Saturday, 31 October 2009

Corporate Lingo

Managerial Pseudo-Jargon: a form of language widely used in corporate settings which is neither a jargon in the sense of the specialised language of a group of experts nor a jargon in the sense of meaningless verbal noise making but which uses metaphors and expressions which tend to make organisations sound more solid than they really are and make managerial work sound more "special" activity than it actually is. (Watson, 2006)

Ok, every profession has its specific jargon: doctors, lawyers, plumbers and sailors (probably also prostitutes have one). Therefore, also managers, and corporate people in general, deserve this right. But, I have the impression that the managerial jargon is not really necessary as others may be. Many things could be said in "normal" languague, but probably they wouldn't sound as cool. Probably, one of the main functions of this way of speaking is to discriminate between those who are "in" and those who are "out"; therefore a signalling function. Or maybe, as pointed out in the quotation at the beginning, to make things sound more solid and special than they actually are. Anyway, this time I don't want to enter into any philosophical question about the managerial jargon, I just want to make fun of it (Ok, I am probably going to use it myself in my career, but who cares for now). I surfed the web to look for lists and definitions of the most common business terms (if you are studying a business-related topic or if you're already working in any type of business environment you'll know most of them) and collected some here (there are thousands, I have taken the ones I liked the most). Enjoy!

The following are taken from

Absolutely: Over-enthusiastic, over-affirming four-syllable response used in place of a simple "yes."

Adhocracy: An organization with little structure run by creating a series of temporary cross-functional teams to do specific tasks. Depending upon execution, the result is either efficient problem-solving or utter chaos.

B2B: Business-to-business was too traditional sounding. B-to-b was too clunky. But B2B is way-cool and much easier to work into headlines and ads.

B2C: The abbreviation insanity continues. Now we have Business to Consumer.

Best practices: A term bandied about in business management circles and describes business tactics (and strategies) used in successful companies. The term, however, can be misleading. While "best practices" seems to imply success, they may have nothing to do with the actual success of the company.

Cannibalism: When a new marketing channel steals business from existing channels without adding new growth. While this is a legitimate business concern, it's downright frightening to the executive whose bonus is tied to the "old" channels.

Empowerment: The corporate mantra of the late '90s used to deceive subordinates into believing they actually were allowed to think and make decisions on their own.

First mover: In business, it’s the company that gets its new innovative product or service (or solution) to market first. Supposedly, this gives them a "first-mover advantage" and the opportunity to dominate the market and making it difficult for others to compete against them.

Leveraging our assets: This probably meant something once, but today EVERY COMPANY seems to leverage its assets. Doesn't it make sense that a company would put its resources, whether it's money, location or talent, to best use in order to make a profit?

Out of office: The annoying subject line of auto-reply e-mail that announces everyone else is on vacation or at a cool conference while you’re still slaving away at work.

Outshore: The practice of outsourcing a company's computer programming needs and development to a country where high tech labor is cheap (China and India come to mind).

Rightsizing: A perversion of "downsizing," meant to showcase the wisdom acquired by the "sizer" since his/her last foray into the re-scaling jungle.

Win/win: A fascinating business concept that somehow eliminates the "loser" in any deal or project. Loose translation: "This really works for us and we all pray it works for you, too."

The following are taken from

must be deadline oriented: you'll be six months behind schedule on your first day.

some public relations required: if we're in trouble, you'll go on tv and get us out of it.

self-motivated: management won't answer questions.

seeking candidates with a wide variety of experience: you'll need it to replace three people who just left.

problem-solving skills a must: you're walking into a company in perpetual chaos.

requires team leadership skills: you'll have the responsibilities of a manager, without the pay or respect.

