Office Speak: Onboarding

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?

Office Speak: The Tracker

The Very Short Version

A tracker is a list: Normally it’s a list of activities that need to be tracked and is often created in Microsoft Excel.

The Longer (More Interesting?) Version

A tracker is a list which is commonly a list of activities that someone has decided to put together for their own purposes which has sometimes been created from a template. The common purpose of a tracker is to place responsibility on other people for completion of the activities within it. The infection mechanism for trackers is simple, only requiring an individuals name or initials to be added to a line in a tracker at some point. Once added the individual is permanently infected by the tracker with limited chance of rehabilitation. Individuals do not need to be present to become infected.

Trackers are reproducing organisms that can multiply into plague inducing swarms if hygiene activities are not undertaken. There can be multiple trackers for each activity and multiple activities within a tracker, there are even organisations with trackers that track the number of trackers. Each tracker is commonly associated with a progress meeting which will require all of the infected members to attend for the entirety of the meeting even though they may only have limited exposure to the disease. A single record on a tracker is enough to mandate attendance at the progress meeting, some trackers have several hundred records associated with them and the expectation is that every line in the tracker is being worked on.

The common tracker is also likely to morph from a simple organism into a complex mind-bending organism that confuse everyone apart from the creator of the tracker. The scope of a tracker is one of it’s primary morphing mechanisms, the scope is rarely limited which allows it to grow and shrink at any time.

The primary infection source for trackers is Microsoft Excel which, when combined with email can achieve impressive rates of disease amongst the standard workforce. This form of contagion is extremely difficult to monitor as it slips unseen into the normal operation of many businesses through the standard communication mechanisms. The multiplication effect of email communicated trackers produces a significant increase in repetitive data being sent across these mechanisms whilst at the same time making the creation of a comprehensive view of the works required almost impossible. The lack of a comprehensive view of activities is commonly managed through the use of another tracker.

Trackers are non-exclusive infectors with workers experiencing the combined effects from exposure to multiple trackers. The nature of these symptoms differ between the trackers with each tracker having morphed slightly from its previous incarnation and trackers themselves having no defined structure, other than being based on a list. Individuals with multiple tracker infections will be expected to attend the progress meeting for each infection, even if the infection relates to a single activity being undertaken.

One effect of trackers is to make people colour-blind, this has been concluded from a multi-year review of the contents of trackers and the formatting of the cells within these trackers. Particular favourites are red text-on-blue background and yellow text-on-green background.

It is very rare for a tracker to die, they nearly always become dormant before they can be completed. They then lie dormant until someone, generally the person who created them, revives them and reinvigorates the infection for the people named within the tracker.

Some trackers are able to slip under the attention radar and possess cloaking capabilities. If an individual has not noticed an infection by a particular tracker they are liable to be embarrassed in a progress meeting. If you are invited to a progress meeting it is likely that you have been infected even though that infection may not be evident.  Trackers do not actively alert those that have been infected, the disease lies cloaked until a meeting.

Other, more effective, mechanisms for tracking activity do exist and can be successfully deployed as a vaccine, but these are only partially successful and rarely eradicate the tracker infestation completely. This does not mean that attempts to do so are without merit because deployment of alternative mechanisms will allow workers to be effective in the parts of their life where the tracker has been eliminated.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with tracker infections, I am considering the creation of a support group for those impacted and would like to know whether you would be interested in attending. I will, of course, create a tracker for this.

Office Speak: Super Excited

This may be a common term in other cultures, but I’m British and being excited about anything is something that we only attach to major family events. We find it somewhat baffling when we walk into a business meeting and the people in there tell us that they are super excited to be together.

It’s probably a stretch for most Brits to say that they are excited about a birthday, even a major birthday wouldn’t count as super excited.

The birth of a new child counts as excited. I’m not sure what would need to happen for someone to be super excited about a new birth? Perhaps a couple who have struggled to conceive would make it to super excited when a much desired offspring is born.

So what is it about a routine meeting in a grey room with limited air conditioning and a 1000 bullet point PowerPoint presentation that would make someone super excited?

I was recently given a mug that says:

Meetings: The place we discuss all the things which must happen but will never actually happen.

It doesn’t sound very exciting to me.

The various dictionary definitions of excited talk about being emotionally aroused, something I would expect to see in abundance in the people that tell me they are super excited. Emotional arousal is rarely something I see in the business context, perhaps I’m not as empathetic as I think I am, but I think I ought to be able to see super emotional arousal.

All that I can conclude is that this is Office Speak. It’s no longer good enough to say that you are pleased to be in a meeting, or even excited to be in a meeting, the constant ratcheting up of Office Speak means that people now need to be super excited. Ah well, that’s the way it goes, I wonder what will follow; colossally excited, gigantically excited or perhaps we’ll choose a different word to excited, orgasmic?

Off now to be super excited about a cup of tea.

Office Speak: “Agile with a capital ‘A'” and “agile with a small ‘a'”

We have a way of co-opting words into office speak. The latest for many people in the technology arena is agile.

The word agile means:

able to move quickly and easily.

Something that many organisations aspire to do. They want to move more quickly and without it being so hard to do. In our office speak this has become known as “agile with a small ‘a'”.

This word has then been co-opted by a methodology that was birthed in the software development arena, but is becoming more widely used outside that arena. In our office speak this has become known as “Agile with a capital ‘A'”.

We need to differentiate as we speak so that we know which meaning is being used. It’s easy in written text, but as we speak we have no way of differentiating and sentences can have a very different meaning depending on which is being used:

“My customer wants to be more agile.”

