Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Are you socially functional?

Business sectors are essentially tribal and use the language of their tribe. Discuss.
Well, this used to be the case in a very marked way. A lawyer spoke legalese, marketing and ad men spoke ballpark, engineers talked manufacturing application protocols. Today the corporate comms teams of one business sound very much like another. I  shyly aver that marketing and communications functions of business, largely mediated by the temporarily trapped butterfly wings of proliferating social media channels, are furring the tongue. And it's happening right across town.
Government departments, which have increasingly modelled themselves on what they consider to be business-like paradigms, have joined in at the usual chorus level. So IBM, BT, Shell, and the Department for Education in the UK, all sing about stakeholder engagement and the importance of social functionality in internal communications as relatively sacred top level strategies.
Feeding at the same trough as most, I feel a little timid to point out that while social functionality as a term is, to interpretation even within the C-Suite, internal communications didn't even exist, or scarcely, about 20 years ago. Nowadays, it is art, science and another data bank of strategic insight rolled into one. Get it right and we all align our people to our business objectives and stride towards the sunny uplands of company vision. Get it wrong and we must rethink our hymn sheets. Thankfully, however, even the drivers and deliverers of internal comms strategy have decided that the complexity of this discipline, as a newly emerged meal ticket for various agencies, is such that the phrase "singing from the same hymn sheet"  no longer applies, in this space.
Meanwhile, in lookalike corridors and open plan offices across the western world, the mash and tumble of language allows businesses to adopt 'strategy refreshes' as a means of instilling a change of direction in business activities that needs to be 'cascaded' through the workforce, with a 'digital cascade' using KnowledgeVision or SharePoint platforms, usually the most effective.
While I personally (because I work for industries which are all happy to use these and plenty of other terms) do not shout "but where are the emperor's clothes", and while I quite enjoy discovering the meaning of some of these terms and even start to see their niche relevance, I still baulk at the trait where a business adopts a truly everyday term, a perfectly ordinary, well-used English word, and all but puts a trademark on it. (Please note, that last sentence was purposefully longer than usual). It's so numbingly dull to do this, and a bit rude.
Suddenly, for example, the word 'segment' means a socio-economic/demographic depiction of a type of customer; it's not even a segment of the market, and it's certainly not a bit of an orange, or part of a plot of land. In the corridors of customer segmentation you would use these other meanings of the word at your peril.  
We used to have business jargon that had a clubbish purpose only, or mostly, like a mutually self-recognising set of passwords: manufacturers would be proudly incomprehensible to lawyers; lawyers to scientists; scientists to thespians. The media and the markets floated along between the barriers picking up, promoting and discarding words as and when they captured or dissolved a business or social meme.
But times change and this is essentially a fun time for changing language. I suppose I'm merely spilling a bit of water here on the corporate table; this is the tongue-in-cheek bijou whingette of someone tentatively putting his hand up to aks what it all means and whether there is any real value in some of the rhetoric.