The list could go on ad infinitum with other terms and expressions such as Brain storming, Learning curve, Big picture, Benchmark, Downsize, Synergy, Walk the talk, Strategic fit... But I guess it's enough for the moment!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Understanding Sensemaking, part 1

In these days I am reading a book called Sensemaking in Organizations, written by Karl E. Weick, professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the University of Michigan. I am supposed to read this book for a class I am following here in Copenhagen, but I am, anyway, getting more and more interested in the phenomenon of sensemaking (apart from the necessity to read the book for the exam!). I have to admit that I am having a hard time understanding the book, because it is pretty dense and complex, so that's why I decided to write a post about it: it may be a good exercise for me (so I understand if I have understood) and a nice reading for you (hopefully). The phenomenon described in this book - sensemaking - is an activity we are continuosly engaging in (on a more than daily basis I would say); so that's another reason for the legitimacy (and usefulness) of this post. In order not to make the post boring, I will try to be very concise and therefore explain only the basics aspects of the concept. I will split the discussion in two posts: a first one where in which I will define the concept and a second one in which I will explain the seven distinctive features of this phenomenon (always according to K. weick).

So, let's start with some definitions: Sensemaking is, in plain words, the process of giving a sense to reality. The idea is that we live in a continuos "stream of experience" that has no meaning in itself. It only gets a meaning when we attach one to it. Therefore, we place the various stimuli which reality offers into a given framework of understanding. We create cognitive maps of an environment we wouldn't otherwise understand.

A useful way to better appreciate the concept of sensemaking is to differentiate it from the similar notion of interpretation. The difference between these two concepts is subtle and difficult to understand, but if you manage to get it, it probably means that you have truly understood the meaning of sensemaking. Interpretation involves the existence of an object that has to be interpreted. The object to be interpreted is, anyway, already given, it already exists. You interpret a situation, a text, an affirmation, and so on. Sensemaking, instead, also adresses how that situation, is built. Weick (1995) writes: "the concept of sensemaking is valuable because it highlights the invention that precedes interpretation." Interpretation is a component of sensemaking, but the latter is also about how the situation is built. The assumption here is that we define reality. Sensemaking is about "authoring as well as reading"; whereas, interpretation is only about "reading".

Therefore, we can summarize the forementioned ideas by understanding how "people make sense of things by seeing a world on which they already imposed what they believe." With this quote we can well understand how sensemaking implies the construction of a given reality and the subsequent interpretation of it.

In the next post, as mentioned above, we are going to dig deeper and discover the seven distinctive features of sensemaking. In the meantime, as an exercise, you can try to start to pay attention to when your are involved in making sense of situations: think about something that happened to you recently, try to understand how you made sense of it and pay particular attention to how you have defined the situation (and also try to understand if that was the only way in which you could have defined it). After some exercising (I am also doing it in these days) you will become more acute and attentive to these processes. Moreover, you will also be able to understand when other people involve in sensemaking and, last but not least, you will be able to better appreciate the next post on the topic.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Alternative Solutions to Stop Global Warming?

Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner, authors of Freakonomics and now of Superfreakonomics (published a couple of days ago), are always able to spread strong controversy with their writings. In Freakonomics it was the case of Levitt's famous study claiming that the significant reduction in crime that the US witnessed in the nineties was mainly due to the Roe vs. Wade law that authorized abortion (I had written a post on this research, you can read it here). You can imagine how a similar statement was taken by certain political/religious groups. This time, with Superfreakonomics, they managed to create a new, possibly harsher, debate on the hot (allow me to use this term) theme of global warming and climate change. In this chapter, always using their economist lenses, they discuss the various implications of the phenomenon, therefore the "the risks, uncertainties, misperceptions, and proposed solutions" (Freakonomics blog) to Global warming.

In the chapter, Levitt & Dubner discuss about the various difficulties in reducing our carbon emission significantly. It would take many and many years, they say, and the costs of trying to reduce the emissions would be huge ($ 1 trillion per year they say). Moreover, "even the most sophisticated climate models are limited in their ability to predict the future, and [there is a] large measure of uncertainty in this realm, given that global climate is such a complex and dynamic system." (Freakonomics Blog). They also write that even if start reducing our carbon emissions today the Earth would continue to get warmer every day.