Meaning: customer want to be able to move more quickly and stop taking so long to do anything.

“My customer wants to be more Agile.”

Meaning: customer wants to do a better job of adopting the principle of the Agile Manifesto.

This is where it gets fun, because one of the ways a customer may become more agile is by adopting Agile. Which is easy to understand written down, but when you are speaking you need to say:

one of the ways a customer may become more agile with a small ‘a’  is by adopting Agile with a capital ‘A’.

That’s clear isn’t it?

But it doesn’t stop there. There’s also lean and Lean and sometimes Lean and Agile are used together to help organisations to become more lean and agile 🙂

There’s more, don’t forget about safe and SAFe, waterfall and Waterfall, word and Word, workplace and Workplace, need I go on?

I’m off now to write a few words into a Word document for an organisation that has a nice workplace next to a waterfall about how they may communicate using Workplace as they move away from Waterfall toward Lean and Agile, because they aspire to become more lean and agile 🙂

Office Speak: Industrialise (Industrialisation)

Sometimes words take on a meaning within a subculture that is different to the meaning in the general population.

Industrialise has a widely used meaning.

I live in the UK which is an industrialised nation, arguable it’s a post industrial country, but either way the meaning is the same and it’s the dictionary meaning:

Industrialise: develop industries in (a country or region) on a wide scale.

This meaning of the word is widely used and understandable.

To Industrialise is the process of creating Industry, the noun from which we get the verb is industry.

That’s not what it means in my Office Speak subculture 🙂

In Office Speak Industrialise is used for the process of taking something that is being developed through the various organisational processes that will allow it to be built in a repeatable way.

We need to industrialise the process for shoe lace tying.

We need to industrialise the way that we support light-sabre maker XI.

In my particular sector this use of the word feels like an overstatement. When you think about repeat-ability in the context of a word like industrialisation your perhaps imagining  run-rates like those of a car manufacturer or a mobile phone manufacturer – hundreds of thousands and millions of units. In our context you’d be completely wrong. I work in a segment of the IT business where repeating something a few thousands times would be regarded as a large run, doing something in the tens of thousands being massive.

So why do we use the word? I’m not sure I know, but I suspect it’s got something to do with one of the ways in which we use the word industrial. When we talk about something having an industrial design we tend to mean that it is robust, sturdy, reliable, those kind of a things. In that context industrial is the noun that we then turn into a verb to create the word industrialise, by which I think we mean something like:

Industrialise: To make robust, sturdy, reliable.

Repeat-ability is another, but smaller, part of the meaning.

I’ve always been fascinated by the genesis of words and their meaning in subcultures. Many businesses have a subculture of words that take on specific meanings within that organisation. In my own particular organisations we have existing words that take on new meanings, like industrialise, we have specific words that take on meanings for which there is already a commonly used word, we even have completely new words with new meanings. That’s the joy of communicating, you never quite know what you are saying.

Office Speak: Skate to where the puck is going to be

Imagine that you are sitting in your team meeting and you are in mid flow pontificating about your favourite subject, but you have a problem, you know that at the end of this sentence you have nothing left to say. There’s a real danger that you are going to fall off the cliff and into a dark void of silence. You need something to say and you need it soon. Fortunately you have a stock of cliches ready for this very occasion. Which one will you use? Which of the many are you going to leap to? Are any of them appropriate to this meeting? You flash through the memory cards in your head and settle on an old favourite:

“We need to skate to where the puck is going to be.”

And with that you conclude.

The team nod in agreement as your timely words, everyone apart from the young graduate who has just joined the team. She looks at you blankly:

“I’m sorry, but what does that mean.”

You open your mouth to explain and then realise that you don’t have a sensible explanation. You’ve used this term so many times before, but you’ve never really thought about what it really means, you can’t even remember where you first heard it. You’ve heard it used so many times that it’s become embedded in your psyche.

The reality is, this cliche is a quote:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

Wayne Gretzky

As you may have already guessed, it’s an ice hockey reference. Wayne Gretsky was apparently quite good at it, not that I would know, I’m trusting Wikipedia.

The basic idea of the quote is that if you are going to intercept a puck your only hope is to go to where it is going to be by the time you get there. There’s no point in trying to intercept it by going to where it has already been.

The term is regularly used in the technology arena to describe the plans of organisations and their latest innovations. Steve Jobs used the term to describe the approach at Apple:

“There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been. And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple.”

Quotes from Steve Jobs tend to hit management-speak over-use in no time at all. Every manager dreams of being Steve Jobs after all.

How often the term is relevant in day-to-day business is debatable. There are times when it is very appropriate, but all too often it’s just being used as a filler and not got any authentic meaning.

The blog was brought to you by the word “puck” and the letter “w”.

Concept of the Day: Campbell’s Law

Campbell’s law is defined by the following quote from Donald T. Campbell:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In other words: the higher the stakes associated with a measure, the more likely it is that the measure is corrupt and in so doing that the system being measured becomes corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a school exam the more likely it is that people teach to get a high pass mark and in so doing teaching become corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a business measure the more likely it is that people manage to the measure, or even falsify the measure, and in so doing corrupt the business.

There are numerous places where you can see this being worked out historically; the more important question, though, is where is this happening today?

What effect does it have if you stop people’s benefits if they don’t fill out a defined number of job applications?

What effect does it have if you pay a traffic warden on the basis of the number of fines they manage to issue?

What effect does it have if you fine rail operators for late trains?

What effect does it have if you pay doctors on the basis of the number of appointments they complete?

I’m sure there are many, many more.

This little video does a really nice job of explaining Campbell’s Law: