The weasel words of digital disruption

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The weasel words of digital disruption

[Blog post] Why not just be frank about job cuts?

“Transformation is an essential feature of our business model.”

“This action is a reflection of our new strategy and organisational simplification initiative.”

“The reorganisational effort is to make the company’s employee reporting structure more efficient and support the company strategy, moving forward.”

“Some changes are being made to the business structure, to ensure it better aligns to the changing external landscape and allow it to focus on simplification and digitisation.”

These are all real statements from our business elite, and though it may not be clear, they are all about one thing: job cuts.

When did explaining job cuts become so fraught with weasel words?

The world is in the middle of long-term structural change. The digital revolution, which has been with us now for decades, is not going away, and post-industrial revolution companies are finally acknowledging the need for change.

Except they don’t use the word ‘change’, they use ‘transformation’, as if they can shed their exoskeleton overnight and turn from slow caterpillar to nimble butterfly. Many are still stuck at the chrysalis phase.

Werner Erhard, the used car salesman-turned transformation expert, described transformation as “a discipline of being in the domain of being”. Company executives should remember that before they trot out the word with such enthusiasm.

Setting aside the butchering of the English language, perhaps there’s something deeper to it.

Is it that fewer job cuts today can be explained by a temporary adjustment to a cyclical downturn?

Take QBE, the Australian insurance company that is systematically outsourcing almost its entire service and support divisions to the Philippines and India.

Or Symantec, which is doing the same with its Australian IT support operation.

The cold truth is these are not jobs that are ever likely to be coming back. Rather than just say that, the spin resorts to ‘transformation’, ‘digitisation’ and ‘simplification’.

And then there’s the use of contractors and ‘natural attrition’ to hide bigger job cuts. At QBE, the number of jobs going as a result of staff turnover or not renewing contractors is far higher than actual redundancies, meaning it can report job losses in double rather that triple digits. This is a common strategy.

At IBM, they don’t even call it job cutting, preferring the term “resource actions”.

Millions of dollars of market capitalisation have been wiped off the value of listed companies as a result of the digital revolution. Outsourcing and offshoring remain the obvious choice for companies looking to cut costs in a simple case of labour arbitrage.

But can we please have a frank discussion about what’s really going on from the leaders and spinners working for corporations in Australia?

Perhaps we need some language ‘transformation’. Perhaps the 'reorganisation' of executives who use the term ‘moving forward’, but fall short when it comes to detailing  actual plans for the future.

Instead of deflecting and denying and embracing weasel words for what’s going on, why not just tell the truth?

That is, if the organisation doesn’t change, it, and the remainder of its staff, won’t have a future. That job cuts (yes, use the actual term), are unfortunately necessary to ensure survival.

And maybe it’s asking too much, but how about some positive sentiment from the CEO on how the bloodletting, though painful, will be worth it in the end, because he or she has a vision of what the company might look like on the other side?

In the absence of that, we can only assume there isn’t one.

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Charis Palmer
Charis Palmer is an experienced business journalist with specialist expertise in banking, retail and government IT. Prior to working with iTnews, Charis was News Editor with The Conversation, and editor with Business Spectator. She was also the founding editor of Technology Spectator, and before that ran her own media and events business focused on the banking sector.
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