The Language of Procurement – Necessarily Jargon-Rich or an Inherent Safety Device?

Group-HuddleThe lady sitting next to me during one of the sessions at a recent procurement event in London, told me she was quite new to the profession, in fact, she had only been working in marketing procurement for four weeks. I asked her how she was finding it and she said it was interesting and that she was really enjoying it, but it was taking her some time to get her head around it. She also said, I just wish Procurement didn’t use quite so much jargon – it’s really starting to confuse me!

I hadn't thought about it before -- does procurement really use that much jargon? I thought that was the premise of the law profession, or certainly IT. The last thing procurement wants is to alienate fresh potential talent because of a perceived closed-shop approach or language (we’ve written loads on procurement talent this year).

And then, at our latest Pub Debate – “Is Procurement Doomed? Will the digital revolution and other things make the profession a thing of the past?” I overheard two senior procurement professionals (one was our own Peter Smith) discussing – over a beer at the end of the debate - how procurement isn’t doomed but is a bit stuck in its ways and needs to change a bit.

As if that wasn’t enough, when I was talking to a Head of Procurement for some research we were doing into NHS Hospitals Trusts, I got hit with another angle: procurement needs to communicate better with other departments, finance particularly, so we aren’t seen as separate from company strategy, but working towards the same outcomes. But people don’t seem to understand, he said.

So, is procurement really too jargon-heavy? I ‘Googled’ procurement jargon and was amazed at just how many glossaries of terms, procurement jargon busters and indexes of procurement phrases there are, all created to help the ‘outsider’ translate the language. Just a fraction of them includes: business needs analysis, closed competitive process, constructive market engagement, cost benefit analysis, invitation to register, invitation to qualify (the invitations go on forever). And then there’s a multitude of acronyms: TCO, TCM, TVM, PQQ, ITT, KPIs PTNs PPPs P2P S2P, and the ‘requests’ go on forever too: RFIs, RFPs RFQs RFTs, to name a few.  It’s mind-boggling.

I also discovered that many of the jargon busters are created by local councils – not just for their own jargon-battle-worn employees but for their government agencies and suppliers. In fact, one of them says:

“... this jargon buster was created to explain in plain English the specialist words and expressions that sometimes make procurement hard to understand.”

Really! So why not just use plain English then? It’s like a quiz to see if you remember what they all mean – no wonder they have to hand it out to all newbies in the office. And what of the local supplier or SME: it must be daunting to have to get their heads around all the terminology before they can even start to do business with a local council.

Just an example -- for ‘Activity Based Costing (ABC)’ couldn’t we say what it means: ‘the cost of providing a product or service based on the resources they use?'

Or for ‘Constructive Market Engagement’ say ‘Meeting with suppliers to discuss your needs and find out what’s on offer.’

So, what is it about seasoned procurement officials? Are they a special breed that just understands the language, or have they spent years studying it? Is it a mechanism they use for keeping the profession safe? Which brings me to the second scenario: is procurement doomed or does it just need to change a bit? Maybe we are camouflaging procurement with language: if no-one else understands what we do (or say) we will be safe from being replaced or consumed by other functions. Terms, idioms, expressions, acronyms and abbreviations, are all part of a specialist language that belongs to one group of people, in this case within a specific industry. Keeping the specialist knowledge inside the heads of the owners is a safety mechanism: if those on the outside can’t speak the language, they can’t get in.

Jargon does have its place and can be a useful shorthand within the industry to get across specific meaning quickly, but only to those in the know. It becomes a problem when it stops people understanding. So, point three, communicating with other departments or general audience. It stands to reason that if your audience hears you clearly and understands you without having to translate, they are going to be more engaged with you. Especially in categories such as marketing procurement, where procurement has spent years knocking on their door, waiting to be let in. Procurement, historically has often alienated Marketing - they don’t want too much interference in their spend.

But talking to the rest of the organisation plainly might help our own 'SRM'. The business understands 'profitability' and that we are helping to achieve company goals – they don’t need to hear the words 'strategic sourcing' three times in a sentence. Whatever part of the business you’re in, too much jargon is annoying, undermining communication to the point where the listener just switches off.

The Local Government Association chairman Margaret Eaton recently said: "The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases ... Why do we have to have 'coterminous, stakeholder engagement' when we could just 'talk to people' instead?" And there was a brilliant article in The Independent: “Asked about future wages and conditions in the reformed procurement arm, Defence Equipment and Support, Philip Hammond crisply explained: 'There will be an overall envelope of resources for operating costs that will be subject to a downward  trajectory over time representing efficiency.'" So - a lot of money is going to be saved on the backs of the employees - full stop.

There are times when procurement needs its own language, but -- case in point, the lady at the conference -- there are times when we just need to communicate with the outside world, and not confuse them!

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Voices (2)

  1. Mike Robertson:

    Look what happened to IT teams over the past decade, they loved their acronyms and were considered “difficult to do business with”. Cloud computing by-passed IT and suddenly the business didn’t need IT, so IT had to learn to engage WITH the business and show value.
    Procurement has its acronyms and processes and can often be “difficult to do business with”. We now see more and more automation of the procurement processes, empowering the business to procure directly and by-pass the procurement teams. Its time for procurement to read the writing on the wall and address ASAP.

  2. Nick @ Market Dojo:

    Totally agree! I’m a big fan of removing jargon, especially from websites when companies use a lot of words that actually leave you no closer to knowing what they do!

    I heard that at Rolls Royce they used to give new starters a book of all the TLAs (three letter acronyms) that were used across the business. Nuts!

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