Saturday, June 27, 2009

Strategic solutions and other flim-flam

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 24.)

I have in front of me a large newspaper advertisement for a firm called Hudson.

I read this ad with interest because it seemed to encapsulate much of what makes me cynical about aspects of the business world.

What I noticed most was a casual disregard for the integrity of the English language. The ad is a grab-bag of hollow phraseology that is intended to convey a sense of dynamism and purpose but is devoid of any real meaning.

I should make it clear I’m not singling out Hudson. It’s probably no better or worse than any number of other companies operating in the same sphere. It just happens to be the firm whose ad I spotted.

Hudson describes itself on its website as “a leading provider of permanent recruitment, contract professionals and talent management services worldwide”. I guess that means it’s a souped-up version of what used to be called a personnel agency, though these days they prefer to call themselves human resources consultants.

Anyway, back to the ad. It sought applications for a job with the title of Director, Public Sector – a newly created position with Hudson itself.

The ad said: “Hudson Wellington has reviewed how we can best partner with our public sector clients and assist them to achieve key outcomes. We have done this by integrating our three proven service lines to provide full employment life cycle solutions …”

“Key outcomes” is a glib, empty phrase that’s routine in ads for public sector policy analysts, but can anyone outside the jargon-laden HR business hazard a guess as to what “full employment life cycle solutions” are? Or are these terms merely intended to create an impression of a company that has taken the banal process of executive recruitment to some esoteric, previously unimagined new level?

The ad continues: “We are a Talent Company [those two words appear in bold type with capital letters] who is able to provide Best Advice [bold type and capitals again] and leading solutions through the full employment life cycle” [that phrase again].

What have we here, then? First, typographical gimmickry, which should always be viewed with deep suspicion. People with something worthwhile to say don’t have to resort to pointless bold type or capital letters.

It’s a form of fakery, designed to create the impression that an ad has more to say than it really does. It’s an old trick: distract people with the sizzle and they might not notice that the steak is chuck, not fillet.

What else do you notice? Ah, yes: that painfully jarring phrase, “We are a Talent Company who is able …”.

If I were a client of this firm, would it fill me with confidence to see that whoever writes its ads doesn’t have even a rudimentary command of English? I don’t think so.

Then there are those words, “leading solutions”. It seems everyone these days is in the business of providing “solutions” of one sort or another: fencing solutions, heating solutions, personal fitness solutions, computing solutions, printing solutions …

It’s as if by tacking that superfluous word “solutions” on to whatever service your company provides, it’s magically elevated onto a higher plane. But “leading” solutions? That implies there must also be “tailing” or “following” solutions. Of course there are not, which demonstrates just how empty and bombastic the phrase is.

Moving right along, the ad tells us that Hudson wants to ensure that it provides “the best customer value proposition in assisting the public sector achieve VFM, increased productivity and efficiencies”.

Best customer value proposition? A meaningless slogan, puffed up with hot air.

VFM? I deduce that it means value for money. But VFM sounds snappier and conveys the signal that Hudson and whoever reads the ad use the same coded jargon – in other words, are on the same sophisticated wavelength. That would probably appeal to the same sort of person who thinks a service is more glamorous if you put that word “solutions” after it.

I read on. Hudson described the position as a “Forward thinking solutions based role”. I suspect there were supposed to be a couple of hyphens and a comma there somewhere. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps in Hudson’s world, a solution can be forward-thinking.

It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I came across the word I’d been waiting for. “You will be able to demonstrate”, Hudson advised prospective applicants, in that direct I’m-talking-to-you approach favoured by HR firms, “a track record of developing and delivering solutions [that word again] across the public sector [“across” always sounds so much grander than “in”], having either influenced strategic decision-making from within …”

Ah! There it was: “strategic”. I knew no self-respecting HR firm could get through an ad without mentioning the word at least once. I see it in executive recruitment ads almost every day and have only the vaguest idea of what it’s supposed to mean. But it sounds impressive.

The human race managed for centuries without having to be strategic, unless you happened to be a military commander at war. But it seems that nowadays, nothing can be accomplished in the public service or in business without everyone being busily strategic. Or perhaps I should say delivering strategic solutions. My guess is that this requires lots of meetings and probably one or two out-of-town conferences as well.

Does any of this matter? No, not in the way famine in Africa matters, or peace in the Middle East, or global recession, or violent crime. But in a small way it matters.

It matters if you value and respect the English language and don’t like to see it misused and degraded. It matters if you value honest, straightforward words over flim-flam. And it matters if you’re concerned that in both the public sector and in business, too much energy is expended creating smoke and mirrors; constructing flashy facades behind which business is conducted a lot more expensively but no more efficiently than it used to be before people thought of words like “strategic” and “solutions”.


Will de Cleene said...

It's amusing how the corporate world has adopted so many military terms over the last couple of decades. Recruitment agents, strategic phraseology, the use of Three Word Acronyms, or the term "officer" to describe any desk jockey. Another name for a Change Management Consultant is a "firing solution." It's all rubbish.

Zonk said...

Haha. Well done! Have you heard of Office Bingo? Its the same as ordinary Bingo except instead of numbers, there is a set of phrases to collect. Examples include, "at the end of the day", "the bottom line is", "value add", "core competency" etc.

The first one to collect the set of phrases jumps up and down shouting "BINGO!", spilling their latte in the process. There's no prize of course, but it is quite fun to do at executive presentations.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Moving forward!!! Good God, you MUST be moving forward. Strategically speaking, of course and all the while interfacing with dynamically self motivated achievers.

Just before they are caught, charged and sent to jail, that is.