Therefore, given all these seemingly insurmountable difficulties, the solution of geo-engineering is proposed: basically trying to lower the temperature of the Earth by artificially decreasing it. Obviously, being economists, they did not invent this technique, but they give voice the ideas of different scientists. In their blog (where they are fighting the battle against the strong criticism following from their statements) they write:

"A much better approach, we conclude, is geoengineering. The scientific evidence suggests that either the stratoshield [a technique that "involves the controlled injection of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to cool ground temperatures"] or increased oceanic clouds [another strange technique to lower the Earth's temperature] would have a large and immediate impact on cooling the Earth, unlike carbon-emission reductions. The cost of these solutions is trivial compared to the cost of lowering carbon emissions — literally thousands of times cheaper! Perhaps best of all, if something goes wrong and we decide we don’t like the results of the stratoshield or the oceanic clouds, we can stop the programs immediately and any effects will quickly disappear. These two geo-engineering solutions are completely reversible." (Freakonimcs Blog).

Now, the solution they put forward is at least interesting (also kind of complex to understand, let's admit it). But, it definitely goes against the mainstream line of thought and, obviously, this creates a strong debate. Ok, you may argue: proposing similar controversial themes also creates a lot of advertising for their book. But, apart from this considerations, I think that, when discussing about such important themes (like global warming), it is very important to really listen to all the different voices in the debate (if we want to enrich it). Otherwise we may end up running blindly in one direction without thinking about the possible consequences of that. In fact, on a purely intuitive level, it is easy to understand that lowering significantly our carbon emissions may be very difficult: more than two billion people (China and India mainly) are starting/have already started to have higher consumption levels and therefore the overall level of pollution is rising tremendously. I don't think they would be happy if we'd ask them something like: "Could you please stop developing so fast?" Therefore alternative solutions deserve to be, at least, taken into consideration without arguing that those putting them forward are terrorists!

Monday, 19 October 2009

A Brilliant Lesson on Creating Value

Advertising guru Rory Sutherland gives a brilliant and hilarious talk on creating value by changing our perception of the product, rather than the product itself. Please don't stop the video unless you have seen the Shreddies example towards the end of the lecture (from 12:00).

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Leadership: Towards a Paradigm Shift

According to M. Popper (2004), "The first modern attempt to formulate a theory of leadership appears to be that of the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1841)". Carlyle, describes the leaders as the ones leading the masses, the ones who are responsible for cultural changes, the ones who make history. Leaders are prophets, heroes, martyrs, fighters and other similar outstanding figures. Outliers. We, mere mortals, cannot even think of being one.

The dominant (stereotypical) idea of a leader is precisely the one described above. Leaders are very rare individuals with even more rare attributes: they are able to transform and inspire people to become their followers. They have a vision and they change things dramatically. German sociologist, M. Weber called these leaders charismatic: they do not derive their power from legal sources (they are appointed as leaders because some law or regulation wants it) or customs (they are appointed as leaders because the tradition wants it), rather they are like that because of their traits, their characteristics, their charisma.

The reasons why we have this kind of implicit leadership theory (Schyns and Meindl, 2005) can be explained in various ways. The first, more evident, one is the fundamental attribution error (Ross, Amebile & Steinmatz, 1977). This bias refers to the fact that we tend to overestimate dispositional, personality-based explanations when trying to understand/explain someone actions, and therefore undervalue the influence of context. It is very difficult to understand how things really work, therefore we attribute the success of a given firm only to the CEO. Such phenomenon is called by J. Meindl the Romance of Leadership, describing the tendency to excessively attribute to a leader the success or failure of an entire organization. "In the absence of direct, unambiguous information about an organization, respondents would tend to ascribe control and responsibility to leaders with events and outcome to which they could be plausibly linked to (Meindl et al. 1985, cited by Jackson & Perry, 2008). It is a mental shortcut, in fact it would be definitely too difficult (if not impossible) to investigate and try to understand the complexity of a given chain of events. Media also play an important role in creating such figures. They need them to attract our attention and we need their narratives to better understand reality. These narratives are made of heroes crafting events. There is no space left for circumstances, structural forces and so on.

Anyway in the last years, some scholars have been trying to promote a paradigm shift in the discourse (as meant by Foucault) of leadership. A discourse defines and thus limits the ways in which a topic can be plausibly reasoned and/or talked about: hundreds of years, books and university courses describing leadership in a certain way have shaped our way of thinking about the topic. As written above, the classic, hegemonic view on leadership tended to promote the idea that leaders are people with larger-than-life personalities, capable of changing people's mind with their charisma, communication abilities, and so on and so forth.

