Five Obfuscating Business Verbs

By Maeve Maddox

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I’ve just learned five new business verbs: onboard, level-set, operationalize, descope, and action-plan.

One meaning of to onboard is “to train new employees.” The expression is so common that many professional sites actually use the labels Onboard and Onboarding in their menus to direct new employees to relevant information.

Most of the time, the expression seems to refer to employee training, but it is also used with the meaning “to recruit supporters.” Here are some examples:

The Top 5 Must Do’s to Effectively Onboard Your New Employees

Our organisations need us to onboard new hires efficiently, and in the shortest time frame possible.

How to acquire and onboard new supporters using online channels.

How does your organization onboard new donors?

As a business term, to level-set means to make sure that people who will be working together all have the same information about the work. Here are some examples:

 Once your team has been established and practices are under way, you need to level set your team accurately.

Your entire team needs to be at a certain level of capability, and the Aurora illumine packages let you level-set your team. 

So this is the time to use the review process to level-set your employees on the current environment.

The verb to operationalize seems to mean “to do,” or “to put into practice.” Here are examples:

In general, the more abstract the idea, the harder it is to operationalize.

[The speaker] will be presenting a webinar on “Tools to Operationalize the New Dining Practice Standards.”

When it comes to China, we seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations. 

The term to descope means “to modify or abandon a project in order to save money.” In the last example below, the meaning seems to be “demolished.” (Descope is also used as a noun.) Here are examples:

As a mission enters the planning and construction phase, it often becomes clear that the initial estimates were optimistic and the cost cap constraint will bind. In this case, the IC may…descope the mission by reducing the mission’s goals.

Ka and S-bands were under consideration for descope last year, but we now plan to proceed with their full production.

The wooden structures on the airfield are being descoped to make way for more efficient structures.

The verb to action-plan seems to have the same meaning as plain old to plan, but it’s more mouth filling. Here’s a definition of plan:

plan (verb): to arrange in advance; to set down the details of how to proceed with a project.

Here are examples of action plan used as a verb:

 If a decision is made by the mentoring team that a student is failing, the next step is to action plan the elements of the student’s practice that require attention.

Use constructive feedback to action plan the transfer of skills and knowledge acquired into the workplace

Students are asked to action plan a campaign on an issue of their choice.

If your intention is to impress your listeners or to obfuscate your meaning, these five words are excellent choices. If your purpose is to be understood, you may wish to consider some simpler alternatives.

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13 Responses to “Five Obfuscating Business Verbs”

  • Peter Barns

    Perhaps action-plan originated with action plans?

  • James Jenneman

    Oh, goodness. I’ve been using “onboard” for years, but I’ve never heard or used the other ones. “Operationalize” not only replaces a perfectly good word, but it also is really difficult to say. That makes it double-plus good for business jargonistas!

    “Onboard” has a little bit more implied than simply training a new employee; it also includes all of the initial paperwork (I-9 and W4 in the States, T4 and other forms in Canada, contracts, etc) that comes with joining a company, and, most importantly, it implies helping the new employee quickly and effectively learn and join the culture of an organization.

    The onboarding experience is often a strong determiner of whether an employee will be engaged and stick around with the company for awhile. It’s the all-important first impression. Then again, maybe I just have a soft spot for that term because I’m an HR guy.

  • Danny

    James: It’s because you’re an HR guy.

    “Onboard” sounds like something you’d hear on The Office, only they’d be mocking it. It deserves to be mocked. So do “descope,” “action-plan,” and “level-set.”

    I’ve heard “operationalize” used for a long time, but with a slightly different meaning: to put into practical terms some subjective or abstract concept. E.g., “How should we operationalize what we mean by “quality” for this study?”

  • Dotty Lai

    Thank you!! These ridiculous, made-up terms used to drive me nuts as a corporate communications professional, particularly “level-set.” I would actually hear entire conversations with these words strung together. People at small companies don’t speak this way. These terms are never used in conversations with friends and family, and they certainly aren’t used with customers; don’t use them in the office either. Could you imagine a customer service representative asking you if you’re ready to level-set? I’m not sure why “onboard” became fashionable when “orient” (verb) or “orientation (noun) are real words. They used to be standard business usage 10 years ago in the same context.

  • Curtis Manges

    I’m reaching the conviction that businesspeople must feel inadequate speaking plain English.

  • Sharon

    This is just funny. I love the way you wrapped it up, after helping us understand what these are “supposed” to mean.

    I heard a couple of great ones on the radio the other day (in the same report, and it wasn’t a report about words). The first was incentivize, which I know is a word but it makes me crazy anyway just because “incent” is so much shorter. And the other — which the reporter admitting to making up — was “complexify.” Not a real word that I can find, but I knew exactly what he meant!

  • venqax

    This…is…a horror show. I still hate incent and incentivize so I guess I’m behind the curve. I get the need for professional jargon. But some of this is simply garbage. To onboard? With a straight face a person is supposed to say that? What’s wrong with “train”? Or even “indoctrinate”? Too many syllables?

    Operationalize, OTOH, does have a very specific meaning in science which is useful. but the stated business use seems entirely superfluous. And fatuous.

    Every field is a vector for the disease reservoir of bad language (take that!) but business is especially bad. Maybe it’s because business in general is so unspecialized that its terms just get spattered everywhere. Spattered, not splattered, as dictated by criminal forensic terminology.

  • thebluebird11

    I’m with Curtis. As Shrek said, I think they must be trying to compensate for something.

  • venqax

    “And the other — which the reporter admitting to making up — was “complexify.” Not a real word that I can find, but I knew exactly what he meant!”

    Was it “complicate”? That is a word. I’ve heard it used and even seen it printedified, I think.

  • Nancy R.

    I agree with you, James.
    I recently edited a statement by the chairman of a church committee. He sends his writing to all the members of the committee, but I’m the one who responds with refinements. I let “onboard” remain in his piece. It makes sense, and it’s not ridiculously annoying to pronounce, as is “operationalize,” as you point out.
    This guy uses other business jargon, which often yields verbs used as nouns, and vice versa. One that grates is “ask” used as a noun: “I have a huge ask for you to consider.” Ugh!

  • Anne-Marie Shaffer

    Weird Al has addressed this corporate cacophony of obfuscating words quite well in his song “Mission Statement”:

  • thebluebird11

    @Anne-Marie: That was….awesome!! I love Weird Al!

  • Steve

    I hadn’t heard ‘onboard’ until I joined a new office last month. I misheard it as ‘waterboard’ and cannot un-hear that.

    Never heard the others, and hope never to.

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