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14 tech buzzwords that are confusing everyone

Buzzwords thrive because they’re immensely useful as a shorthand when all parties involved have a common understanding of the concepts they represent — big ideas can be packed into just a few syllables. But as state and local chief information officers pointed out to StateScoop in recent interviews, buzzwords can also be pernicious.

“I think buzzwords are really dangerous to use because your business partners don’t understand,” Nebraska CIO Ed Toner said. “You really should be describing what you want in plain language. With buzzwords, no one wants to challenge you because they don’t want to show they don’t understand this hip, cool jargon.”

CIOs said they often work with people who misunderstand various terms and that careless application of language sows confusion. Maryland CIO Michael Leahy said buzzwords erode the integrity of language that organizational leaders depend on to do their work.

“We’re changing long-standing definitions of words that make them less meaningful,” Leahy said.

Minnesota CIO Tarek Tomes told StateScoop it’s a constant challenge to overcome some of the notions his partner agencies have developed surrounding the most common buzzwords.

“We spend an extraordinary amount of time almost fighting against the buzzword and the connotation that’s been attached to the buzzword, where you can’t even lead with the value of what it does because you’re immediately confronted with this larger realm that the buzzword created that you have to address,” Tomes said.

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“Collaborative”

Michael Leahy, Maryland CIO

My unfavorite buzzwords these days are pretty typical — things like “synergy.” I still hear that a lot. And everything has to be “collaborative.” My concern with “collaborative” is that it’s thrown in as a meaningless adjective whether people are actually making an effort to collaborate. “Collaborate” means to constructively approach something in a way that both parties gain from the transaction, whereas we typically use the word “collaborative” to mean more than one person is involved. It’s sort of like the legal definition of a conspiracy.

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“Silos”

Michael Leahy, Maryland CIO

I refer to those as “cylinders of excellence.” Everybody loves silos but they all say they’re against them, because otherwise they would have been gone by now. In government, generally, bureaucracies are mandated to do a particular thing, they tend to be more risk averse, so if they believe something works for them, they are reticent to change it without significant pain because the fear of failure associated with potential change makes them view most of life as a negative-sum game. So everyone rails against silos and talks about being collaborative and interactive and then continues to run their particular business on the premise that they are the subject matter experts, no one else could possibly understand what they do, they’re special and so they have to remain in their enclave.

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“Smart city”

Bob Bennett, former chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Missouri

Let’s destroy that. In 2013, 2014, that was wonderful, because it really appealed to mayors and city councils and city managers about the need to have integrated technologies. But it was not the smartness of it. It was the connection that was the critical element. So I think instead of smart cities, where we emphasize the efficiencies that can be gained by using technologies or the updates to the synchronization among departments, those are all just best practices anyway. Instead, what we ought to be focusing on is the “connected community.”

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“Digital divide”

Bob Bennett, former chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Missouri

“Digital divide” I think is becoming a little less effective as a term. When we started it, it had to do with physical access to the connected world. And the measure of the digital divide was frequently either fiber connection speeds available in different neighborhoods or it was amount of fiber coverage for a city. But the pandemic illustrated the fallacy in that assessment mechanism. Even if the accessibility was at the doorstop, does the resident have the ability and trust to engage in the connected community? For so many communities, that trust factor wasn’t there. The focus needs to be on physical accessibility, hardware and human factors. Instead of a digital divide, I think it’s more of an “accessibility gap.”

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“Innovation”

John MacMillan, Pennsylvania CIO

People to tend to conflate it with things like “emerging technology.” Like, you’ve got to have the latest toaster to take your bread and turn it into toast. No, you don’t. You just need a toaster. That one is troublesome because it tends to drive the way people think about doing what we do on a regular daily basis, and that’s always looking for new solutions. Buying something new for the sake of buying something new is like buying a new model car — that’s the one that’s got all the problems. You don’t want to be a leader, you definitely don’t want to be a laggard, you want to find Goldilocks, that thing that’s “just right,” somewhere in the middle.

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“Modernization”

John MacMillan, Pennsylvania CIO

It’s based on the idea that the minute a service or a system or application goes live, it’s immediately legacy. Now you start into productive service and realize all the things you didn’t think about are like warts on a toad: they’re plainly obvious and now we’ve got to modernize. Usually sometime on the Monday morning after you go live, you realize this thing needs to be modernized immediately. We tend to use it like a blanket over a rhinoceros. You’re trying to hide something far bigger, far more complex and far angrier than what would be obvious.

People tend to think of mainframes as legacy technology. We have access to a brand-new mainframe — there’s no need to modernize it. So when you use the term “modernization” in concert with “legacy,” you really have to ask the question, what’s under the blanket? If you have a contemporary piece of hardware, with contemporary operating systems, contemporary development languages, what you’re really talking about modernizing — probably — is the skills needed to support it. It’s usually a people problem, not a technology problem.

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