What, Exactly, Is Synergy?

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Synergy may be defined as “increased effectiveness, achievement, etc., produced as a result of combined action or co-operation.”

Until the late 1950s, the term was probably most commonly seen in a scientific context to describe the interaction of organs or nerves. Now it is common in corporate-speak and popular as a brand name for various businesses and products.

Synergy is so popular online that it brings up 50,500,000 results. Here are some of them:

Synergy HomeCare (cleaning service)
Synergy Software (makers of a graphing and analysis program)
Synergy Sport Tech (Fantasy Basketball App)
Synergy Realty Group (real estate agency)
Synergy (something to do with using iTunes)
Synergy Cancer Center
Synergy Church
Synergy Healthcare

This is how the word is used in corporate-speak:

The integration of the two companies is currently expected to generate synergy savings of $225 million in fiscal 2015 and more than $500 million by fiscal 2017.

Also expect synergy between film and gaming studios, with game tie-ins accompanying the theatrical and DVD release of movies.

Considering the future of the semiconductor industry, we can expect synergy effects for that business. We have no plans at this time to sell the business.

We expect synergy to be made from the collaboration of the two stylish fashion icons, both of which are aimed at younger generations.”

Eczacibasi and Burgbad expect synergy potential in the areas of international sales and distribution as well as innovation management.

Notice that in every one of these quotations, the noun synergy is preceded by the verb expect. Although in some contexts, synergy conveys a specific meaning, in the jargon of business, the closest definition is, “an as-yet unknown result that we hope will prove profitable.”

Spelled synergie in the earliest OED citation (1632), the word referred to the cooperation between human will and divine grace: “In the virtue of which synergy and co-partnership with Christ and with God, as he saves, so we save; as he forgives sins, so we forgive them.” [Spelling modernized.]

In the 19th century, synergy acquired a use in physiology to refer to the interaction of body parts, such as “the relation of action between the glottis and the muscles.”

A writer in 1917 finds synergy an apt term to describe the way that the presence of two ions “in some way increases the action of both.” In a 2008 citation, the word synergy is used in the context of drug interactions: “Very little is known about how the evolution of resistance is affected by the nature of the interactions—synergy or antagonism—between drugs.”

Synergy registers on the Ngram Viewer in 1827, but doesn’t make much of a showing until the 1960s.

I agree with David Lehman who comments in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus as to the ineffectiveness of the word synergy in the context of business mergers: “Some words don’t work. Synergy is one of them.”

Lehman admits that—theoretically—the usage makes sense in a business context, but points out that the concept is flawed because the mergers that are supposed to result in synergy “seldom go according to plan” and “that is surely why you hear the word only in the business news, among executives and mouthpieces for whom hope springs eternal.”

Some possible alternatives to synergy and synergetic:
source of cooperation
opportunity to combine resources
mutually beneficial

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5 thoughts on “What, Exactly, Is Synergy?”

  1. It’s supposed to mean………….The whole is greater than the sum of its parts or……..more than, or different than the sum of its parts. However, as said above, it’s often used as a buzz word in an attempt to apply science to business or other relationships.

  2. @Roberta: Yes, you’re right. Th 1917 and 2008 citations make that clear. Some of the others make no sense at all, e.g.

    “Considering the future of the semiconductor industry, we can expect synergy effects for that business.”

    What is that supposed to mean? That statement is so bad that it probably ruins the sentences around it in ways worse than any alone. Would that be “anti-synergy”? This tends to happen when jargon, especially business jargon, coopts a word. It simply becomes an immediate focus of mockery for anyone with even a half-deaf ear for language and (at least you would think) defeats the very purpose of jargon all for purposes unknown. Maybe that is what they are secretly “efforting” to do in corporate boardrooms for some reason.

  3. Agree with Roberta. Synergy is not just interaction that is mutually beneficial. It connotes an augmented state for both. In the case of drug interactions, it is my impression that synergy implies that the effects of each drug are greater when used together than either would be if used alone. Sometimes this is desirable, sometimes not. It’s kind of beyond just a “merger” effect in the sense that with a meger, you expect certain benefits to result. Synergy is like effects beyond expectation. It’s like a few drops of harmony and magic blended into the mix 🙂

  4. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts has always been my use of one of my favorite, most commonly misunderstood words.
    I always use the formula 1 + 1 = 3 to try to explain, but still usually get blank stares. I like the earlier comments expressing “unforeseen positive effects” as a good use of the word. Unfortunately, if the dollar amounts don’t follow, the businesses involved stop trying to achieve synergy, which I feel is a noble effort. When the company I was involved with for three decades was bought by a bigger competitor seeking synergy, I was synergized out of the equation: dropped like a rock. Guess they weren’t interested in another of my favorite words I used in the world of work: emergence.

  5. Venqax is quite right in his example sentence and his condemnation of it. That statement reeks!
    It reminds me of a definition of f****** that I read: “a meaningless intensifier”.
    So often, the definition of “synergy” — as stolen by bureaucrats — is “a meaningless buzzword.”
    In contrast are the scientific uses, such as “The synergy between chemotherapy and radiation therapy in this patient’s case has lead to a good outcome.”

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