J. Badaracco, though, challenges this view. In fact, he speaks of quiet leaders as those people who lead behind the scenes in a silent way we can say. He writes: "over the course of a career spent studying management and leadership, I have observed that the most effective leaders are rarely public heroes. [...] They move patiently, carefully and incrementally. They do what is right - for their organizations, for the people around them, and for themselves [...]" (Badaracco, 2002). So leaders, according to Harvard professor Badaracco, are not those people (e.g.: CEOs & co.) constantly standing in the spotlight making dramatic decisions for their blind followers. They are normal people. A similar concept, critical to the classic idea of leaders, was also put forward by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great (2001). In his study of various successful US organizations over several years, he concludes that: "these CEOs represented the antithesis of the charismatic and narcissistic turnaround kings who were held up as the archetypical CEOs during the financial booms of the 1980s and 1990s." (Jackson & Perry, 2008).

This new way of thinking about leaders may not take into consideration the whole truth. In fact, we definitely have and need "classic charismatic leaders", but it is useful to counterbalance the more traditional approach with a more quiet view on the phenomenon. The idea that you don't necessarily need to have an extra strong personality to be a leader is definitely intriguing. The understanding of the fact that those who are defining the game may be playing off stage is even more attracting and encouraging in today's mediatized world, where if you're not in the media you don't exist. This and other critical approaches to leadership are therefore very useful in widening and deepening our understanding of this very complex and interesting social phenomenon.

Did You Know That...

More or less:

  • there are 31,000 McDonald's in the world,
  • 20 hours of video are posted on YouTube every minute,
  • 5 babies are born every second,
  • 2 persons die every second,
  • Micheal Jackson's Thriller sold 110 million of copies,
  • 32,000,000 people are infected with HIV,
  • over 3 billion people live on less than $ 2.50 a day,
  • there are 16,100 Starbucks in the world,
  • 300 million people are on Facebook,
  • almost 53 millions of cars were produced in 2008,
  • if you google Google, you get 173,000,000 result in about 0.08 seconds,
  • 160 million copies of the IKEA catalogue were printed in 2006,
  • J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings sold 150 million of copies (someone says only 100...),
  • Almost the 25% of the world population has access to Internet,
  • almost 340 million of people are obese in the world,
  • painting No. 5 (1948) by American artist Jackson Pollock was sold for $140 million,
  • 10.4 billion male condoms were used worldwide in 2005,
  • the average American spends 9 hours a day in front of some kind of screen (Tv, Pc, Mobile phone, etc...),
  • in 1917 Coke was already selling 3 million bottles a day,
  • about 1,000 movies are produced by Bollywood each year,
  • 21.17 millon of IPhones were sold until today,
  • Martini was the most googled "cocktail" of 2008 (mojito following).

...Last but not least: today I was supposed to spend some time studying, but I´ve spent an awful lot of time looking for these useless stats! ...That's the way the cookie crumbles...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Obama, the Nobel Prize and the Power of Symbols

Friday Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy". The general reaction was one of astonishment. Let's admit it, nobody was really expecting it! According to experts, Obama wasn't even in the list of the favorites. Lots of people are still trying to understand what was passing through the heads of the Nobel prize committee when they decided to give the prize to Mr. Obama. Among the previous winners were big names like Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, Henry Kissinger. They were awarded the prize mainly for their achievements, not for their good promises/premises.

In today's Financial Times one could read that the prize was awarded "just after 263 days after taking office, triggering praise and incredulity across the world over a decision that rewards him more for promise than achievement". That's why everybody was amazed: "more for promise than achievement". Obama himself said the he was "surprised and humbled" by the decision and that he did not feel worth to be counted among the great figures that had previously won the prize.

