Keeping innovation ‘social’ – An appeal to reduce jargon in the workplace

By Alan J Gardiner

Do you know what CSO, QIPP and SROI stand for or what an ideation session or community stakeholder engagements involve? As you are reading this Young Foundation’s social venture blog then it is quite likely that actually you do. But this is the problem. You may feel completely at ease with these terms but people from outside the world of social enterprise and policy can find the use of this kind of terminology in a conversation both impenetrable and downright baffling.

Acronyms, jargon and buzzwords become conversational barriers to entry, simultaneously alienating the outsider and segregating the insiders away from the general public and in essence, reality. Some social venturing organisations now have jargon busting lists on their websites. But we need prevention, rather than cure. We should not need glossaries to allow us to function.

Bringing the language we speak back down to earth and making it more accessible can also save time and money, especially in discussions between people from different sectors or organisations in which multiple sets of shorthand compete against each other. Having been in the social venture support office for a less than a week I had already created a two-page long acronym and jargon list to allow me to grasp what was being said around me.

So what has caused this proliferation of “industry-speak” in social ventures in particular and how can we change our practices to reduce it?

There is a clear difficulty in balancing the need to increase professionalism in the third sector with the need to remain accessible to the public that use our services. They are after all to all intents and purposes the reason we work in social innovation. But jargon does not increase professionalism, if anything it does the reverse for the reasons listed above. It may increase a person’s sense of importance and self-worth when they can string off great quantities of jargon, giving them an excuse to display their vast intellect and creative vocabulary skills but this is vanity rather than professionalism.

Creating a niche of ‘people in the know’ can also create a sense of belonging as people feel part of an exclusive club but there are many other ways to do this at work that are less exclusionary. The best of which simply being to make friends, rather than acquaintances, out of your work colleagues.

Reducing jargon in social venturing requires an organisation-wide commitment as if one person reverts back to a widespread use of acronyms and buzz words then everyone they communicate with has to either talk at that level or confront the person on their use of jargon. This could clearly be quite challenging and possibly even confrontational, which might harm the dynamics of an office comfortable in their jargonistic rut. But ignorance is not bliss, especially if the reason everyone seems to get on in an office is because no-one really knows what anyone else is actually talking about.

There are already moves to reduce jargon in some areas of social venturing, such as the increased use of the Business Model Canvas, outlined in my previous blog entry to help organisations make business plans that are easier to understand. But this only addresses one part of a much larger problem. There needs to be more wide-scale change in how social venturing organisations communicate both internally and externally.

A complete ban on acronyms for instance is clearly a step too far as they do act as a timesaver by shortening conversations and documents that would otherwise become extended and repetitive. The academic style of acronym use needs to be adopted far more in conversation. This is the practice of in the first instance using the full title of something followed by the acronym to introduce it so it can then be used in place of the full title. This method allows everyone in the conversation to be on the same level and takes the stigma and embarrassment away from halting a conversation midstream to ask for clarification.

Bringing social venturing language back down to earth is a challenging but worthwhile process that can help keep the ‘social’ in social innovation. So to use the possibly the most ironic of all jargonistic acronyms:

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid.

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