Perhaps more than any other sector, the technology industry suffers from jargon overload, with vendors and consultants constantly hyping solutions and strategies with phrasings meant to capture buzz. Such efforts do at times hit the mark, aptly describing a solution or an important current in the industry, but all too often the terms and phrases tossed around in meetings are loosely defined or misapplied for the sake of sales and marketing.
When an idea catches fire, vendors seize on vague euphemisms to pitch IT leaders on their solution as The Next Best Thing. Who’s heard “We’re like the Netflix of…” or “We deliver cloud as an innovation platform.” And of course vendors do everything through a “single pane of glass.” As if that makes things so much clearer.
“Buzzwords start out as powerful ideas,” says Matt Seaman, who in his role as Lockheed Martin’s director and chief data and analytics officer of enterprise operations has seen his share of do-it-all data science solutions that don’t do it all. “It’s not until they’re misused and watered down that they become a problem.”
CIOs are just as guilty of misapplying concepts. For example, some IT leaders say they’re doing agile or applying machine learning (ML) when they’re really not, or at least not in a way that satisfies the definition.
Here IT leaders lament the misnomers, misguided appellations, and liberal use of jargon to describe technologies, IT processes, and other infuriating catch-all terms.
1. Digital transformation
“Digital transformation” is the phrase CIOs love to hate because it's often pitched as a cure-all for modernizing legacy businesses. Have you heard about that new SaaS (software-as-a-service) solution? It “facilitates digital transformation.”
Digital transformation is also problematic because it implies implementing tech for tech’s sake when IT leaders should be focused on the endgame: business transformation enabled by people, processes and technology, says Mark Bilger, CIO of One Call, an intermediary for workers’ compensation claims. “Digital solutions do not magically transform the business,” Bilger says. “A fool with a tool is still a fool.”
2. Change management
Often cited as the single greatest challenge of digital transformation, change management rankles Jenny Gray, senior director of application development at Power Home Remodeling. Gray says that the notion that enterprises require major change management programs and strategies is antiquated at a time when change should be happening constantly and incrementally in businesses.
“Change is constant and the workforce should be flexible, recognizing that today is not the same as tomorrow,” Gray says.
Agile development offers a model for building software quickly, enabling the business to be nimble. But One Call’s Bilger estimates that only about one-third of teams who claim to be agile are doing it right; the remaining work in some hybrid construct that is neither agile nor waterfall and often ineffective.
“They are doing their own thing — largely undocumented,” Bilger says.
DevOps, which involves tight collaboration between software development and operations, suffers from an identity problem, says Brittany Woods, a cloud automation engineer at H&R Block. Far too often, Woods sees organizations lump DevOps into moving to the cloud without executing the change and processes associated with blending development and operations.
Vendors don't help the situation, pitching DevOps in a box. "The definition gets watered down," Woods says. "People need to stop using DevOps in the wrong context."
5. Minimal viable product
The MVP — everyone’s favorite pet phrase to describe getting products quickly to market — is ripe for misuse. In too many cases, MVP is used to describe a technology proof-of-concept, says Lockheed Martin’s Seaman. While creating something quickly and getting it into the hands of end users is important, the MVP isn’t complete until the enterprise improves the product based on user feedback. Also a problem: Too many people focus on the cost to produce an MVP rather than the value an MVP delivers.
6. Artificial intelligence
Target CIO Mike McNamara would like to retire the term “artificial intelligence” (AI) because there isn’t anything “intelligent” about it. While AI is often synonymous with sentient machines taking over the world, what most people mean when they refer to AI is "just big dumb machines that are good at adding and multiplying," says McNamara, who prefers the term "machine learning" for intelligent software that improves from training data.
7. Machine learning
Machine learning is also often misused, with many solutions incorrectly marketed as ML when they’re really just smart automation rather than tools that train themselves to improve based on data they are fed. Targeted applications that can generate business insights, however, have merit, Bilger says. For example, ML can analyze disparate data sets and identify the healthcare provider that is the most cost-effective and provides the highest quality of service in specific metropolitan markets.
5G is particularly prone to hyperbole and misuse, says Matt Clair, CIO of Clair Global, which provides audio, networking and other services for live events. There are 5G technologies, which vendors built to facilitate data at high speeds and low latency, and standards created by organizations that define protocols for delivery of 5G services.
“In our world, everyone is talking about 5G, but 90% of them don’t know what they’re talking about,” says Clair.
9. Extended reality
Virtual reality and augmented reality apparently weren’t satisfactory to describe solutions that immerse people in digital worlds or overlay information atop the physical world via software. The favorite phrase du jour, extended reality (XR), is often misused, says Ben Harris, network architect at Clair Global. Harris once heard a video livestream referred to as XR. “A livestream is not XR,” he says.
10. Disruptive technologies
Target's McNamara is tired of hearing drones, autonomous driving, XR and blockchain characterized as "disruptive technologies."
"There is no disruptive technology out there right now, because the whole point of disruption is that you don't see it coming," McNamara says. Blockchain, for example, isn't likely to transform the retail sector overnight because it's evolutionary, not revolutionary, he says. "Change happens more slowly than people think."
Split the baby on tech jargo
Reasonable minds differ on what constitutes legitimate or sketchy applications of terminology. Sometimes 5G really means 5G. XR can include a legitimate application of AR or VR.
Andrew Carr, head of engineering at property tech firm SquareFoot, offers a potential fix. Buzzwords serve conversations well when you’re describing something you’ve already done, Carr says. In other words, it’s acceptable to use digital transformation as shorthand to describe how you successfully altered the business through people, process and technology. But substituting “digital transformation” for plain speak before you’ve executed the strategy heaps pressure on the organization to fulfill a daunting task fraught with pitfalls. “It doesn’t hold up well in decision-making rooms,” Carr says.
Autrhor: Clint Boulton