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Monday, June 16, 2008

Linguistic Communities, Intellectuals and Dilbert

Several weeks later, I am still pondering the "anti-intellectualism" debate Rick Hills stirred up, and some of the comments to my post on the subject.  What got me going this morning was reading the introduction to Stephen Finlay's Four Faces of Moral Realism, which Larry Solum was kind enough to spotlight today.  This is by no means a criticism of that article, which is a helpful summary, but a reflection of my own internal translation of the jargon (are moral principles real or unreal, natural or non-natural, reducible or irreducible?) into conversational English.  It's also not a criticism of the jargon (which I think I do understand), but an observation on the "insider/outsider" nature of it.

I've been the member of several linguistic communities, and I'm pretty sure that the only reason intellectual jargon gets this kind of attention from intellectuals is that intellectuals are the ones who think about it by the very nature of being an intellectual.  When business jargon gets this kind of attention, it results in Dilbert(There is, of course, the occasional cross-over, like this parody of the Harvard Economics Department Recruitment video.  The funnier "outtake" version I see has been removed from YouTube.)

For example, when I moved from the law firm to an in-house job at AlliedSignal, I kept a log of business jargon and acronyms in my Franklin Planner as a kind of curiosity.  The fact is, you almost couldn't understand what was going on without something like it, even though there was very little in the business Images6that was otherwise not reducible to common parlance.  Some areas were more difficult than others.  To this day, I cannot deal with any discussion of derivative investments (hedges, options, puts, calls, straddles, swaps, swaptions, etc.) without slowly and methodically translating it back into plain English.  I've long since lost the Franklin Planner, and the list is gone, but here are a few:

The Deck:  (n) the stack of PowerPoint slides sitting in front of everybody at the meeting.

STRAP: (n) the Strategic Plan.  This was all-consuming for most executives of the company from about April through the end of July, culminating in a Deck that was about three inches thick, and which was the subject of week-long turgid meetings in which the managers of individual businesses explained EVERYTHING they knew about anything, usually in the hope that senior management would leave them alone.

Roll-out:  (n) the process by which a new initiative is introduced to the organization.  Initiatives rolled out by functional departments were generally despised by line management, once they cascaded down.  "The roll-out of the required STRAP financial templates will take place on April 5, 1998."

Cascade down:  (v) with respect to information, to flow from the higher to the lower rungs of the organization.  Generally, it is the opposite of bubble up.  This might, for example, include annual OP goals (i.e. the operating income necessary to create earnings to support a trailing P/E that would be attractive enough to cause the sell-side analysts to issue strong buy recommendations.   The information in a roll-out might also cascade down.

Bubble Up:  (v) with respect to information, to flow from the lower to higher rungs of the organization.  Generally, it is the opposite of cascade down.  After the annual OP goals set by senior management (also known as deliverables) cascaded down to the SBUs (strategic business units), and the SBUs realized they bore no resemblance to what they had said about the capabilities of their businesses in their STRAPs, questions or complaints might bubble up to senior management.  If sufficiently obnoxious, the comments might cause a manager to move from seasoned professional, or even hi-po (high potential) to manage-out in the next MRR (management resources review). 

Note the linguistic issues here.  Even Dilbert, who makes fun of this stuff, has to do it in plain English so that ordinary readers can understand it.  Indeed, is Dilbert to business what anti-intellectualism is to the academy?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on June 16, 2008 at 11:07 AM in Corporate, Legal Theory | Permalink


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Jeff, I have an orthogonal point, which is that I don't think your post is granular enough. For example, what's the bid-ask?

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jun 16, 2008 2:37:11 PM

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