Peter Bigelow

Resolved: “Every employee needs to work together and share information.”

As we embark on yet another new year, we all eagerly await the new and the different, and diligently focus our various resources on doing more, better, and all with the intent of being a more profitable entity. Yes, this time of year is one of anticipation, of putting in place strategy and tactics that propels businesses to the coveted position of excellence in the eyes of customers, staff and stakeholders. Heady stuff indeed!

This is also the time of year when those very people we are so trying to impress go through their own processes of identifying and targeting the supplier(s) of choice that will enable their companies to scale greater heights. While we all should be in harmonious synchronicity during this start-of-the-year mating dance, more often than not we instead become confused trying to understand the various buzzwords and catchphrases that each side of the negotiation throws at the other in order to impress.

Buzzwords are forever, used by every business, in every region, and by every employee regardless of age, gender or functional area of expertise. Buzzwords change over the years, so as we age we can reflect on the “good old days” when every business plan discussed the need to “interface” by ways of “interpolation” and “extrapolation” (read: every employee needs to work together and share information). But that was then and this is now. Today we hear about the importance of “streaming” “tribal knowledge” so that “core competency” is presented by all as the “value proposition” (read: every employee needs to work together and share information).

What frustrates me with buzzwords is that by trying to sound important, they tend to confuse what really is important. Inevitably this results in everyone focusing on the trivial at the expense of the critical.

Consider: Is it possible today to visit a customer or prospective customer without being asked, “What is your value proposition?” Seems like a simple question, one that, like the salesman’s “elevator pitch” (read: information sharing), should be simple and concise. Problem is, no individual and no company has just one thing they offer that is the “value” and the “proposition” desired by each potential buyer.

Customers vary in need and complexity. Even the basics of quality and on-time delivery are open to interpretation based on with whom you are speaking. One company may judge quality by whether the item ordered works to print, while another may see quality as the holistic process from RFQ through payment for product. The former may not care whether an invoice is mailed, faxed or emailed, or about the look of the packaging the product is delivered in, while the latter may be obsessed with those complementary aspects of the business relationship. So if you say your “value proposition” is to make the best widget possible, one customer might find that satisfactory and another may instead eliminate you from consideration for failure to offer enough of what they perceive as being important.

Ditto for “service.” One customer may think service is being able to chat on the phone with a friendly and knowledgeable person, while another may view the phone a sign of spartan customer service, instead seeing an intuitive web portal as their definition of excellent customer service. Again, the value proposition for one may be a far cry from what the other is looking for. In each case, however, focusing on “value proposition” distracts from the basic mirror questions of “what does the customer want” and “how can I satisfy that want?”

A related problem is that buzzwords or catchphrases can marginalize what’s important. Such is just the case with one of the current hot phrases: “tribal knowledge.” Tribal knowledge refers to information that is not structured, documented and identified clearly for all to see. This phrase, interjected into a conversation, is typically used to stress the point that an organization has poor process documentation and is inconsistent, and thus is a less valuable, more risky organization to do business with. In short, the catch phrase is used in a punitive way, thus marginalizing any company’s “tribal knowledge” compared to organizations that have what is perceived as a more sophisticated knowledge exchange process (read: working together to share information).

However, the very highest value that any and all organizations offer is just that: “tribal knowledge” – that which employees collectively have learned, experienced and put to work day in and day out in order to offer the customer what they want. In short, it’s that “tribal knowledge” that more often than not is the “value proposition” that separates one company from another.

Individuals who can discern the specific needs of a specific customer – apply the best technology vs. any technology, or provide the type of service via the most appropriate user interface for delivery of service – exhibit the tribal knowledge that inevitably will make the most significant difference between just a proposition from a supplier and true value for a customer.

So as the new year unfolds and each of us sets out to make this year a better one than any in the past, we might all want to make every effort possible to stay away from confusing each other with buzzwords and catchphrases of the moment and instead focus on what is vital. Before asking what a supplier can offer, maybe we need to instead start by telling them what we want and, more importantly, what we need. And when responding to that statement, instead of camouflaging the response with more buzzword pablum, we should provide a clear, concise response that communicates we are flexible and will work with you. Most important, while showing pride in the sophisticated procedures and protocols employed to satisfy customer needs and wants, maybe we should give more than a little credit to the collective tribal knowledge that is the value that makes it all happen.

Finally, rather than focusing on the latest and greatest buzzword, don’t forget that customers need suppliers that can solve their peculiar problems and help them with their daunting challenges just as much as suppliers need customers who can articulate what they need, what they want and what they value, so together (read: working together and share information) true value can be derived.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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