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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Earn Your BS in Corporate Communication

Anyone working in the past ten years has first hand experience with the failure of the American educational system to properly train wage slaves (strike that -- I mean "employees") for productive careers in Corporate America. If you or someone you know is considering incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt pursuing a college degree in such "fuzzy" fields as medicine, physics, chemistry, computer science or law, you should consider instead study in the field of corporate communications.

Earning your BS in Corporate Communications will provide not only what might be the only skill you need, you'll likely find it’s the only skill Corporate America actually allows employees to practice. Formal study of the discipline is relatively new but millions of subjects have been exposed to field tests involuntarily for at least a decade. The fundamentals of corporate communications are summarized in a useful dictionary format below. However, two caveats are worth mentioning about the list.

First, it's normally bad form to define a buzzword or catchphrase by using other buzzwords or catchphrases in the definition. Of course, that assumes your goal is to clearly communicate meaning. Of course, clear communication is exactly the OPPOSITE goal of most efforts in corporate communications. The goal of corporate communications is to AVOID communicating anything that could come back to haunt anyone while making everyone feel sophisticated about their vocabulary and public speaking skills. The more buzzwords used in a single sentence or paragraph, the better.

Second, traditionalists might normally argue that any program in language or communication should be categorized as a B.A. degree since there's certainly nothing scientific about this field but after reviewing this helpful introduction, even traditionalists were convinced the B.S. designation was much more appropriate.

The terms are grouped in categories based upon your place in the corporate pecking order.


The terms in this category are essential in following the daily status of work within any large company. These terms are usually spoken with arched eyebrows by those at the worker bee level of a company. When you can say more than a few of these without an arched eyebrow or if you actually beginning seeing meaning in these words, that's a surefire sign you are promotion eligible.

action item -- Action items are the building block upon which all pointless, off-schedule projects are based. The term "action item" was preferred by 8 of 10 project managers over the term "problem" since the very term implies movement and progress, rather than a scenario someone should have considered but no one identified. Some people use the term "action item" and "takeaway" interchangeably. SAMPLE USAGE: Wayne, can you take an action item to talk to the business owner to figure out what they want?

issue -- An issue is an action item looking for an owner. SAMPLE USAGE: Hey, the engineers can't get started with design until the product manager finishes writing the product description, can you run with that issue?

owner -- Owners work action items until they become problems again, at which point requests are made for a change in the scope document. Owners typically become owners of action items by being over-assigned with action items which prevent them from attending meetings to fend off being assigned additional action items. SAMPLE USAGE: All 335 of the action items have owners so the team is making good progress.

scope document -- Novices in the field of corporate communications frequently mistake a scope document as a clear-cut description of the range of work that will be completed by a project. This is an easy rookie mistake. The REAL purpose of a scope document is define reality by defining what ISN'T reality so as to provide air cover when the client discovers the project didn't address the one problem they really wanted solved. If it isn't in the scope document, you're off the hook. Of course, it takes years of experience to grasp the subtle difference between a scope document that describes what a project will address and a statement of work that describes exactly what a project will address. SAMPLE USAGE: I know the CEO is disappointed in the results but we carefully reviewed the scope document for the project and a login page for the system was not explicitly listed as a requirement for any of the phases.

statement of work -- A statement of work is typically an attachment to a contract used to outsource a critical business task to an army of consultants. For outsourced projects, there is perhaps no more important task than nailing down a good statement of work. Experienced professionals know that a properly written SOW can actually produce the finished project if the SOW and the accompanying scope document are left alone in a conference room with the right music and mood lighting. SAMPLE USAGE: The project is off to a great start. We've gained buy-in from the steering committee on the revised statement of work only eight days behind schedule.

