Buzz On – Why You Should Not Be Cynical of IT Buzzwords

If there’s one thing computer science students complain about, it’s Business and IT buzzwords. For a very fastidious technical person who understands the details and history of things, buzzwords are an absolute perversion.

They hype stuff up to sound new when they have often been around for most of the history of computing/business.

They are ill-defined, and meaningless.

They come with an air of pretension, used by self-important people trying to sound bigger than they are: acts of sheer vacuosity.

They are utterly pointless, just saying what could be said in simpler traditional terms.

But in business, they are vital.

IT buzzwords

“Push technology”, “Peer to peer”, “Web 2.0″, “The Cloud”, “HTML 5″

Let’s dissect the terms above:

Back in the days of Internet Explorer 4, “Push technology” was going to be huge. News would be delivered direct to the desktop so that you would not need to go to websites to find your information. It didn’t take off, but along the line came RSS, which fulfilled the same goal and is now a very widespread technology that can be taken for granted.

“Peer to peer” (P2P) was going to be huge, we’d all be sharing all our files through peer to peer networks, traditional web servers would no longer be necessary. It didn’t happen, and now peer to peer technology is pretty much reserved for BitTorrent. YouTube is the antithesis of P2P, with videos all hosted and served from Google’s network in a glorious centralisation of content.

“Web 2.0″ was a term nobody quite understood, but thankfully now nobody uses it. Instead we use “AJAX”, “crowdsourcing” and “Social Media” as three separate terms. “Social Media” is hardly a new thing, it dates all the way to the BBS’s of the 80′s, and Usenet.

“The Cloud” is in many ways a reinvention of having “mainframes” and “terminals” like we did before the PC took off. The old free web hosting services like Geocities were essentially the same as our fancy new cloud hosting environments. Most web hosts have just renamed their virtual server hosting services to “cloud hosting”.

“HTML 5″ really annoys people, including me to some extent. It is technically a specification for the mark-up language of web pages, but marketers use it as a catch-all term for a whole range of different technologies (such as CSS3), many of which were in development long before anyone decided to make a new version of HTML. However, the W3C now encourages it’s use as a catch-all. Developers just need to be able to switch between the literal specification and it’s use as a broader marketing term.
It is well understood that there is a “circle of technology” in computing. Old concepts are continuously recycled as new, expressed in different ways. You can see why technical people get rather agitated, given that they see constantly people getting excited about what they know to be foolishness.

Up to this point, I am sounding like the nerd, but now I will show you why business people must never think in this way.

Technical people understand details, it’s their job. But regular people need something new and exciting to jump on to. They need to have complex innovations simplified for them. They need simple ways to compare different complex technologies.

It may be misguided, it may be non-optimal and wasteful, it may be disorganised and chaotic, and it may be in conflict with the actual technical details, but it is always going to happen. At the end of the day, technology is mostly bought by regular people, and those regular people need to be subjected to marketing (both to explain a product to them, and to persuade them to buy it).

It’s really important that companies latch on to new terms as they come up. On a basic level people need an exciting, simple pitch that is aligned to the contemporary vocabulary. It’s a key sales and marketing thing.

However, I want to make a wider point, because it’s not just about sales and marketing. IT Buzzwords provide a rallying cry for an industry to focus on a particular area. It creates bursts of focused innovation. Even if it starts with something superficial, a lot of great engineers end up jumping on the bandwagon, and a lot of investment money flows, and stuff comes out of it that is far more than the original idea deserved. It is a lightning rod for the real innovation we all care about.

If you are in business, you have to see that IT Buzzwords need to be embraced. Make sure your business integrates the correct terminology into your product language and your marketing, and make sure you align yourself to benefit from the innovations that will come out of it all. You need to be prepared to throw away good marketing materials and an established lexicon. You have to be prepared to rewrite your roadmap suddenly when you see a particular area of buzz developing. It can be painful.

A word of caution though…

if you are running a business this does not mean that you should just copy everybody else. You need to embrace the buzz, but you need to ensure that your own business model is not a copy-cat model.

You need to find the balance between aligning yourself with a market and blazing your own trail. Bear in mind that somebody out there is creating the buzzwords in the first place, and if you are the one to do it then you have a real advantage.

Business buzzwords

“Synergy”, “Mindshare”, “Mission Critical”, “Holistic”, “Monetize”

A lot of people criticise business buzzwords, but I think it is pure ignorance personally. Sure, they get abused by some people, but the truth is that every industry has a set of terminology. The last section of “IT buzzwords” focused on the very ephemeral ones, but you would not blame IT people for using terms like “motherboard”, “modem”, or “memory” would you?

At the end of the day, language helps us express ourselves. It’s true that in every day life non-business people effectively convey without buzzwords the kinds of things business people convey with them, but if you are a professional you need a standard language that works as an effective shorthand, and these buzzwords do that.

Take “synergy” as an example: surely it is better to be able to say “I think our companies have synergy” than it is to have to say “I think our companies are compatible due to the way each of our differentiations can fit together to produce a mutually-desirable result”.

In summary: don’t be a nerd or a hypocrite. Business and IT Buzzwords exist for good reason, and work as a catalyst for productivity and innovation. Any one in business should learn to embrace them.

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