Friday, December 31, 2004

Business Life

Don't you dare PowerPoint that at me...

This week, the company where I work had its quarterly meeting, a strange event that unpleasantly blends the high-school pep rally (downside: fewer cheerleaders; upside: no fewer football players) with a badly team-taught lecture course. I know - rather, I hope - that these things are conceived with the purest of motives, but in their execution, I'm amazed again at their concentrated banality, so emblematic of business life. Slogans and catchphrases substitute for actual information. Key points are brusquely asserted rather than even halfway argued. Flawed assumptions buzz like flies. Discrete presentations stretch on so long as to annihilate even the best attention span.

They say academics are terrible presenters, but having seen a lot of bad academic presentations, I can say that the average business presentation is worse. At least a conference paper or a lecture has to have a focal point - the information or the argument. But business rallies needn't be constrained by a focus or even a purpose - apart from the subterranean one of inducing profitmaking. There's a bit of news, a wisp of praise, a smidge of humor, a dash of exhortation, a skosh of criticism. The only things that exist in abundance are mispronounced names and PowerPoint slides. God, the PowerPoint...

Jargoneering #2: "Wordsmithing"

Until I went to work in the private sector, I'd never heard the term "wordsmithing" except as a word used by writers to ironically compare themselves to, say, carpenters. Nowadays, my job as a writer puts me in position to hear the term a few times a week. Usually, it's used as a gerund or a verb with pejorative or at least dismissive connotations: "We'll worry about the big picture down and you can handle the wordsmithing later." "Don't wordsmith this to death." "This content is ready; we don't have time for wordsmithing." In short, any writing or editing that can be labelled "wordsmithing" is writing or editing that the speaker considers unnecessary or trivial.

Leaving aside my personal grievance at having my skills - which have required years to acquire and will require years to master - diminished in this way, the use of "wordsmith" indicates a deeply-rooted misunderstanding of what writing entails. Not to put too fine a point on it, but most business types view writing just like freshmen who don't understand why they got that C-: as incidental to the important stuff, as a sort of barnacle on their thinking and acting.

This is, of course, ludicrous. Writing is both thought and action. Getting words on paper is not only a deed, but a visible face of reasoning. And more often than not, especially in the "knowledge economy," one's thoughts and actions are represented only in writing. Usually, far more people can read the memo about what you did than could have heard you talk in that meeting or seen you serve on that team. "Wordsmithing" can thus help shape perceptions and memories.

This is all just philosophizing as far as a lot of people in business are concerned. They don't want to be reminded that they could think more clearly and argue more persuasively and even earn more money if they more carefully chose words, set tones, structured arguments, or established voices. No, instead their fear or ignorance of writing saddles them with a 10th-grade version of the notion that thought has some kind of existence apart from the words that represent it. The a priori assumption that numbers, especially simple ones, or even pictures are always better than words at conveying information is another symptom of this mental disease.

Even though it ain't so, "wordsmithing" is often left to the last minute, when it really can't be done well and when it can't do much to save shoddy thinking, poor plans, or unfounded assumptions. Which accounts, I think, for quite a bit of the trouble most businesses suffer.

"I would prefer not to."

There's not a lot of good fiction out there on the life and times of the "knowledge worker," past or present, but of the works in that genre, Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" is the best . It's 151 years old this year, but it still offers a meaningful interpretation of office life. And Bartleby himself? That dude was messed up.

A representatively great passage:

It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair...

Now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in comparing some brief document myself, calling Turkey or Nippers for this purpose. One object I had in placing Bartleby so handy to me behind the screen, was to avail myself of his services on such trivial occasions. It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him.

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined.

Bartleby's recalcitrance inevitably, eventually gets him fired, whereupon he is arrested as a vagrant and then starves to death, an imprisoned pauper.

Buzz, Buzz, Buzz

I am deeply fascinated by the underside of consumer culture: manufacturers' kickbacks to retailers for "slotting" items; the ludicrous scale and scope of Wal-Mart's operations; sex and violence as motivations for consuming all kinds of goods and services; the political-economic structures which have made China the postmodern workshop of the world; the arcane practice of "cool hunting" for the latest and greatest trends.

One classic topic in this domain is marketers' efforts to persuade consumers to consume - efforts which aren't always overt, like traditional advertising, and which seem, as the marketplace gets increasingly crowded by new and essentially redundant goods and services, to veer more and more towards the subtle, if not the outright alchemical. A good case in point is the use of shills who are unpaid volunteers with no stake in a good's promotion except a sense of being in on something cool. I've read a few accounts of this kinds of "viral marketing," but it's documented especially well in Rob Walker's new article in the New York Times Magazine.

