The Very Short Version
The act of joining and integrating into an organisation, but also…
The Longer (More Interesting?) Version
There are certain words which I like and others that I don’t. My preference for a word often relates to its feel and aesthetic. I like word which are simple and elegant, onboarding, to me, is neither of these things. I see it as a clumsy overweight word that doesn’t have a straightforward meaning or portray a complete concept. For onboarding this distaste is compounded by my common dislike of flipping a verb into a noun, particularly when the original word in this case was an adjective.
The concept that onboarding is trying to portray is one of someone joining a ship or a plane – getting on board. This concept was at some point in the late 1990s applied to people joining an organisation and thus was born the term onboarding, it was rarely used before then. Wikipedia relates the term to organisational socialisation and in what is quite a long article highlights the various approaches and challenges of onboarding. Whilst I, personally, don’t like the word it makes sense in this context and highlights an important challenge that many organisations experience as people join them and try to become productive. Onboarding as, if nothing else, easier to say than organisational socialisation.
This is where, for me, the more significant problem arises – term expansion and subsequent degradation. Sometimes it feels like every act of implementation or change has become onboarding:
“I’m just onboarding this application”
“Next week we will onboard our new facilities”
“We are in the process of onboarding several updated processes”
“We are looking forward to onboarding our new customer”
“The new cat is part way through the onboarding activities”
None of these are organisational socialisation, apart from, perhaps, the cat.
This is what happens in the modern world of corporate speak, people leap into using a term that they perceive everyone else is using without understanding its origin or original meaning. This leads to expansion of the term’s meaning and a degradation of its value. Eventually the meaning is so diverse that another term gets picked and the cycle continues.
We don’t appear to have reached peak onboarding yet, if the Google search trends are anything to go by, but I suspect that we will have found a replacement for it in the next few years. I wonder what the replacement will be?