Business buzzwords survive the test of time

Bob Weinstein,
Tags: business management

Technology buzzwords change practically yearly, only to be replaced by new ones. Enhancements for PCs, cell phones and handheld devices usually bring new terms to describe them.

In the management world, however, buzzwords (or buzz-terms) generally stick around longer because major changes don’t happen as often as consumers think. Every year, companies boast new models with updated features and enhancements, but the major components are unchanged. The automobile industry is a good example. Every year, major automakers showcase new models. The external changes vary from slight to extreme, but engines and the technologies running them change little or not at all.

Many of the technical and business buzzwords and terms coined in the late 1990s are still popular today.

Here is a short list of buzzwords that are still used, and others that have been relegated to the buzzword morgue, or hall of fame, if morbidity offends. The list was compiled from Business Buzzwords, Everything You Need to Know to Speak the Lingo of the ’90s, by Charles B. Wendel & Elaine Svensson.

Benchmarking: The practice of evaluating and comparing how key functions are performed within one’s company as well as other companies.

Best practices: A buzzword hall-of-famer. Traditional consulting term used by top management striving to emulate the best.

Beyond loyalty. A term high-powered management consultant and author Tom Peters used to describe the new mind-set where employees consider their own best interests even while serving the needs of their employer. A worker rebellion, if you will.

BPR: Short for business process re-engineering. It is reorganizing a company around essential business processes, such as sales. A backfield term. Who can remember what the acronym stands for?

Contingency workforce: Still hot. The corporate practice of hiring people for short-term projects. The contingency workforce gets bigger each year, making the term even more relevant than it was in the 1990s.

Core products: Related terms are co-opetition (for real), core business, core competence, core franchise, core technology and even core people. The terms were left over from the old days when management consultants insisted that success depends upon core products (or services). Obvious conclusions, no? Think about it: Corporate pundits have an uncanny knack for elevating the obvious to the profound. The term most used today is “core competency”, which is simply a fundamental knowledge or expertise in a specific area or skill.

Teams: Just as high on the list today as it was in the 1990s. The authors explain that the word “manager” is often replaced by “team leader” or “project head”, and the concept of teams – groups of individuals who are mutually accountable and committed to a common purpose – now dominate the concept of effective organizations.

Intrapreneuring: Thumbs down. A pretentious term popular in the 1990s. Now it rates as a “who cares?” Meaning? You don’t have to leave a company to be entrepreneurial. You can take advantage of the resources of a large company and still be entrepreneurial. But don’t bet on it.

Virtual corporation: Peters can do 90 minutes on this one. Cutting through the management-speak, a virtual organization is a bare-bones operation that relies on a few skills and a small bunch of trusted suppliers. Virtual companies are often run from the entrepreneur’s home. It saves a bundle in overhead, not to mention allowing him or her to be close to the refrigerator. All that’s needed is first-rate technology. Techies love it for good reasons. In the age of disemboweled companies, media fragmentation, dismemberment and merging of global corporate empires throughout North America, the word “virtual” takes on broader meaning every year. The virtual contract worker and virtual multisensory media will be the hot new buzz-terms describing not only how work is performed and what services are delivered, but how people, groups and organizations communicate. They are exciting, yet at the same time frightening, new concepts that will fuel industry and technological development during the next few decades. Imagine how our grandparents would react to the concept of going through an entire career without laying eyes on their employers and co-workers.

Outsourcing: Huge and getting bigger. The purchase of products or services from outside vendors, often overseas (India or Pacific Rim countries), is a business strategy that is more important than ever. Typical outsourcing services were “non-core” products such as data processing or payroll processing, according to the authors. Now they include core services such as low-skilled customer and technical support, as well as highly skilled programming. Outsourcing is a proven method to pare costs and increase profits. Hardly a decade ago, purists justifiably criticized the outsourcing notion because it shipped jobs to cheap-labor countries (India, Russia, China, Korea), robbing North Americans of jobs. But outsourcing helped make Walmart an entrepreneurial legend. The heads of major global retail chains likely would concur that beating Walmart on price is next to impossible. One day, maybe, Walmart will be identified as the most despicable organization on the planet because it practically destroyed the notion of buying and promoting local (national) products. “Buy American” is all but meaningless.

Cutting edge: Coined about two decades ago, the term “cutting edge” refers to state-of-the art products. “Bleeding edge” has replaced it. It describes beyond the cutting edge (whatever that means). Try to imagine the graphic, dramatic adjectives that will replace “bleeding edge.”

Theory Z: Authors describe it as a “culturally driven egalitarian organization that believes in collective responsibility.” Just memorizing that takes work. It’s bound to turn heads and impress at business cocktail parties.

Just-in-time (JIT) production: Popular a decade ago, and even more relevant today. It’s the process of keeping just enough inventory in warehouses to meet manufacturing needs. Manufacturers continue to endorse it because it saves billions of dollars every year. PC manufacturers, for example, find it a very successful strategy for controlling production costs.

Outside-the-box thinking: CEOs, COOs and especially PR people still love this term. It’s also called “breakpoint”, “industry foresight”, “lateral thinking”, “managerial frame”, “paradigm shift” and “thunderbolt thinking”. Of course, mundane adjectives like “smart”, “insightful” and “original” would do just as well. But they’re too unassuming, direct and obvious to make it to the high-powered, slash-stab, cutthroat, competitive global stage, eh?