deliverables -- Deliverables are perhaps the key difference between a scope document and a statement of work. A deliverable is best defined as a specific description of something on the project that won't be done on time. Deliverables are listed within a statement of work and typically tied to payment terms so both the company and its vendor are clear on why payments under the contract will be late. Skilled vendors often focus on creating artificial deliverables besides an actual working system to ensure they get paid for SOMETHING even if the company decides the actual solution required was outside the scope of work. SAMPLE USAGE: I checked with the steering committee to ensure buy-in on the changes in schedule for the deliverables under phase two of the statement of work.

track / phase / release -- These words are often used interchangeably by project managers and developers to convey a sense of structure to a project that in fact is completely devoid of any plan rooted in reality. Particularly adept practitioners of corporate communications will actually use these words TOGETHER to further nuance the degree of precision on exactly where a project doesn’t stand. These essentially serve the same purpose as mile markers on a highway when you are lost. They don't help identify where you are or even the highway you're on, they simply convey a sense of motion or progress and tell you you're moving farther away from the point at which you last knew where you were. -- SAMPLE USAGE: I think we can more readily achieve the goals of this enhancement if we split the next release into phases and split that first phase into two tracks so we can leverage our resources more effectively.

roadmap -- A roadmap is typically a single piece of paper that serves as the sole "baton" of communication between the project team and the steering committee. Apparently, the purpose of the roadmap is to eliminate enough detail from any communication between these layers to provide each layer plausible deniability that they were given enough insight into what the other was asking so no one is truly at fault when the project fails. A good roadmap boils down all of the tracks, phases and releases into a simple three color red/yellow/green scheme that shows the project miraculously being completed eight months from now despite all interim stages being bright red. SAMPLE USAGE: We'll have to update the project roadmap to reflect the latest change in scope resulting in the annual mid-summer budget fire drill.


A common theory states that the executive ranks are heavily populated with people with backgrounds in athletics or the military because those fields instill leadership and teambuilding skills which prove highly useful in business. That theory SOUNDS good, but perhaps the real reason athletics is such a useful background is that other than the 1972 Miami Dolphins, most sports teams are quite accustomed to losing on a consistent basis and many "star" players quickly seek free agency the minute they're lucky enough to play on a winning team under the delusion they won the entire season themselves.

Regardless of the reason for the popularity of these analogies, employees hoping to take it to the next level in their career must demonstrate mastery of all of the following terms. You have ZERO chance of being invited to steering committee meetings on a regular basis if you can't throw these terms around like a pro.

blocking and tackling -- This term is used invariably to describe work that is 1) boring and routine, 2) critical to the business 3) poorly executed within the company for years. In other words, these are the business equivalent of why the Arizona Cardinals have never seen a second NFL playoff game. When beginning an expensive, complicated project that requires lots of blocking and tackling to succeed, it's important to cite that blocking and tackling as a prerequisite. Since the lack of blocking and tackling is a likely reason why a big project is needed, identifying that prerequisite up front is an ideal way to deflect any doubts about whether the project can succeed. -- SAMPLE USAGE: This phase of the project is so incredibly complicated, if we can pull THIS off, getting the project out to the user community is just blocking and tackling.

tee it up -- The most common golf analogy used in business, the phrase "tee it up" is used by golf nuts tired of using the term straw man. Both refer to the process of documenting a problem or proposal (usually something obvious but unaddressed for years) for presentation to senior management but doing it in a way where you don't have to take ownership of the issue until it is clear at least one other person in the company agrees with you. SAMPLE USAGE: (Bob) You know, I've been thinking… Our hold times in the Center of Excellence have skyrocketed over the last year. I know this idea is really thinking outside the box but I think we ought to hire more service representatives to answer the phones." (Bill) Hey, great idea Bob, why don't you tee that up in the next steering committee meeting?

air cover -- In military situations, air cover allows ground troops to focus on terrestrial threats without worrying about being strafed out of nowhere by enemy airplanes. Curiously, in corporate communications, air cover is required almost exclusively to protect ground troops from being strafed by friendly fire from their own senior management. Air cover is an absolute requirement any time surprising information (delays, failures, cost overruns) is to be communicated. -- SAMPLE USAGE: Hey, before we status the steering committee on the delay on phase 2, I'm going to put a call into the SVP to explain the slip and get some air cover. If I go in without that, that could be a real CLM.