Essentially a profile of a Boston firm annnoyingly named "BzzAgent," the article examines why 60,000 (!!) "BzzAgents" willingly plump for goods that the company sends to them or otherwise encourages them to try. These goods can range from sausage to books, and if Walker can be believed, they often get a good boost in the market from the agents' activities. I was dismayed to see that one of my favorite books of the past few years, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, was the subject of a buzz campaign. Trying to trade on life imitating art, Walker points out that this novel is "an actual paranoid science-fiction novel about a future in which corporations have become so powerful they can bribe flunkies to infiltrate your life and talk up products," but thereby misses the fact that this is Gibson's first book set in the present day, and thus probably reflects the novelist's own knowledge that companies like BzzAgent exist and succeed.

Ultimately, though, I don't think that Walker completely explains why the BzzAgents do the company's and the company's clients' bidding. He chalks the agents' interest in doing the company's bidding to wanting to be cool - to belong to a consumer elite: "Even in the small orbit of your own social circle, knowing about something first -- telling a friend about a new CD, or discovering a restaurant before anyone else in the office -- is satisfying. Maybe it's altruism, maybe it's a power trip, but influencing other people feels good." Further, "not only are its volunteer agents willing to become shock troops in the marketing revolution, but many of them are flat-out excited about it."

This is true, certainly. Walker adduces quite a bit of anecdotal and social-scientific evidence to the argument. But I think the impulse runs deeper, toward the fusion of material acquisitiveness and religiosity which Max Weber identified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904). (My ideas here are grounded in Jerry Muller's exceptional book, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Early Modern European Thought [2002].) It's not simply that Americans consume things instead of believe in things, not a one-for-one replacement of spirituality by materialism. Instead, I hold - and I think that Walker's piece supports this idea - that consuming goods and services complements religious feeling, especially in the U.S., one of the most intensely religious countries in the world. Consuming is a behavior that makes real a religious quest for perfection, or even for the otherworldly Perfect. Getting a line on that great new cell phone, in other words, is a postmodern kind of prayer. "Maybe this is the one that will make it all complete..." Of course, it never does, except for the mystics - like the BzzAgents. By dedicating themselves to a seemingly bizarre chase after some impossible ideal of perfection, and, along the way, trying to convert a few heathens, they are postmodern eremites. BzzAgent will succeed or fail, as will the larger "viral marketing" schema, to the degree that it can reliably transform this basically religious impulse into services which serve a commercial, capitalistic purpose, that it can make the numinous into the lucrative.


The company where I work just launched a new brand, which I'm trying really, really hard to understand and embrace. (Okay, maybe half as many reallys.) So it was with some interest that I just read an article in the November 2004 Wired magazine on the decline of brands. James Surowiecki (an excellent business and economics journalist) sums up his argument thusly: "marketers may consider the explosion of new brands to be evidence of branding's importance, but in fact the opposite is true. It would be a waste of money to launch a clever logo into a world of durable brands and loyal customers. But because consumers are more promiscuous and fickle than ever, established brands are vulnerable, and new ones have a real chance of succeeding - for a least a little while. The obsession with brands, paradoxically, demonstrates their weakness" (p. 206). What counts more than the image or feel of a brand, in Surowiecki's estimation, is the concrete value to consumers of a company's product or service. And the cause-effect arrow is pretty much unidirectional, from product/service to valuable brand. Not even the glossiest, sexiest brand will long support a weak or shoddy product, but a solid product might have a long life even in the absence of all the apparatus of the modern brand.

I don't know if Surowiecki is right or not, but his argument sure feels right. Working where I do, I'll have the chance to watch a real-world test of his argument over the next few months. I'll post periodic updates in this space.

(The article's not yet online, but it's worth reading in hard copy, or you'll be able to find it here on 11/5/04.)

Mocking Biznis

Americans spend a lot of time mocking each other, but too little time making fun of business culture. Here is a witty exception to the rule.

(Thanks for the link, Matt! And look over the whole site: it's full of great stuff.)