Now, I am far away from being an expert in such matters, that's why I tried to make myself an idea on why a similar decision was taken, and on what was the message that the Nobel Prize committee was trying to convey. I have read a couple of articles on the web, some blogs and various newspapers trying to understand how people were making sense of the extraordinary event. Overall, the reactions can be divided in two groups: those who are saying "C'mon, wasn'it a bit too early?!" and those who are saying: "That's a good thing! The guy has a vision!". Here are three quotes that summarize the spirit of the interpretations that I found more interesting and more realistic (in explaining why the prize was awarded to Obama):

"Obama has been widely credited with improving America's global image after the eight-year presidency of Bush, who alienated friends and foes with policies that often aroused international ire like the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq." (Reuters)

"Mr Obama, or his administration, has set in motion a process of having a nuke-free world, arresting climate change, diplomatically engaging countries belonging to what his predecessor called "axis of evil," building a true state of Palestine and putting pressure on Israel to end the Palestinian occupation, closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, and making human rights violators of the previous administration accountable for their wrongdoing." (Business World)

"This is an interesting question for those who study signaling theory. [...] First, Obama has strongly signaled his plans for the future to many other world leaders. Second, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has signaled its belief in Obama’s follow-through skills. If he were a stock future, he would have quadrupled in price, split a few times, and quadrupled again, all overnight. If he were a horse, his odds would have been extraordinarily steep." (Freakonomics Blog)

Probably the fact that G. W. Bush was the previous president of the US helped a lot! Anyway, the main aim of the committee was probably to give a strong signal to the world. I think that is the most likely and healthy interpretation. Obama is a symbol of change, novelty, hope, dialogue and peace. These are the values the committee wanted to reward. Anyway, apart from that, this decision is going to further increase the already unrealistic expectations in Obama's presidency. He has good ideas and prospects, but there's probably a limit to his abilities. And it will take more than a few weeks to understand whether he really deserved the prestigious prize.

PS: You can obviously argue that he did not deserve it, that it is too early, that many others deserved it more, etc...

Friday, 9 October 2009

Amazon Kindle: What Would Gutenberg Say?

As I had written in a previous post, Google just released a new product in its labs: Google Fast Flip. The aim of the product is to change the way in which we read news on the web. Someone else, though, is trying to make a much more agressive move in trying to change our reading habits. As you may have noticed in fact, in these days (Christmas is coming?) we are assisting to a massive marketing push by Amazon in this direction. I guess you have already understood what I'm referring to: Amazon Kindle. The product has been around for quite a while now, but in these days a newer and cheaper version is being made available to the international market (more than 100 countries). In fact, until a couple of weeks ago Amazon e-reader was only available in the States. Competitors are also jumping on the bandwagon: Sony e-reader and rumoured Barnes & Nobles Android-powered reading device are two of the main competitors for the Kindle.

Amazon's move is fairly audacious. Trying to change our reading habits is not exactly an easy move. The pleasure of reading a book is not easily replicable. The feeling of holding the book in your hands, going through the pages, smelling it, contemplating it or also the simple fact of having it in your library are all things that e-books cannot substitute for. Moreover reading from a screen is kind of frustrating and tiring after a while. Of course there are also some advantages: you can have thousands of books, newspapers, pdf or Word files following you wherever you go. Not bad. Moreover, you can almost instantly wirelessly download books directly on the device at a cheaper price.

Anyway, a recent experiment run in various US univerities revealed that e-readers are not going to have an easy life. Students and professors were given a Kindle for a certain period of time. They had to use it as a study tool and later reveal their impressions about dealing with the device. Here are some not so enthusiastic quotes:

"Much of my learning comes form a physical interaction with the text: boomarks, highlight, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages [...] All these things have been lost, and if not they're too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the 'features' have been rendered useless"

"For some people, electronic reading can never replace the functionality and 'feel' of reading off paper"

Therefore it looks like people do not like the Kindle if they need it for study-related purposes. But, Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO) is writing that "kindle is the most wished for, the most gifted, and the #1 bestselling product across all the millions of items we sell on" It looks like people are definetely interested in the gizmo! Otherwise Amazon wouldn't have decided to go for such a bold move.

Feeling curious about the matter I decided to run a little test to see whether Amazon & co. (competitors!) efforts are being reflected in people's interests. I used Google Insights for Search: a program that gives you various statistics regarding googled words. You google the word(s) you are interested in and you can see how much it was/were searched for in Google.

