He also made it mandatory for all staff to
take a class in Business Literacy I – designed to acquaint them with how the
agency actually runs its business.

The staff’s reaction has been
overwhelmingly positive. "I thought these classes would cover the basics
of accounting," says one. "But they focus on how our company makes
money – and can lose it – on a daily basis."

Learning what makes figures move in
the right direction for the business as a whole allowed staff to reassess their
own contribution to the process, and often resulted in them making changes to
the way they approached their jobs.

 But perhaps the best way to go about learning the language of
business is to concentrate less on the language per se and more on the actual issues
that it is trying to describe. Once you have actually understood the main
preoccupations of the line businesses, the language will take care of itself.

Thus the main guiding point must be
your own understanding. "Use language that means something. Don’t use
anything if you are not confident about its meaning," is Kearns’ cardinal
rule. Geddit?

Legitimate and
illegitimate business language


1 Thinking out of the

Currently voguish means of
expressing creative or imaginative thinking: devising new ways to solve old
problems. To some extent replaces phrases like "green-housing" and
"blue-skying" – far too amorphous for most managers to get their
heads round. At least a box has structure – even if you’re trying to think out
of it.

2 Asset-based business

New economy term for those
"traditional" organisations majoring in the sale of
"physical" goods, as opposed to those concentrating on
knowledge-based services or digital products. See also "short-term
assets" – aka physical stock. A company with no "short term
assets" on its balance sheet normally specialises in brainpower,
information aggregation and so on.

3  Virtuous cycle

A win-win scenario – one in which
all activity winds up being beneficial/profitable. A good, if somewhat
squeamish, example is maggot farming. Farmers are paid to take away the raw
materials of their trade (chicken carcasses) and then profit again from the two
products of the process – the maggots themselves (sold to anglers), and the carcasses
(transformed by maggot activity into fertiliser).

4 Foot-printing

The process of tracking customer
activity across a website. Considered critical to the art of building up
customer profiles, but of secondary importance to the feat of turning
"clicks into hits" – that is, converting site visitors into paying

5 Object-oriented

Originally a technical term used to
describe the new generation of component software that can be assembled
Meccano-style to form customised applications – and just as quickly dismantled
if necessary. As with the best computing phrases (downtime, multi-tasking) the
concept of assembling defined "objects" for a particular purpose has
now been taken up by mainstream business. Often used to describe the activity of
setting up particular processes or teams to deal with specific projects/joint
ventures and so on.

6 Spider-planting

A new phrase for spinning off
companies: how you go about setting up healthy subsidiaries. Baby spider plants
continue to get nourishment from the parent while establishing their own roots.
Trendy because it taps into current bio/eco preoccupations, and also provides a
simple, easily understood visual description of the activity.

7 B2B and B2B2C

B2B is shorthand for "business
to business" trading; B2B2C stands for "business to business to
customer" and describes the "value chain" in which a basic
product supplied by one company is enhanced by another partner organisation
before delivery to the customer. Closely related to…

8 Dynamic trade

The delivery of highly customised
products and services. In theory, it’s the customers drive production, pricing
policies and market conditions.

9 Hot-desking

A useful little phrase to describe
the process of abandoning fixed office formats in favour of more fluid
arrangements conducive to flexi-working/creativity and so on. Unlikely to stand
the course of time because it is unpopular with most employees: if you get in
late, you might not get a desk at all.

10 Heuristic

Important-sounding word with useful
social-science overtones. Defined as: allowing, or assisting to discover.
"Heuristic" has replaced "holistic" as the preferred pseudy
word in training circles and is becoming almost ubiquitous in any description
of a knowledge management programme. Use with caution: abuse of meaning and
finite time-span probable.


1 Rightsize

While "downsize" and
"upsize" are admittedly clumsy Americanisms they have nonetheless won
themselves a place in the UK business lexicon. Not so "rightsize" – a
far-too-sinister euphemism for redundancy programmes which hints at Newspeak,
the language devised by Big Brother in 1984 to eliminate subversive ideas.

2 360-degree management

A self-important term for doing
your job properly by keeping your eyes peeled. Too much emphasis on 360-degree
management could lead to accusations of lack of focus.

3 Added value

Almost impossible to avoid, but the
phrase has become so overused that it has lost most of its specific meaning and
now has unfortunate connotations of bargain basements. If you must talk about
value, use it in the context of "value chains", and "high
value" integration. No one quite knows what they mean but they sound

4 Paradigmatic shift

Another expression borrowed from
the philosophy books, meaning a fundamental change in approach or philosophy.
Came to the fore at the start of the dotcom era to describe the shift from an
industrial to a knowledge-based economy. Now distinctly diluted in meaning and
passe. If you want to stress wide-sweeping change try the expression now hip in
Californian circles, "a tectonic plate shift".

5 "Run it up and
the mast and see who salutes it"

A clumsy example of US imagery
(meaning to run an idea past someone) which never quite made it over here –
except among flash ad-men. Treat those who use it with caution. Although some
US phrases – most notably "ballpark" and "pitch" (both
baseball derivatives) – have now become parlance, use with care. An exception
gaining popularity in UK circles is "elevator pitch" – a neat
expression for selling an idea quickly – as in the time it takes for an
elevator to reach its destination.

6 Disintermediation      

The process of eliminating
third-party sales organisations – in other words, selling direct. The business
equivalent of disestablishmentarianism: long words used for effect. Now widely
discredited as wrong-headed as well as cumbersome.

7 Benchmarking           

Pseudo-scientific phrase used
instead of the more simple "comparing".

8 Functionality and

Known fondly among the cognoscenti
as the "F" and "C" words. Both sound important but mean
very little.

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