Friday, January 21, 2005

Acronyms as a Phony Source of Credibility

"When analyzing a marketing opportunity," said the professor on the first day of my new marketing class, "you want to stay goal oriented. And you want to make sure the goals you set are SMART goals."

"SMART goals," he clarified, "are Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Relevant, and Time-Based."

I had been following the lecture astutely up to this point, but upon hearing this sentence my spirits sank. A voice echoed in my head: "kkkhhhhhh.... Houston, this is Eagle 1, we have bullshit."

So that's basically it. I'm in for another semester of some nebulous, soft-discipline, pseudo scholarship bullshitting. I had a big ol' dose of this last semester in my management theory class where alliteration was frequently the substitute for actual substance. In that class, the theory of work-group behaviour was described as going through five distinct phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. Never mind that the alliteration ultimately fails because, well, adjourning DOESN'T RHYME. In class, it was pronounced as if it did.

Sometimes I daydream and wish I was getting a masters in something really rigorous, like maybe Physics. You know, in Physics, if you make some kind of discovery or have some startling new theory and want it added to the general body of Physics knowledge, I imagine it's a difficult procedure. I imagine that first you have to get your work published in a legitimate journal, which involves a grueling process of peer review, where no one will cut you the slightest bit of slack. Then you have to go (still imagining here) in front of a panel of respected physicists for a withering cross examination and paper defense. Then, if you somehow survive all that, your paper is manditorily shelved for a three year cool off period where you're expected to go through your work in more detail, looking for your own mistakes. Then it's brought back for fresh scrutiny by entirely new experts who are no less brutal with criticism, and then finally, maybe, if your work still manages not to have been completely debunked, it will be declared acceptable. Then, after 20 years of resentment and nitpicking by your jealous peers, if you're lucky, your work can become widely accepted. This is how it should be.

But hey! In marketing, you jus' gotta whip yourself up an acronym! You're a genius! SMART goals! Relevent AND time-based! And to think, my goals had always been goat-based, or soup-based! Now I know.

But really, I want to take a minute and get into the perniciousness, the dishonesty, of these acronyms and all the other tools of the charlatan scholar.

What is an acronym? Well, if you invent something like say, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, you may get frustrated saying the whole name so many times. You may find it inconvenient. So you use the abbreviation SCUBA. If you work at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, you might find it easier to just say NORAD. Typically, an acronym reflects the fact that a certain series of words gets repeated so often that an abbreviation is a welcome convenience. An acronym, by its very existence, suggests a well worn phrase or some sort of established truth.

Ah, but the soft-discipline huckster scholar sees acronyms not as useful abbreviations, but as an opportunity! You see, acronyms can be reverse-engineered. You can start with a concept like "smart goals" and then come up with a few words that spell out the word smart, and then suddenly you're magically in possession of some homespun wisdom.

The huckster's plan is that the very existence of his acronym will suggest some sort of real-world history of his goal approach. The acronym suggests that at one point, people in the marketing business walked around saying "You know what we always say around here Bob, make sure your goals are specific, measurable, aggressive, relevant and time-based!" And then eventually, one person spoke up: "You know something Bill... we repeat that mantra so often - isn't there some way of summing it up or condensing it?"

"Hmm. You got a point there Bob. Well, the adjectives do spell out the word SMART..."

"What a coincidence! We can call them 'SMART goals'.

"Yes... I see your point! It's a handy abbreviation, and it reinforces the idea that the advice is of an intelligent nature. 'SMART' in other words!"

But invented acronyms are only the beginning. Remember Johnny Cochran saying to the OJ jury: "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit!"

Powerful words. Words to make you stop and think. Words that became the catalyst of the whole trial.

Well, no. They were stupid words. But THEY RHYMED. The huckster looks at his mark with our old favorite attitude, the presumption of idiocy. And an idiot is impressed by a rhyming sentence. A rhyming sentence carries more inherent truth than a non rhyming sentence.

So the charlatan employs plenty of rhyme and alliteration to make his points in the soft-disciplines.

Then there are the lists! The professional bullshitting academic needs to come up with official, authoritative sounding lists. Here are the "Five Dimensions of Personality": Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Extroversion, and I'll be honest I forgot the fifth one. This was from the management theory class. Read those again. These, according to the management professor, are the exhaustive 5 dimensions of personality that are found in every human soul. Yes, agreeableness and extroversion are two of them. And yes, conscientiousness and emotional stability are two more of them.

And this bullshit is presented like it's the pinnacle of human understanding by professors who take it extremely seriously. The 5 dimensions are invoked like Carl Jung himself woke up one day in feverish excitement and shouted "Eureka!" and jotted them down on his nightstand.

How about this one: (and I'm not joking) "The First Law of Human Behavior". Yes, one day the professor offered us the "First Law of Human Behavior". Are you ready to know what it is? This is the first law of human behavior....

"People are different. What one person considers an opportunity, another would consider a threat."

Again, that was the "First Law of Human Behavior". Socrates and St. Thomas Aquinas can finally rest in their graves. Their work.... is complete.

Finally: the inscrutability.

In the hard disciplines, the ones I now look at with envy, there is a premium placed on clarity. A brilliant paper that's completely inscrutable runs the risk of not getting its point across. Theories have to be stated clearly. They must be written with the intention of being easily understood.

By contrast, the soft-discipline academic knows that to keep his paycheck coming, he must deliberately be obscure. He must tailor his writing in a form of scholarly legalese that is intentionally designed to thwart layperson understanding.

Now this isn't a blanket statement meant to apply to every scholar in every case in every soft discipline, but I'll be darned if I don't spot it all the time. In Management Theory, over and over again, we used the word "extrinsic". Now, according to Websters, extrinsic simply means "external". Now I admit, there might be some technical difference between the two words - a difference no bigger than the one between vanilla and french vanilla, but I put to you that I had to write words like "extrinsic" and "valence" dozens of times in my notes not because we needed the specificity of these obscure words, but because our Management Theory needed to take drastic steps to appear more scholarly through a little inscrutability.

And so another semester of this shit begins. Oh well. A recently graduated MBA friend of mine said (before I started the program) "There are useful classes and bullshit classes, and you'll know which are which." Advice I like to abbreviate as TAUCAB-CAYKWAW. Or, colloquially, the "two-cab cakewalk". How right he was.


Anonymous said...

Personally, all of my goals are plastic-based. Goat-based goals? That's briliant.

Rowsdower said...

Last night for dinner, I had a goal that was definitely tomato-based. It was also relevant and measurable, though sadly not very aggressive. I'm still learning.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic. It's great to see a student of management theory actually calling out the cornucopia of bullshit spewing forth from these phony-academics, instead of continually trying to justify why their misunderstood discipline is so damned 'technical' (they love that word) and difficult. Marketing is ground zero for this crap, and being such a conceited bunch to begin with (they think they know how to get into your mind!), they never miss an opportunity to obfuscate. Your pretty hard on them though: I thought SMART was actually a useful acronym - not a bad test to apply to any task at hand, although in most offices, tasks are anything by SMART!