Management by Semantics

Richard Feynman's father told him an interesting story about words and meanings.

See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird.

The more people I deal with, the more I think this is rampant in the business world. People know business terms. They know business ideas in the sense that they know what they are called, and what their definitions are, but they really don't understand them. They can't explain them or apply them.

Thinking that you know and understand something when you really only know what it is called is exactly the type of thing that gets incompetent people promoted. And it's probably more dangerous than not knowing the terminology in the first place.

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  1. david foster's Gravatar Comment by david foster on December 5th, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Yes. There is far too much effort directed toward naming things in the socially-approved way instead of actually understanding them. I think it’s worse is academia than in business, and much worse in the “nonprofits” than in either, but it’s still plenty bad in business.

    Closely related: the reification of concepts, that is, the inability to distinguish a conceptual model from reality. For instance, you know the old BCG four-box chart (everything is either a star, a cow, a dog, or a question mark)?? There are people for whom the (assumed) position of a business on that chart is much more real than the realities of the business itself.

  2. david foster's Gravatar Comment by david foster on December 5th, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    C S Lewis:

    “..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

    Lewis wrote this more than 50 years ago, about the protagonist–a sociologist–of his novel That Hideous Strength. I’m afraid the same thing could be written today about too many businesspeople.

  3. Wally Bock's Gravatar Comment by Wally Bock on December 6th, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    Wonderful post, Rob, not least because Richard Feynman is one of my intellectual heroes. You are dead on in what you’ve posted, but there’s another use of naming that can be helpful.

    Sometimes being able to name the beast defangs it. Often in consulting work we’ll surface a problem or situation that creates tension, but which arises from the histories of the people in the room. If we can name the beast, it enables us to tame it.

    When the beast rears its head the next time, people say, “Oh yes, that’s …” So has it been since Moses figured he could get control of God by learning God’s name.

  4. Brandon Henak's Gravatar Comment by Brandon Henak on December 11th, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    The semantics can mean everything which can be hard for young professionals to pick up on. We have a whole section called Words to Know to help at http://newlycorporate.com

  5. MJ Taggart's Gravatar Comment by MJ Taggart on February 5th, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Hi. I’m a 2006 MBA grad and I find this site by Googling “management by semantics”. I think my next search will be “management by buzzword.”
    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading your post and the responses very much!

  6. MJ Taggart's Gravatar Comment by MJ Taggart on February 5th, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Hi. I’m a 2006 MBA grad and I found this site by Googling “management by semantics”. I think my next search will be “management by buzzword.”
    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading your post and the responses very much!

    To the moderator: I’m sorry. That should be “found,” not “Find” in the first line of my comment. Sorry!!!

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