Saturday, September 27, 2014


The Evolution of Business-Speak

The way we talk about work has changed a lot as the types of jobs that we perform and the spaces in which we do them have changed. Just as the modern office would be a foreign world to a factory worker from the early industrial revolution, or to a craftsperson with a home workshop from an even earlier age, so would the language we use in the workplace today sound like it came from another country.

Cogs in the Machine

Industry was booming in the early 20th century. Factories were built and assembly lines devised where workers could each focus on a single, specific task. Mechanization and scientific thinking were the keys to boosting productivity, and whole companies, and the people who worked for them, were often thought of in terms of the well-oiled machine, working together towards a single purpose. The language of business, shaped by scientifically driven managers like Frederick Winslow Taylor, began to focus on maximized efficiency, accuracy, and production.

Cells in the Organism

The vision of the workplace and its workers as a machine began to change in the 1920s, when the metaphors used about the workplace took on a more biological theme. People began to talk about it as a living organism, rather than a machine. This shift in language was coupled with a growing interest in the psychology of the workplace and initiatives at places like the Hawthorne Works to create an environment where workers would be happier and therefore more productive. Terms like alienation, absenteeism and turnover became common.

A Corporate Culture

Another shift took place after the Second World War, when there was an upsurge of interest in the sociology of the workplace. It coincided with many upheavals in the workplace, and in wider society, not only because of the direct effects of the war, but also because of the changing status of working women and the creation of massive new corporations created by the many mergers of the 1950s. Individual employees no longer had a close connection to the companies they worked for, and were unlikely ever to meet the people who ran them. Managers needed to find a way to keep workers loyal, satisfied, and productive. To do this, they created a way of speaking about work that we still use today.

The concept of organizational or corporate culture began to be used at this time in order to talk about the way people interacted with each other at work. The goal of theories developed at business schools like MIT was to create happier workers who would feel connected to their colleagues and employers, and who would therefore work harder, and language was often at the heart of the cultures that were being built. Influential consultants like Peter Drucker convinced companies to see their employees as valuable resources, and to value them as knowledge workers for what they knew not just what they made. Rather than focusing on coercing reluctant workers into doing their jobs, managers began to talk about self-motivated workers who could be trusted to do their best and who would be driven by their own self-actualization, a term popularized in the 1960s by Maslow. However, people were still being described as resources, and all of this talk about personal fulfillment was aimed at increasing productivity.

This hidden focus on productivity came back to the forefront of office-speak during the 1980s, when the influence of Wall Street, management consultants and business schools began to be felt throughout the business world. Business terms became more aggressive and economically focused, with ideas such as leveraging, optionality, and the value-add becoming common. The terms used to describe getting rid of staff also proliferated, ranging from simple terms such as letting people go to more opaque terms such as streamlining and increasing operational efficiency. The focus was often on managing human "resources" to maximise efficiency.

Working in a Computer

Although many of these terms remain familiar to workers and managers today, more recent changes in the workplace have also had an impact on the way we talk about work. The spread of technology had a particularly dramatic impact, leading to people talking about workplaces as computers, just as they had once spoken of them as machines or living creatures. Terms such as bandwidth, hack, and multitask have spread out from technological firms, and along with the language, there has been a shift in our working cultures.

The focus has shifted back towards individual fulfillment, promoting innovation, creativity and disruptive ideas over conformity and productivity. The language used to talk about work has become more emotional, with people discussing their vision, values, passion, and energy. This focus on creating people whose jobs are their passions has even led managers to begin using words that were once more closely associated with spiritual concerns. One of the most recent buzzwords to spread through the business world is mindfulness, which has made its way from meditation, through psychology and medicine, and into the workplace. Big companies like Google have introduced mindfulness and meditation into their offices, where it is promoted as the key to productivity, job satisfaction and creativity.

Self-actualization is back at the heart of management-speak, although the goal is still to create a productive business, just as it was in the 1920s and 1960s, when other terms were used to encourage workers to enjoy their jobs. This time, it has been assisted by the spread of social media and the greater mobility that people experience in their working lives, with many workers grasping on to the idea of seeking their passion and creating their own personal brand to promote. Business-speak is not just a tool used by managers to create happy, productive workers, but also by individuals who want to work the system to their own advantage.


1. PBS Biography of Frederick Winslow Taylor
2. Harvard Business School explores The Hawthorne Effect
3. MIT’s Theory X and Y and Organizational Development
4. Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation
5. The Economist on Peter Drucker: Trusting the teacher in the grey-flannel suit
6. The New Yorker on Creativity Creep 

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