Comments are closed. Well versed in nonsenseOn 18 Mar 2003 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article There is a concerted campaign to empty words of their meaning and HR is oneof the worst culpritsHumpty Dumpty was not quite right when he said: “Words should meananything I say them to mean.” It is a useful enough dictum for realpolitikand organisational skulduggery, with phrases such as ‘unwillingness to change’becoming a devastating put-down, when it might just as easily refer to ‘takinga principled stand’. But it does not quite capture what is taking place. The trend in the workplace seems to be to use words to avoid having tocommunicate. Saying something definite spells trouble down the line – from atransgression-hungry press, or pedants who will pop up at awkward moments torecall what you said before. So it has become better not to say things. Betterjust to waft vague thoughtlets, emptied of precise meaning, that are designedto slip unnoticed into the ether leaving only a faint whiff of somethingdynamic. There was a fine example last week when the Chartered Institute of Personneland Development and the Employers’ Forum on Age called for ‘a new vision’ forthe planned Single Equality Body (SEB). Unfortunately, they didn’t specify whatvision they wanted to see. Most people would judge a vision on its content, notmerely on its existence. A ‘new vision’ They then concluded a long and conceptually void press release with theremark: “The Government needs to work with employers to ensure we createan SEB that really delivers on equality and diversity in the future.”Deliver what exactly? Maybe total equality among humankind. That would be nice,but a mite ambitious. Do they mean they hope the SEB is powerful? Because power in public policyis largely about budgets, so if they do, they need to call for an expansion ofthe funding of the previously existing equality commissions. Then the SEB mightbe able to sponsor lots of discrimination cases against recalcitrant employersand properly investigate structural inequality at work. Maybe that is not whatthey had in mind. A ‘new vision’, you see, is tame – a harmless, but indisputably go-aheadthing to call for. ‘Delivery’, meanwhile, has become the frenzied catechism ofWhitehall managers trying to reform public services, so it sounds official andin-tune with the predominant Blairite cant. So it has been with ‘modernisation’, which has been used to impressiveeffect during the firefighters’ dispute. The Government accused the FireBrigades Union of being opposed to ‘modernisation’, even though the union hadproduced its own blueprint for modernising the service long before the currentstrikes. The less ‘modernisation’ means, the more potent it is as a weapon forattacking strikers. Those naive critics who enjoy cruel sport with HR departments about theirmission, values and outside-the-box ‘isms’ miss the point. The aim is notreally differentiation of organisations, or getting employees to ‘buy in toculture change’. The aim is safety. Increasingly, there is a list of things organisations need to be seen totake seriously and over recent years that list has suffered inflation. It is nolonger enough to produce goods and services – you’ve got to have a mission. Itdoes not matter if the mission wraps you up in paradoxes: many organisationsare now trying to think globally and act locally, to have determined leaderswho are big on teamwork, to have strong cultures that are also consensual. The only way to survive in this sound-bitten environment is to dispose ofthe significance of language and replace it with the new killer blandness. Corporate communication has become rather like those attempts bymathematicians to do away with speech altogether because of its impreciseness,and instead just hold up placards with symbols on them representingcollectively agreed thoughts. Fuzzy-edged vagueness This is not the usual whinge about business jargon – itself just as much ofa cliché as the language it affects to despise. Jargon may be ugly andcontagious, but all professions generate it. There seems as much point in singling out business managers as in believingAmericans to be uniquely bombastic. Philosophers can no more do without the apriori than chartered surveyors can live without ‘portfolio mapping’. Jargon isabout inclusion and exclusion from specified communities. Using it is a badgeof belonging, but to be confused by it, or to pick someone else up on it, is toannounce in a graceless way that you are separate and remote. Saying ‘whatbox?’ or ‘did you really say emotional buy-in?’ are, in truth, statements ofdeliberate ignorance. What is happening now is different. Clarity has become a manifestlydangerous phenomenon. Fuzzy-edged vagueness, however, is a lithe and malleablesubstance that will not come back to haunt you at inconvenient occasions – atool for not saying what you mean. That is why it has become an organisationalno-no ever to concede the existence of ‘a problem’: it is too specific comparedwith the infinitely preferable ‘issue’. In the modern world of work, thevictory of perception over reality is nearly complete. Esse est percipi, theancients said – to be is to be perceived. Related posts:No related photos.