There sat Carly Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard's great communicator, struggling to directly answer an interviewer's request for a crisp definition of the company's "Adaptive Enterprise" strategy.
First it was an "end state." Then it was an "approach." Then it was--well, it was everything under the sun, moon and the stars--enough business-babble to reduce even the most hardened McKinsey consultant to a state of dribbling catatonia.
Eventually Fiorina, who was speaking at a Gartner conference earlier this week, allowed that some confusion had emerged since HP took the wraps off its brainstorm last May. Glutton for punishment that I am, I decided to surf the company's Web site and see whether I could find a sharper definition. Here's some of what I learned:
Carly Fiorina, CEO, Hewlett-Packard
I suppose that's a good thing--though it beats me what they're jabbering about. Still, the description rates as a perfect paragon of clarity compared with the following:
"The HP Adaptive Infrastructure approach helps companies to synchronize their IT resources, processes and infrastructure with business strategies. This approach enables business to reduce the cost of change, reduce total cost of ownership, simplify management complexity and provide the enterprise with the ability to rapidly implement solutions that provide a competitive advantage. With an HP Adaptive Infrastructure, IT can rapidly adjust to the changes needed by the corporation to meet new business initiatives and opportunities."
While they're at it, why not claim to have discovered a cure for the common cold and to have taken the Nobel Prize for physics?
OK, I'm obviously making sport. As egregiously bad as this stuff sounds, Fiorina and her charges are no worse at butchering language than the rest of the thinkers in the upper echelons of tech-dom. When it comes to form-fitting their sales pitches into important-speak volumes of vagueness, there is no shortage of egregious offenders.
As fate would have it, Fiorina's kaffeeklatsch fell close to the first anniversary of Sam Palmisano's $10 billion "wager", perhaps the mother of all marketing busts of the past 12 months. IBM so thoroughly confused its sales force--let alone the dunces in the press and analyst community--with this new vision that it was ultimately forced to return to the drawing board for a more precise formulation.
Purists will no doubt accuse me of oversimplifying, but stripped of the market-babble, IBM was largely talking about outsourcing. Boil down Adaptive Enterprise and you find that it's largely about selling management middleware. You'd never know that from reading their press releases.
The bigger question here is why so many CEOs can't resist the temptation to offer dressed-up branding exercises as substitutes for real vision. After more than two decades, asking them to go cold turkey may be too much for now. But a return to using simple English would be more than enough for starters.