Mea Culpa, buzz word watch II

Img_0914 Friday, Leora Kornfeld gave us a guest post.  She complained about the use of the word "strategic" by consultants who often aren’t very.

Leora has an anthropological ear for language and especially for its abuses. I believe she’s been playing "buzz word bingo" in her head for many years, well before the invention of the game in the 1990s. 

I was rooting her on, until it occurred to me that her criticism applied to me.  The first time I met Virginia Postrel, I used the term to describe what I did.  Virginia asked me to explain.  This surprised me.  For my purposes, the term was self sufficient.  Her question implied, politely, that there had to be more to say, and if there was not, I had used it too liberally.  Oh.

In his comment on Leora’s post, Steve Postrel, reveals what Virginia might have done to complete my embarrassment. 

Just for laughs, when someone claims to be a strategist, you could ask them which tradition of strategy they represent. Economic? Then ask them to define a Nash equilibrium and see how they feel about Cournot vs. Bertrand models. Military? Then ask them about Clausewitz or John Boyd or Edward Luttwak. You can do the same thing with sports, chess, marketing, or any other domain they claim that has a tradition of strategic analysis.

Thank you, Virginia, for your constraint.

The question is what did I think I was doing?  (Apart from being a bumptious prat, that is. I am always a bumptious prat, so the designation is not acutely useful here.)  What I think I was doing was telling Virginia that I was not merely working as a marketer or a marketing researcher.  I was trying to say that I was not just collecting data but actually thinking about what I did.

And then the question is, why should this rhetorical misbehavior be necessary?  I am quite sure that other professionals do not suffer the temptation.  Lawyers, doctors, civil servants…they don’t use the term.  ("What kind of medicine do I practice?  Oh, I do strategic medicine, you see.  I don’t just identify symptoms.  I think about them.") 

No, the buzz word abuse that Leora spotted is a symptom.  The field of marketing and the fact that it is not in fact a profession at all.  I guess we could say that the MBA is a professional credential, but some of us agree that when it comes to cultural aspects of markets and consumers, an MBA is not much good at all.  Having an MBA says only that the player could manage to complete a program and not much more.

Without sorting, we are reduced to making boosterish, self aggrandizing claims, dressing ourselves up in the dignity of someone else’s language. 

It’s not clear how we solve this problem.  I agree with Steve that certification (or credentialism, as he calls it) is probably impractical.  Reputation helps of course.  It would help even more if those of us in branding circles had the depths of knowledge that distinguish the McKinsey consultant. 

I wonder when clients will begin to ask whether a would-be supplier is an active member of the blogging community (as a poster or a commentator).  This is I think a pretty good way of separating sheep from goats.  After all, it’s very difficult to sustain a presence in the blogosphere if you don’t have intellectual and creative resources at your disposal.  (Or it pretty easy to tell when you are just faking it.)

Out of naturally emergent communities, I think we have the foundations of a college, groups of people who have enough in common to sustain debate and enough divergence to engender it.  And this eventually becomes a kind of certification.  I had the good fortune to have a conversation with Sebastian Wendland in Berlin, and I believe we figured that a college on line could be largely self organizing and that it would, as a by-product, serve several sorting functions.


Kornfeld, Leora.  2007.  Buzz word watch.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  April 6, 2007.  here.

Postrel, Steve.  2007.  Comment on Buzz word watch.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  April 6, 2007. here.

[We need some way to create permalinks for comments.  Or am I missing something?]

Post script:

Those who are following my travels, I have finished my week in Brussels, (which proved to be unexpectedly beautiful).  And before leaving Brussels, I had the distinct pleasure of watch Cambridge beat Oxford and the Hanshin Tigers beat the Tokyo Giants.  (This could be the year for the Tigers!)  Paris is stunning, and I was left to wonder why you can’t remember how stunning it is from trip to trip.  Some things, sublime things, can’t be kept in memory.  (It’s a technical information processing issue, I think.)  On the other hand, it is also looking a little over-the-top, everything cleaned and regilded.  As if Paris really gives at all what tourists think.  (The moment France cares what a tourist thinks that will be the end of civilisation as they know it here.)  But the big news is that I have befriended a house plant that came in on my room service tray last night, and while I understand that this is the sort of thing prisoners do (well, without the crystal pot and the French carpentry, of course), it is nice to have a friend  on the road.  She is now taking the sun on the table, as pictured.  (If anyone knows how often I should water her, and what language she speaks, I would be grateful for these details.)  I am calling her Melanie, that is, until she tells me her real name.  (I know this is where Tom gets out the DSM handbook, but really, I’m fine.) 

