Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Speaking in riddles – the unnecessary complexity of corporate lingo


 The more time I spend in consulting the more obvious it becomes; far from corporate terminology being an enabler of understanding, it is in fact a blockage.

Anyone whose changed job knows that part of the steep learning process is learning the language. This is as much a part of the culture of a business as are the colour of its walls and the myths and legends that it carries. As with many things, the short cut to learning these critical and yet entirely qualitative aspects is not through some magical induction process. Sadly it’s not that simple, primarily because whatever short cut exists, rests with the person joining.

Opening one’s mind to all the messages that are being thrown at you from the first second of the first interview is the challenge, not just because of the listening that’s required but also because making sense of them is not a rational process either. Living with and enjoying the ambiguity of this kind of cultural induction is difficult but important because the famous ‘a ha’ moment that we all want to experience doesn’t always happen.

So, to the riddles of corporate language. Beyond what I’ve described above, which is perfectly normal and acceptable, is self-imposed complexity. What is the source of this? It seems to fall broadly into three categories.

  • New disciplines:

Corporate and Social Responsibility encompasses a whole
new range of disciplines for which we need to learn a new vocabulary
(or at least borrow it from other industries)

  • New functions:

Risk management also appears to be a new function,
standing separately from internal audit and independent
of the operations of the business with its own language

  • New technology:

The increasingly mainstream use of language, which used
to be solely the domain of programmers and IT functions
and is now completely standard terminology beyond
the original area of focus. Who would have used the expression
‘user interface’ 10 years ago?!

And then we have the dreaded influence of consulting speak which I’ve written about before (see this link).

Let me be clear…I have no issue with these new influences. They are, in most cases, important and reflect the complexity of our world.

The key challenge as I see it, is that much of this new language is conceived and used (often as a weapon) by the communicator with little or no regard for the recipient! The consequences seem pretty obvious to me. Remember when you last read an article or a book which had language that baffled you or required you to go to some source of definition or clarification. Did you:

  1. Complete it?
  2. Remember much from it?
  3. Recommend it to someone else?
  4. None of the above

Successful communication involves two distinct phases: The delivery of a message and a response.

Categories: Active Adoption, Change management, Communication, Complex transformation, Corporate Culture

Tags: , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Interesting comment about arcane language used as a weapon.This is often a deliberate power play. Lawyers use Latin (trespass de bonis asportatis), doctors use medical jargon (myocardial infarction), soldiers use acronyms (C-HUMINT) and Shamans go into a trance and speak in tongues. But they all do it for the same reason; to establish a position of power. The message is “I am better than you because I know and you don’t.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great examples John…what’s utterly extraordinary however is that, rather than communicating in a language which their customers can understand, the onus is on customers to learn the language of the sector / product. Good examples might be T&Cs for tech upgrades and insurance quotations! The result looks like obfuscation….and the resulting loss of trust.


  2. Ben,

    Absolutely on the nail. When it comes to risk management functions, these are more focussed on being structures to protect the corporate entity rather than the employee (perversely often against actions by the employee). It is possible that this will only change with (yet) more legislation to ultimately protect the employee as well as the entity; not a welcome thought, but… It is unlikely to change substantially absent such a push though I am aware of many corporates that are addressing this gap of their one volition, mine included. The issue is that interests are not always that well aligned.

    Kind regards,




  3. Interesting observations – all true! One variation of the ‘corporate speak’ phenomenon is the conversion of several nouns into verbs – for example, white-boarding and solutioning! For some more lighthearted musings on corporate culture, you might want to take a look at some of my blog entries!


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