Drop that jargon: It’s time for new HR metaphors


„All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
– William Shakespeare

Shakespeare has an invitation for us: “Imagine that we were all actors”, he asks. With his analogy between life and stage play, he chooses a lens through which the reader can look at the world. This makes it easy understand what he means; it also allows us to take the analogy further and to ask interesting questions: Are our possessions just props? Can we go “off stage”? Who is our audience?

The Power of Metaphors

Metaphors and analogies are an example of how language influences thinking in a subtle yet powerful way. On the one hand, they provide an easily accessible toolbox of mental models which ease thinking and communication. On the other hand, those very mental models rely on unspoken assumptions. Shakespeare’s analogy above suggest that there are two layers of reality (stage/audience), and that people play only one role at a time. Those assumptions remain unchallenged if we choose to use the metaphors.

Business contexts are not immune from language’s influence, as the abundance of jargons shows. Technical terms, abbreviations and buzzwords are an integral part of any discipline. Some of them cross boundaries and infect other areas. Young, conceptual disciplines such as HR are especially prone to borrowing jargon, as their language is still much more in flux as opposed to established areas such as chemistry. But if language influences thinking, wouldn’t the jargon we use influence (or bias) our decisions?

Talent Management: An Engineering Domain

Let’s take the example of Talent Management, where practitioners have become used to expressions such as “talent pipelines”, “platforms”, “lifecycles” or “recruiting”. All those terms are derived from other disciplines. In a quick and dirty text analysis of the most recent 25 articles from Harvard Business Review’s “Talent Management” category, I have found that 6 out of 10 jargon terms come from the engineering/physics area (e.g. “process”, “build”, “potential”, “system”), followed by military terms (“engage”, “recruit”, “strategy”). There are some, but only few terms from other areas.

When using these metaphors, we rely on assumptions from those very disciplines – be it a mechanistic engineering view that a “system” can be “built”, or the strategic military considerations that a “war for talent” can be “won”. But do we really want to accept those assumptions?

Where are the Other Metaphors?

Creativity techniques emphasize the importance of outside influence, stimulating “out of the box” thinking. How about using a different vocabulary for Talent Management? A change of language would introduce different mental models, challenge assumptions and help us find new approaches. Chemistry could help us find talent oxidation, free radicals and leadership crystallization; biology would introduce cross-pollination of skills, symbiotic development and talent spores; the arts might lead us to leadership genres, talent rituals and the right balance between skill expression and technique.

In the end, we might find out that the engineering language is still the best of all of those jargons – but borrowing a different toolbox for a project, workshop or strategy meeting might help you think differently about that well-worn hammer you’ve been using all those years.

What jargons and metaphors would you use for talent management? Let me know in the comments!

(picture by Dierk Schaefer, flickr.com/photos/dierkschaefer, used under CC -by 2.0)