But does any of this matter ? Should a concern be registered that, going forward, garbled, impenetrable, deliberately badly constructed English presents myself and yourself with significant project challenge throughout the Enterprise Space, intercommunication-wise ? Well, yes, it does. A hefty software project running across a slew of large interconnected systems is complicated and messy to start with. That is ample grounds on its own to discuss it using the plainest, least ambiguous language you can find. This applies particularly when the discussions involve overseas engineers who don’t understand English terribly well, executive suits who don’t understand software terribly well, and end users who don’t understand anything terribly well. To reduce confusion to an absolute minimum, we would all talk very very slowly in words of one syllable. “You want app. We build on web. App do more, heap more code. You pay much gold. Many moons pass.” The weekly meeting will sound like Pow-wow on the Reservation in an early 30s Western, but little will be misunderstood.
But weekly meetings are rarely so lucid. Big Chief Stakeholder, He Speak With Forked Tongue. The temptation to spread a thick layer of baloney on top of every statement is irresistible for all sorts of reasons. The three justifiable cases I have picked out already, and in descending order of nobility they are:
- Abbreviation: the valid use of well-defined technical terms to save time and ink.
- Defensive Flannel: the serving up of rotten news to a tricky crowd, where a good handful of verbal garnish and a tin of rhetorical golden syrup may make them swallow it easier.
- Necessary Social Cowardice: the regurgitation of Accenture-lite management consultant blather in order to conform to workplace norms.
For the rest, we find ourselves somewhere on the spectrum between artful misrepresentation and massive wholesale dishonesty, though it often seems the speaker is trying as hard to fool himself as his audience. We start with the grandiloquent overstatement:
“The project has passed through the most thoroughgoing and exacting phases of Quality Assurance to achieve a level of quality previously unmatched. All of the issues highlighted have undergone deep-dive analysis prior to resolution in order to achieve the current, unprecedented zero-defect situation.”
No it hasn’t. The code compiles and it works on Dave’s machine, mostly. It did break a handful of the automated tests but we fixed that. By turning them off.
Then there is misdirection, where a little truth is put in front of a Big Lie.
“The implementation of a best-of-breed portfolio management toolkit has brought much needed discipline to project teams. The precision and latency of data provision up to the SMT dashboard has improved immeasurably. Admittedly, delivering superlative real-time MI comes at a cost, but when the end result is a superbly governed programme running under full control, what price is too high ?”
Yes, weekly reports now come in on time, and some really rather snazzy charts are produced off the back of them for the Board. But we now all spend three hours every day wrestling with the PPM system, rather than doing useful work, and the percentage completes and forecast end dates are as hypothetical and fictional as ever they were.
There is the barefaced denial of objective reality.
“The transition to an offshore resource base is already delivering tangible, substantial benefits to the business in terms of cost-saving, quality, durability and extensibility.”
No it isn’t. The to-do list of outstanding user complaints has got a lot shorter. But only because 97% of them have been rejected by our offshore “partner” by dint of the extensive small print in their very, very well constructed Master Services Agreement.
And then there is the camouflaging of outright damned whoppers:
“The selection and procurement phases of the Enterprise Resource Planning solution delivery programme were carried out with the utmost rigour under an objective, absolutely transparent and fully audited process.”
No. The choice was made way in advance of the programme’s ostensible start, founded upon these key inputs:
(a) impressive colourful marketing literature
(b) the supplier’s rather slick, good looking sales team
(c) ostensibly being used by lots of impressive blue chip Big High Building companies that some board members had read about in The Economist.
(d) it being German, and therefore automatically reliable and efficient.
(e) finally and crucially, being by a good country mile the most expensive offering, and therefore self-evidently the best.
With breathtaking but inevitable cynicism, the rigorous, transparent, fully auditable selection process that followed was carefully steered to make sure it came up with the right answer.
So deception is piled on self-deception and garbage on misconception to the point where no official statement made in the workplace can be taken seriously by anyone other than the dimmest office apparatchik. Which dimwitted lackey will then be promoted to a job way beyond his abilities due to his unquestioning acceptance of, enthusiasm for and regurgitation of whatever banal, pointless, excruciating and intellectually unsound line of drivel the leadership team are promoting this month.
The net result of all this is that plain truths are buried, lies are accepted as fact and big decisions are made on the basis of the aggregate of all this rubbish. Instead of diagnosing what is wrong with a system or an organisation in any sort of sensible fashion, there is an endless search for scapegoats on the one hand and magical silver (or perhaps palladium) bullets on the other. Serious chronic failures are ignored while massive expenditure is approved for “solutions” to problems which don’t exist, don’t matter that much, or can’t be fixed any better than they already have been. More and more worthless IT projects are commissioned, and the demand for Quality IT Professionals who have a Passion for Business Transformation remains satisfyingly high. Our continuing employment in a series of frustrating but relatively well paid positions is at least in part due to terrible judgements at a higher level made on the basis of spin and jargon-encrusted twaddle. As ever, a continuing calamity for sanity, reason, thrift and the English language is an opportunity in disguise for a well-placed minority, in this case us, the aforementioned Quality IT Professionals. Even if the opportunity is only to ride the IT Shambles gravy train to nowhere for another couple of years.
Disingenuous gibberish is not confined to the IT game. It is pervasive in the modern world and plumbs far greater depths elsewhere than it does in the (cough) Technosphere. Politics and Advertising, obviously, but worse still in the cesspit that is Human Resources, where a fluffy layer of caring-sharing therapy-speak barely hides a visceral contempt for the workforce. But offensive double-talk really goes up to 11 and beyond in the world of Sales and Marketing. This is sketched beautifully by Lucy Kellaway (a journalist on the FT, of all places) through the medium of her glorious creation Martin Lukes. His groundbreaking Creovation concept was introduced in “his” FT column which Kellaway reworked into the wonderful “Who Moved My Blackberry”. If you don’t want to spend seven quid on Amazon, Martin’s blog is here or you can read the essence of Kellaway’s despair in this article for the BBC with change out of 2,000 words.
It is tempting to imagine a mythical recent past when people said what they meant and spoke as they found. Maybe some time in the middle of the 20th century, after the decline of Victorian verbosity but before the rise of the business buzzword bullshitter ? It never was so. The finest critic of mendacious nonsense and the corruption of language was nailing his theses to the door in the middle of the 1940s. George Orwell, the High Priest of Plain English, said it first and best in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” The stakes were a lot higher then. These days the weasel words and verbal dry ice provide a smokescreen for stupidity, futility, monstrous wastes of time and money, and on occasion ruthlessness to the point of sackings and redundancies. In the 30s and 40s these same tactics were employed all over Europe and Asia to justify or draw a veil over pyramids of corpses, to borrow a phrase. Orwell also held sound and unimpeachable views on cookery and our national drink.