bird dog -- When your firm is unwilling to hire enough qualified employees or contractors to complete all of the deliverables in a project's statement of work, your only alternative to get your action items worked is to bird dog the owners to put your work ahead of the twenty other task they have to fill their 60 hour week. In other words, nag. SAMPLE USAGE: The project's only four weeks behind schedule but I think we can still deliver on time if you can just bird dog the remaining issues and get some focus on them.

rock star -- Use of the term rock start has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. It's intended as a supreme complement to the folks who can be counted on to get things done. Since in fact no rock stars work in corporate America, you can be assured that your "rock stars" ARE useful employees but they are being hampered from achieving true rock star levels of achievement by the rest of the staff around them. It's all relative. In an organization filled with people barely able to pronounce the word "guitar", the one guy you have that knows the chords and first two bars of the guitar solo in Freebird truly is a rock star. SAMPLE USAGE: Did you see those reports Dave generated yesterday? They summed up all the monthly numbers and even broke them down into bar charts. It's like he had a program to do it. That guy is a ROCK STAR, man!


If you can't be precise about WHAT isn't getting done, you can at least be more sophisticated when identifying WHO isn't getting the work done.

organization -- Experts in corporate communication use the term organization when referring to groups of employees whose job duties are so poorly defined and ever-changing that the only concise way to identify them is as Joe Blow's organization. This of course gives one no clue as to WHO is actually capable of resolving a question but at least a name can be put on the action item list on the project plan. -- SAMPLE USAGE: That's an important issue, I think we should tee that up with Joe's organization.

enterprise -- When explaining your project's goals to senior management, it's imperative that you are able to explain its cross-functional impacts to the entire enterprise. Use of the word "enterprise" instead of company is intended to convey a complex, carefully designed, well-functioning machine, much like the U.S.S. Enterprise with "go-to" guys you can bank on in the engine room, the sick bay and the bridge. Of course, this description bears no resemblance to YOUR company. -- SAMPLE USAGE: This project provides a lot of cross-functional synergies across multiple organizations within the enterprise.

steering committee -- Any large team working on any large project in any large company can ill afford to operate without at least one steering committee providing buy-in and air-cover to the effort. Particularly common in companies where middle and senior management are at least fifteen years removed from any hands-on familiarity with the project being worked, steering committees not only help but also ensure that when the project falls months behind, the steering committee members have adequate time to be confused about more important issues to explain why the project is farther behind than it was on Day One. Steering committees in business are about as effective as a steering committee on your family's cross-country vacation road trip. -- SAMPLE USAGE: I think we need to take an action item to review the roadmap with the steering committee before committing to the resource plan.

Center of Excellence -- Companies with huge customer bases and poor business processes have adopted this term almost exclusively for use in conjunction with another all time classic corporate oxymoron -- Customer Care. If you're able to say the term "Customer Care" with a straight face in the context of a company that designs all of its systems to avoid allowing customers to speak to humans when trying to spend their money with your company or (heaven forbid...) actually get what they already paid for from your company, it's a very small step to rechristen the actual call centers focusing all of this customer dissatisfaction in one place as "Centers of Excellence." Note that proper usage dictates the capitalization of the term. It's a title only, it's not intended to actually be descriptive. It's still the same call center that lacks the staff to handle the flood of complaints from your customers. -- SAMPLE USAGE: Hey, maybe we should take an action item to assemble some training for the Center of Excellence a few days before we launch the new product?


If Eskimos truly have over a thousand words for "snow", they have NOTHING on the corporate world's inventiveness in creating terms in the area of CYA.

buy-in -- Obtaining buy-in for a major project from senior management across the enterprise is crucial for career survival. Solutions to projects that require buy-in are typically about as difficult as the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem and are thus highly prone to failure. When that failure comes, having a list of people who provided buy-in is like a get out of jail free card. If everyone signed on the project, it was clearly a vexing issue immune to simple, inexpensive solutions and since no one was willing to fund the proper complex, expensive solution to the problem, no one can be faulted. See how that works? SAMPLE USAGE: I think we have buy-in from the client organizations about the change in scope on the first phase of the project so we can proceed with the new roadmap.