Here is what I got (click on the image to enlarge it):

People are definetely getting more interested in e-reading devices. But it looks like they are googling more the Sony product than Amazon Kindle! Is it because sony's device costs $200, instead of the $259 for the Kindle? Google is not anwering that (sic). Anyway, US based Forrester research doesn't seem to agree: Forrester raised its forecasts for Kindle "e-reader sales in the United States to 3 million units from its previous prediction of 2 million sales. Forrester Research also expects Amazon’s Kindle to command about 60 percent of the e-reader market in 2009, compared with 35 percent for Sony’s Reader."

I think that the day when we'll be reading from a screen is still far to come. Anyway, there is definetely an interest in such a trend, and maybe the two things should not be thought as mutually exclusive, but rather as two complementary possibilities. Luckily, we are going to read paper books for many years to come, but this doesn't exclude that we could read some stuff from a digital device and enjoy it!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Language, Thought and Reality

One of the most revolutionary discoveries/learnings of my life (a couple of years ago) is the fact that (to a certain extent) there is no one single objective reality. Actually, I had never thought about it before: reality is mostly a social construct. And as written by Watzlawick in his book How real is real?: "the most dangerous illusion of all is [thinking] that there is only one reality." In fact, common sense suggests that reality is one and that it is out there, ready to be observed and described using the various tools that we have such as language. But, think about it if you never did it before: "we cannot know, think about or analyse the world without using concepts, language, [categories] and "frames of reference", which come from the social world that we are part of" (Watson, 2006). We know the world through a series of categories that are culturally, socially built and agreed upon. Different cultures, different views. Different people, different mental programmings. Not acknowledging this thing, not being able to recognize that we all have different unconscious assumptions, different mental models of reality is probably one of the most common source of interpersonal and intercultural problems. "Social constructionism cautions us to be ever suspicious of our assumptions about how the world appears to be" (Burr, 1995). Anyway, I don't want to write a dissertation about social constructivism/constructionism here (very interesting school of thought!), I just wanted to introduce the topic of how language contributes in constructing the reality that we see. Different languages (therefore cultures) see reality in different ways. Subtle variations you may say, but interesting ones I would answer!

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is one of the founding fathers of structuralism (in linguistic). The idea at the heart of this school of thought is that language determines how our mind is structured. Language and thought are not two separated phenomena; language provides the basis for our thought (Burr, 1995). Linguistic signs, according to Saussure, are composed by two parts: a signifier and a signified. The signifier ('Home', 'Tree', 'Cat', 'Bike', etc...) is the sound that we use to represent a signified (an object, a concept, an idea, etc...). The link between the word and the signified concept is arbitrary, only a convention. The interesting part is anyway the following: Saussure claimed that also the categories (the concepts) that we use are conventional categorizations of how we experience reality. Remember different cultures, different views. The fact that we have divided the world in dogs, pigs, houses, flowers, books, watches, etc... reflects how we see reality. A classic example (I don't know if it is true, but it is anyway useful) is the following: we have only one word to describe snow, whereas the legend wants that eskimos have various words to describe what we call snow depending on various variables. This reflects their relationship with that particular portion of the world and therefore is going to shape how they perceive it.

It is therefore interesting, when learning or approaching a new language or culture (different from ours) to try to grasp these little differences that reveals something about a culture. The other day I read an article listing some of these words. The one I liked the most was the German Shadenfreude which means "the happiness felt at another misfortune". Apparently in English (I would say neither in Italian) there is not a word to describe this concept. Another good one (always from the same article) is the Dutch Gezelling: it can "be described as a cozy, communal feeling, like the warm sensation one has [when] surrounded by good friends at a long meal, with the conversation flowing". Another very nice one I was told about once is the Spanish word Duende. It describes the state of exaltation, of visceral reaction to music. The very emotional state you feel when music (or art in general I think) is flowing through your veins. The concept expressed by the word duende is anyway so complex that books are being written about it!

Some words are probably truly understood in their completeness only by people coming from a certain culture. In fact they're the probably the only ones able to really grasp the whole complexity, the reverberation of meanings that one word is carrying with itself (that's why in Italian we say traduttore traditore). Anyway, this is definitely a nice exercise, a thing worth paying attention when approaching a new culture/language, therefore new people.