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Accenture's next champion of waffle words
Lucy Kellaway/FT | January 30, 2008
When one door closes, another one opens. On Thursday the prison gates clanked shut behind Martin Lukes in Florida but, in London, the door of an office inside Accenture swung ajar, revealing Mark Foster, a middle-aged white man with a long-winded title.
Just as I was putting my final full stop to the story of the jargon-talking executive, someone forwarded me an internal e-mail sent by Accenture's group chief executive. Immediately I saw that this man could be a possible successor to Lukes. I don't know if Mr Foster has Martin's way with women or whether his golf swing is any good, as I have never met him. However, I have seen one of his e-mails and that is enough to convince me that, when it comes to world-class jargon, there is clear blue water between him and the rest - even at Accenture, where the bar, as they call it, is set so very high.
This isn't the first time I've singled out Accenture for its work in the jargon space. A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about its annual report, which was a perfect snapshot of the ugliest business language of the time. Inside was an orgy of "relentless passion" and "delivering value". The point, presumably, was to impress clients.
Yet Mr Foster's e-mail is more troubling as it shows top people write like this even when they think no clients are looking. His memo was addressed to "All Accenture Senior Executives" - though title inflation being what it is, this probably stretches to include the cleaner. Indeed as "group chief executive", Mr Foster is in a band of eight others with the same commanding title, and still has a couple of rungs to climb before reaching the very top.
The memo starts with some background to the announcement: "...wanting to give you continued visibility of our growth platform agenda..." it says. Visibility is the latest thing in business. Companies and executives all crave it but, until last week, I didn't know that growth platform agendas were after it too. What is he saying here, I wonder? I think, though couldn't swear to it, that he wants to tell his colleagues how the company plans to make more money.
And so to the meat of the memo. "We are changing the name of the Human Performance service line to Talent & Organization Performance, effective immediately."
Before you marvel at the stupidity of the name change, note first that departments can't even be called that: they are instead "service lines". As for the name, the old one may have been no great shakes, but to take away the "human" (which was surely the point) and replace it with "talent and organisation" is not progress. As I've often remarked before, the word "talent" is a hideous misnomer as most people aren't terribly talented at all.
Next comes the business rationale for the change. "With the rise of the multi-polar world, the task of finding and managing talent has become more complex, turbulent and contradictory than ever before."
This conflicts with two laws, the first of geography - there are only two poles - and the second of business - finding "talent" has always been hard as there isn't enough to go round. The only excuse for saying it is "complex, turbulent and contradictory" is to make it sound so complicated that the services of Accenture must be needed to sort it out.
Mr Foster says that what must be done is to teach organisations to "expand their talent management agenda from a narrow and tactical focus on human resources activities around the employee life cycle, to a broad and strategic focus on highly integrated systems of capabilities fundamental to business strategies and operations". This is shameful, outrageous bilge. HR should be narrow. It should be specifically focused around the employee life cycle (if that means hiring, training, promoting, firing).
His suggestion is frightening. I'm not sure I've ever seen quite so many waffle words crammed together in one sentence. Broad. Strategic. Focus. Highly. Integrated. System. Capabilities. Fundamental. Strategies. Indeed the only words here that are acceptable are "to", "and" and "on".
I will spare you further long quotes from this dismal memo, which contains much "stepping up", "blue water", "space" and "walking the talk". There is an obsession with capabilities. In four different places Mr Foster talks about "repositioning" them, "differentiating" them, "integrating" them and "evolving" them. This sounds like quite hard work, especially as I'm not quite sure what capabilities are anyway.
There is only one sentence I like - "Already we are seeing great progress!" - though it would be better still without the gung-ho exclamation mark.
Alas, the claim turns out to be unsubstantiated. The only progress mentioned is that the head of the newly named service line has written a book called The Talent Powered Organization and, to celebrate, Accenture is inviting clients to a party on Second Life - which I suppose cuts down on the bar bill.
How much does all this nonsense matter? Accenture isn't selling pensions to widows; if its rich corporate clients are prepared to buy HR services designed for a multi-polar world, that is their lookout.
However, there is something else about the memo that worries me more. Unlike Martin Lukes, Mr Foster has a classics degree from Oxford. I had always thought the point of studying classics was that it trained your mind and your pen. What this memo shows is that two decades at Accenture have a more potent effect on befuddling the mind than three years of Aeschylus and Horace ever had on sharpening it.