8 thoughts on “Mea Culpa, buzz word watch II

  1. jens

    as with many buzzwords (eg ‘design’) ‘strategy’ has become a currency in itself. a currency that is accepted by many – and questioned by few. the outlines may be blurry – but still the word defies a complete death through overuse and inflation.
    and that is because even that funny word ‘strategy’ holds a robust core that can be defined as a function of “us”, “them”, “resources”, an abstract definition of “territory”, and “time”. – or a bit more simple by “us”, “them”, “territory”.
    an expression like “the fight against aids” clearly implies strategic thinking or a ‘strategic worldview’ at least – and gathering all sorts of different information (medical, cultural, economical and so on) as part of that endeavor would clearly qualify all that research as ‘strategic’ – and the derived steps of action as ‘strategy’. (if the ‘strategic worldview’ as such may be wrong – or not fit for the 21st century anymore would be a completely different discussion…)

    no need to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater for now.
    these are dirty – pardon my french – cloudy times anyway.

    once you have settled back home, grant, i would LOVE to read your impression/definition of germany.

    all the best.

  2. jens

    having said this i still agree with those finding an haut gout in that funny word ‘strategy’.
    it does not really work as a save label – but at the same time it does not call for an excuse either.

  3. Peter

    Well, Grant, I feel compelled to express some dissent from your post and the comments on your earlier post — of course, in the politest possible terms. Having spent two decades doing “strategic marketing consultancy” for 9 of the 15 largest telcos in the world, including building a consulting business from scratch in the area, I know precisely what I mean by the term and exactly how it differs from just plain “marketing consultancy”. Our clients also had no trouble understanding the difference. Perhaps we educated them, or perhaps they educated us. I don’t think the term is at all vague, except perhaps to people outside marketing.

    How to explain the difference between strategic and non? Well, licking envelopes for a client’s direct marketing campaign is not strategic consultancy, nor is finding, cleaning, verifying and compiling the addresses needed by the client to put on the envelopes. (This is not to say that either task can be done well without skill and experience.) Advising a client to embark on a direct marketing campaign rather than (say) a television ad campaign is closer to strategic consultancy, although in some contexts it may be mere tactics. Determining ahead of time which segments of the potential customer population should be targeted with an advertisting campaign is definitely strategic, as is deciding whether or not to enter the market at all.

    The 18th-century Royal Navy definition was that strategy was when you could not see the enemy’s ships. I think this still works for marketing.

  4. Daniel Rosenblatt

    Just as a guess (one that would ideally be tested empirically among the potential consumers of “strategic” consulting), one thing that the word might connote (but not necessarily denote) is an insight into the future, a weak form of prediction–something social scientists can’t really promise but which clients would obviously want. Much the way some of us use the word “resonate” to talk about connections we think exist but can’t delimit in detail (as in “the disturbing (to the old) lack of a sense of privacy among those young people who make their lives available on the internet resonates with a larger tendency to use the language of the marketplace to think about social life in general–if the self is a product then there is no such thing as bad publicity”).

  5. Virginia Postrel

    Assuming they’re trying to get at something real, I would assume that people who attach “strategy” to their field are saying they deal in some way with competition–how to beat the other guys. That’s what all the forms of strategy that Steve mentioned in his comments (and which he personally can discuss in considerable depth, despite professional credentials that limit him to economic strategy) have in common.

  6. Peter

    Building on Daniel’s and Virginia’s comments: strategic consultancy does not necessarily MAKE a prediction about something uncertain (future demand, or a technology trend, or a competitor’s current plans, etc), but it does require a view of that uncertain environment. This underlying view might be implicit rather than explicit.

  7. Tom Guarriello

    One way of looking at strategic thinking that I’ve found helpful is Chris Argyris’s description of single- and double-loop learning. Distilled, single loop learning is thinking about a situation while double-loop is thinking about the way you think about that situation. This introduces the notion of “perspective” into the dialogue, which inevitably leads to an examination of alternatives, i.e., various strategies for approaching the future. Oh, and I didn’t want to overlook Steve’s reference to John Boyd, a military strategist I greatly admire, whose thinking has relevance far beyond the battlefield.

  8. Ann

    I’m dismayed that all the responders have been so caught up in the discourse about strategy that no one has addressed the Melanie question. Who is she? What is she? I’m guessing some sort of succulent. She seems to be living in a rather austere mix of rocks and water, and she doesn’t look all that healthy, but then again, succulents tend to be fairly indestructible. Surely there must be a botanist out there who can tell us more about Melanie and perhaps get her to share her real name. Then again, maybe she’s just an hallucination, but if that’s the case, how come we can see her? Oh, wait, maybe THAT’s why no one is responding….

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