Be leery of big words

During the education forum that I wrote about here, I noticed that the administrators of the failing public school district referred to students as scholars.   They also used ‘our scholars‘.

What’s wrong with the word student?

I find using scholar instead of student annoying because it reminds me of how business consultants use big words — often incorrectly — to impress and bamboozle incompetent managers.

In his book, Crimes Against Logic, Jamie Whyte addresses this very issue (p. 66):

Management consultants sell advice for large sums of money.  The advice can be useful, which, hopefully, explains the fees.  But, there is a certain insecurity in the young men and women who prepare the presentations of management consultancy firms.  The advice, however good, often seems too simple.  Your company has an over-capacity problem.  Then you had better increase sales volumes or cut capacity.  How might you increase sales volumes?  Lower your prices, perhaps, or open new sales outlets, or something else.  How likely to work are these options? New sales outlets would be too expensive because customers for your type of product are very price-sensitive.  Then lowering prices is the best bet.

That’s the sort of idea involved.  It’s fine…but it just doesn’t sound clever enough from Ivy-League and business-school graduates charging $5,000 day.  It needs sexing up with some jargon.

Jargon in management consulting involves the substitution of bizarre, large, and opaque words for ordinary, small, and well-understood words.  The substitution is no more than that.  Consultantese brings no extra rigor, no measurement precision lacking in the ordinary language it replaces.  Where terminology in the sciences aids clarity and testability, consulting jargon shrouds quite plain statements in chaotic verbiage.

Though few of you readers will be management consultants, many will have been exposed to their language, because it now permeates the business world and, increasingly, journalism and politics.  Certain words must be included wherever grammar permits, and sometimes even where it doesn’t.  Fashions change, but “leverage”, “intellectual capital,” “benchmark,” and “moving forward” are perennial favorites.   Suppose, for example, that the way your company is run means that the good ideas of the staff are not heard by the managers, and that other companies do better in this respect.  This becomes:

Benchmarked against best-in-class peers, intellectual capital leverage reveals significant upward potential moving forward.

I agree with most of this.  I don’t agree, however, that consultantese is a result of consultant insecurity.  Rather, it’s part of the con to get incompetent managers to believe that the consultants actually wield some sort of scientific business knowledge and proven approach to business success that the managers somehow missed when they went through business school.

But, the con often goes both ways.  While, consultants collect large fees to sex up ordinary business thinking, incompetent business managers get scapegoats when the sexed up, yet ordinary, business strategies fail to improve, or even hurt, the business’s performance.  They get to say to the Board, but the strategy came from [insert prestigious consulting firm name here], it’s not my fault.  That strategy often works to get the incompetent managers at least one more shot.  And, ugh, they often bring back the consulting firm to do more work.

As a side note: Can you imagine what the owner of an NFL team would do if his head coach hired a consultant to tell him what strategy his team should use to win games?  That’s right.  And that’s what Boards of Directors should do to managers who do that in business.

Anyway, the point is, be careful when folks use a lot of big words and stretch their meanings.  They are quite likely trying to deceive you.

Also, I recommend reading Crimes Against Logic.  It’s short, easy-to-read and now that I think about it, provided a really good foundation for me to help spot the logical foolishness we encounter everyday.

Finally, I am aware that the failing administrators would likely defend their use of the word scholar as showing respect to students and elevating what they are trying to accomplish.  To which I would reply, you could show the students the utmost respect by educating and disciplining them.

One thought on “Be leery of big words

  1. Pingback: Consultants and Mass Transit | Our Dinner Table

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