B-School or Not B-School

The Left Business Observer, though I don't (yet) subscribe, always has an interesting take on modern American capitalism. This insider's look at academic life in a business school, though a bit dated, jibes well with the b-school types I've encountered at work and as a historian of business. For instance, this particular school "discontinued its ethics classes because they want to incorporate ethics into day-to-day activities." Now, there's some dean's brainstorm in action. The article predates Enron and Arthur Andersen, but given that "smugness and an unquestioning belief in the American Way are crucial parts of the curriculum" at this and most b-schools, I'll wager that the restored ethics courses are really just antechambers for courses on finance and international trade - you know, the important stuff.

The Panoptical Office

Working as I do in a warren-like corporate setting, I'm constantly rankled by the way the office is set up to minimize the privacy of the average worker and to maximize the privacy of the muckety-mucks. The three-sided cubicles are the most obvious manifestation of the panoptical office, but there are more subtle things in play, too, such as the way I can't set up my computer monitor in any way but one which allows any passerby to see my screen. This serious crimps my surfing of the lad-mag websites.

Contrarily, the individual offices - in which reside executives of one ilk or another - are arranged such that the denizens must arrange their computer screens to face away from anyone who's walking past. True, every office has at least one side that's essentially a big glass wall, but even so the office volume is shielded from the hoi polloi. Entering one, you're still separated by the one arm of the U-shaped desk from the other arm, whereas when you step into a cubicle - or even just approach it from the open side - you are equidistant from every desk surface and whatever might be on them.

I'm not really kvetching about the fact of these distinctions, though. I think they're worth having and worth keeping, and I can't wait to have an office with a door that can be shut (although my career path is such that this eventuality is unlikely). What irks me is that these distinctions contravene the tacit and explicit rhetoric about openness and equality in the office. Christ, ain't nothing equal about an office, notwithstanding the ubiquitous use of first names, allowances for a "business casual" dress code, or the prevalence of "teams." Why not openly acknowledge the fact of inequality? It is one of the bases of modern capitalism, along with the acceptance of institutionalized cupidity and the reflexive criticism of governments and of "bureaucracy." But then again, why would capitalists or managers meaningfully acknowledge inequality? Doing so might not open the door to a serious critique of modern capitalism itself, but it might allow the cubicle jockeys to insist on a little bit of privacy, and that could cut deeply into the bottom line.

Jargoneering #1: "Owning"

Along with urban black culture, business is our society's main source of new language. Unlike black culture, however, business rarely vomits up anything worth keeping. Not that newly-created business terms won't last, it's just that they shouldn't.

There are lots of examples of business-generated language - words, usages, terms of art, phrases, tropes - which merit derision, and I hope to conduct a running analysis of some of them in this space. A good candidate to lead off this heinous list, and a term for which I have special dislike, is "own." On a nearly daily basis, I hear this verb used in contexts where it does not mean "enjoy legal possession," viz. "I'll own that action item" ("action item" being another bad but at least serviceable term) or "Part of the project requires us to determine a permanent owner for the new process."

The obnoxious thing about these uses of the verb "to own" is that, in the context of contemporary American business, you don't own anything. Businesses are usually arranged in such a way that most employees own next to nothing (in the old-fashioned sense of "to own") and a tiny group owns everything. (If that: your boss probably doesn't own anything, either, and only maybe does the uber-boss own anything. Your company's probably "owned" by that faceless imaginary, the Market.) Actually acquiring ownership of something beyond the junk you hauled from home to your desk (a list which doesn't include key tools like computer) requires lots of capital - which you probably don't have, or you wouldn't have to take ownership of action items which will never pay a real dividend.

This sense of "own" is even more onerous right now because it harmonizes with the music from the Right about the need to create an "ownership society." So far, we've heard scant details from Bush or his advisors about just what this means, but if the MBA president is up on his business jargon, it will mean that the average citizen will actually own less and less but have to put more and more of what is owned at risk. In the modern workforce, you at best own your skills, but you have to risk them by combining them with others' (greater or lesser) skills and then seeing what results - a quietly completed project for which you'll receive little recognition and less renumeration, or a blazing fiasco for which you'll receive infamy and the
honor of being whispered about at lunch.

In the broader sense, the vapid idea of an "ownership society" will presumably mean that those of us who legally own little beyond our bodies, brains, health, home, a smattering of personal chattels, and so forth will have to risk those things in the market. Body, brain, and health, of course, serve as the means to enter the workforce, and stand as the possessions which can be worn down or even destroyed by work. But that's just a socialistic quibble, compared to the ludicrous natter about privatizing Social Security or introducing a flat tax. We'll have to wait to really understand what it will mean to own something means in an ownership society.


Post a Comment

<< Home