Calling BS on buzzwords isn’t by any means a novel endeavor—the internet’s continued crusade to eradicate the word “disruption” certainly attests to this. But despite all the colorful backlash on social networks, these vague, glossy topics—think “digital transformation,” “big data,” and “Internet of Things”—are still pervasive, from news headlines to marketing content to company websites.
Buzzwords do have their time and a place. Just as many clichés can be traced back to the writings of some of history’s greatest philosophers, buzzwords are buzzy for a reason—they often come from a place of revolution and pioneering. Buzzwords themselves aren’t the problem. Overuse, when combined with a failure to define them for a target audience, is.
But before we explore that idea further, let’s first draw a clear line between buzzwords and contemporary, idiomatic jargon. Using jargon, or corporate-speak, is a harmless, often unconscious shorthand for communicating in a specific cultural context. In other words, it’s a shared language of the Western white-collar world. In the era of “shelter in place,” this language can be jarring for significant others overhearing conference calls, as writer Laura Norkin observed:
A funny thing about quarantining is hearing your partner in full work mode for the first time. Like, I’m married to a “let’s circle back” guy — who knew?
— Laura Norkin (@inLaurasWords) March 19, 2020
There’s an irony surrounding jargon’s roots that’s not lost on tech pros, either. Common expressions like “let’s take this offline,” “do you have the bandwidth?” or “pinging” a client are derived from IT terminology. When spoken at my company, cloud services provider INAP, the literal meaning is often the intended meaning.
A problematic number of techy buzzwords, on the other hand, actively get in the way of comprehension, leading to a distinct feeling the messenger is relying on a copycat marketing tactic as opposed to substantive communication. One reason for this is simply that many of these terms lack a concrete, universally understood definition, and this ambiguity only leads to apathy.
For instance, a survey conducted by my company showed that IT professionals have become cynical about some buzzwords—but still take others seriously:
1. Augmented Reality (rated overhyped by 39% of IT professionals)
2. 5G Wireless (35%)
3. Biometric Authentication (32%)
4. AI in the Data Center (31%)
5. Blockchain (31%)
6. Anything “As a Service:” (30%)
7. Shadow IT (27%)
Most Deserving Attention
1. Machine Learning (rated deserving by 71% of IT professionals)
2. Digital transformation (71%)
3. DevOps (69%)
4. Multicloud (65%)
5. IoT (65%)
6. Edge Computing (63%)
7. AI in the Data Center (62%)
A significant percentage of IT professionals told us that they believe “blockchain” and nearly anything “as a service” is overhyped. Why? The way these terms are classified and defined, on a larger scale, is still incredibly hazy. While buzzy phrasing might drive clicks or inspire a vague sense of innovation, including terms like these without tethering them to tangible applications dilutes the entire message.
Tech professionals look to each other for insights that will impact their roles and organizations, and companies that rely on the clout of en vogue concepts without doing the hard work of drawing connections are doing their audiences a disservice.
Consider “Digital Transformation,” a term widely deemed worthy of the hype by INAP’s survey, and perhaps one of the most pervasive ideas in the IT and tech world in the past few years. It’s also incredibly nebulous on its face. Simply defined, digital transformation is the process of using new technologies to remake a product, service, or an entire business model. No two brands’ or organizations’ digital transformations will look the same—a conversation I have daily with customers charting the mix of cloud services they’ll use to launch new applications or reengineer old ones. In a vacuum, the term means nothing.
So, CIO, you want to announce a new digital transformation initiative internally? Assign it a palpable, well-defined strategy with a roadmap and achievable organization goals. Hey, ad executive: Dropping digital transformation in a 30-second TV spot is a risky play if the other 29 seconds don’t tightly associate it to your service.
We can absolutely take back fatigued buzzwords by paying more attention to execution, and by being especially meticulous in our messaging decisions. Let’s put more meaning behind the words and ideas intended to drive substantial change. If we don’t, we’ll just be stoking the fire of a hollow concept likely to burn out without producing any real heat.
Let’s circle back next year on the results.
Jennifer Curry is senior VP of global cloud services at INAP.