CLM -- An acronym for "career limiting move", this term has rapidly evolved to being used almost exclusively for situations where a diligent, competent employee reaches a point of peak frustration with the status quo and actually speaks the truth to senior management. Months or years of isolation from the truth weakens executives' natural protections against the real thing so large unexpected doses can sometimes be fatal. If it isn't fatal to the executive, it almost always winds up being fatal for the career of the person delivering the dose. -- SAMPLE USAGE: Hey, did you hear about the steering committee meeting yesterday? Joe actually told the VPs the reason the project is late is because they've changed the goals three times after the statement of work was signed before even the first batch of deliverables could be completed. Talk about a CLM!

straw man -- For managers isolated from reality by years of attending steering committee meetings, throwing out ideas off the top of their head in a meeting with underlings can be potentially embarrassing. Use of the term "straw man" is ideal in these situations because it serves two purposes. First, if someone shoots down the idea, you can avoid divulging the fact that it was the only idea you've proposed in the last five years and that it took you the past three months to formulate, thus avoiding extreme embarrassment. Second, putting an idea out there as a "straw man" is a great way to act like you're a team player, trying to spur "innovation", trying to get people thinking outside the box. -- SAMPLE USAGE: This is just a straw man proposal, but maybe we can address that issue by rewriting the app using a client / server paradigm.

thinking outside the box -- This phrase is frequently used to exhort teams to "think creatively" or avoid ruts of old ideas that produced the current problems facing the organization. Completely lost on the people who use this phrase is the fact that "thinking outside the box" accomplishes very little with people starting with a very small box. -- SAMPLE USAGE: Hey, that new plan to improve customer satisfaction by installing more IVR capacity to avoid talking to customers is really thinking outside the box.

piggy-back -- This phrase is used by cowardly managers to attach additional comments on to larger, more controversial comments made by someone else who is either honest enough or disenchanted enough with the current situation to actually speak the truth in a meeting (see CLM). -- SAMPLE USAGE: Excellent point Joe, our customers DO hate us. Let me piggy back on that by summarizing some market research that we did that indicates that 33 percent of our customers have actually contemplated discharging a firearm while dealing with our "Center of Excellence."

space -- This term first came into popularity during the Internet bubble when marketing professionals challenged with the task of explaining to would-be customers exactly what their product did began leveraging this word to save space in PowerPoint presentations. Whenever you see this word used, it actually translates as "a product with no proven business model aimed at other businesses who themselves have no proven business model". You can see how "space" is so much more compact and friendly on the slide. -- SAMPLE USAGE: I think we're struggling because we haven't chosen a best-of-breed solution in the application management space for use within our enterprise.

problem space -- After witnessing the success of marketing types with the generic term space, many technical types adopted the word when attempting to precisely define problems they were unable to solve. After all, it's clearly preferable to have a more exact picture of the problem if you've determined you can't solve it. -- SAMPLE USAGE: I understand the organization desperately needs that system replaced but my team doesn't have the resources to properly address that problem space.

solution space -- This is a companion term to problem space and is typically used when you DO clearly understand the problem to be solved but also clearly understand you have none of the skills needed to solve it. Describing the problem as something that doesn't fit your solution space sounds so much preferable to saying "my last program was HELOWRLD.BAS in BASIC in 1983 and I have no idea how to create a user satisfaction survey on a web server." -- SAMPLE USAGE: We have a great handle on the design issues but it's not a good fit for our solution space.


Due to changing priorities, the following terms were taken out of scope for this project and referred to the steering committee to place on a future roadmap.

take it to the next level

peel the onion

work plan





Don't go there

Current state

long pole in the tent

push the envelope