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What’s up with the over-use and obsession on acronyms in American business and professional culture?

I take business school classes right now, and b-school students notoriously love the acronym, so some of these examples I’m going to delightfully pepper throughout this post are probably irrelevant to the broader world, but eh … you win some, you lose some. Last night I was in a class and we were discussing individual performance plans, so someone started talking about SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), then another person chimed in with SOAR goals (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results), and this all came after a conference call I had earlier in the day for a part-time gig I’m working with probably 11-12 different acronyms bantered about (some were actually initialisms, like calling a Project Manager a ‘PM’ — acronyms by definition need to spell out a word of their own).

Since about February of 2011, if you count part-time gigs and school, I’ve probably been in about 10-12 different work/academic cultures — and every single one (to a tee) loves and basically relies on acronyms to power their discussions, mostly internally but sometimes (possibly confusing to others) externally. I have no real idea why this is, although I have some basic, under-developed theories.

Let’s start with something bigger, though: the academic community has now taken notice.

We are not saying that all acronyms are “evil.” On the contrary. Acronyms can simplify and facilitate communication, enhance recall, and save time, space, and effort for everyone involved. This is particularly true for the many clinical research trials with long, unwieldy names that are cumbersome to recite and difficult to remember. Could anyone deny that BIG-MAC is a lot more “palatable” than Beaumont Interventional Group—Mevacor, ACE inhibitor, Colchicine restenosis trial? But what if BIG-MAC were not defined?

Failure to define acronyms is all too frequent and reflects inconsiderate writing, careless editing, and irresponsible publishing. 2 As an example, the following sentence appeared in the abstract supplement of a major cardiology journal: “The study population comprised 2,950 patients (3,549 lesions) prospectively enroled [sic] into 4 restenosis trials (MERCATOR, MARCATOR, CARPORT, PARK).” 6Nowhere were these acronyms defined, leaving readers to wonder whether they were looking at a used-car advertisement. Moreover, 70 other abstracts in that same issue contained undefined acronyms. And in one recent review article alone, we counted over 90 undefined acronyms, including some that appeared more than once! 7

This is a huge pet peeve of mine, and goes back to some stuff I’ve talked about with regards to human resources in the past. Oftentimes, the responsibility for “on-boarding” a new employee will fall to HR, but the on-boarding process at many places is very paperwork-driven (W-9s, etc.) It’s not really culture-driven, or even day-to-day-driven. The assumption is often that those elements will come from the direct manager. In reality, often the direct manager just wants a person to start working, because he/she feels swamped as is and needs to off-load some stuff. I cannot tell you how many different gigs I’ve had where, three-four weeks in, I’m still scrolling through unmonitored Intranet postings to figure out different acronyms that people bandy about in meetings. (Usually a person with a modicum of common sense can figure out what an acronym represents pretty quickly, but I lack common sense on the regular and sometimes 1-2 letters will be displaced; it doesn’t change the entire definition or anything, but … it can shift it a bit.)

Basically, my point with the above paragraph is: when someone gets introduced to a new business culture, quite simply they should be given a list of major acronyms used in that organization. Every org has a different acronym for their payroll system, their performance evaluation system, all that … just make a list and go over with a newb. It will help.

Here’s a little more on the acronym obsession in America, including the idea that — seems logical — many of them originated around WWII (acronyms are more relevant in war, I’d imagine, especially to keep some things shrouded in secrecy and simplicity at the same time). If you think about it, a lot of the guys that came back from WW2 ended up being titans of industry (this is a generalization, but it’s true in points), so maybe they extended it to there, and it flowed downhill.

I’d assume it comes from two things, ultimately: (1) Americans love efficiency, or at least they like to talk about loving it. Acronyms, just like “thx” for “thanks” (which is a horrible thing to do), make it seem like you’re saving time off your day and your really meaty projects. And then (2) the entire notion of society, at some point, is about an in-group and an out-group. That sounds way deeper than I intended it to sound, but what I mean is … ultimately you’re a part of some groups, and not a part of others (be that deliberate or not), and the groups that have formed need things that are special to themselves (to their group) to differentiate them. If you call your performance management tool “SNAP,” that’s basically just a professional extension of your HS crew calling themselves “The Dick-Swinging Posse” or whatever. It’s saying “This is what we do, and you need to be let into this before you’ll totally understand it.” Acronyms basically help further the HS cafeteria clique run that we all recall so fondly.

Alright, story to end on. These aren’t really acronyms but it’s still kind of funny. Last year I went to a b-school presentation by a big dairy company coming to recruit. The guy leading the presentation was pretty much all bluster, but at some point he asked a pretty straight-up question about different types of connections that a large business could make. The way he asked it, it seemed like he wanted kind of a thoughtful, the-future-of-business thing — although I’m probably mis-reading that. Anyway, this moppy-headed MBA in the second row of the presentation raises his hand, gets called on, and literally just runs about 12 acronyms down (initialisms), like “B2B, B2C, H2H, B2F…” It was magical to listen to, especially because I’m pretty sure the presenters only understood four of the 12 but the kid kept going. I heard later he got a gig there. In-group. He’s one of ’em now, so hopefully he internalizes the core ones that they use.

Ted Bauer

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