“A new kind of globalization wrapped around a new industrialization.” What?!

201603-stocksnap-pagesI recently read a Bloomberg article about Jeff Immelt’s leadership of GE. The article has an embedded video, showing a brief Q&A-style discussion. Tom Keene was one of the interviewers, and here’s one of his questions, with my emphasis added:

A lot of people will talk about Immelt as executive of the year last year, with a new kind of globalization wrapped around a new industrialization. What did you learn about how GE does globalization differently?

What? What in the hell does that mean? Globalization wrapped around industrialization?

For Tom Keene, I doubt that’s gibberish. He was driving at something. But I’m at a loss.

That question frustrates me. It’s imprecise. Two people can think very differently about a “new kind of globalization” or a “new industrialization”. There’s so much wiggle room, it’s almost impossible to have a meaningful, substantive exchange, when that’s your jumping off point.

But of course, this being financial TV, the interview rolls on. Everyone acts as if we always talk about “globalization wrapped around…industrialization”.

I hear this kind of dialogue, and I immediately think, that’s the opportunity for scientists and engineers. More broadly, that’s the opportunity for anyone who can think deeply, precisely, and clearly about the state of a business.

Large businesses are complex. GE’s business is particularly so, with whole subsidiaries they’re trying to sell, and whole businesses they’re trying to acquire. It’s tough to pin it down enough to have a meaningful chat.

We can still cut through the complexity. And we must.

The more opaque our businesses are, the greater chance they’re not serving our needs. The consensus judgment is that GE is performing wonderfully. Investors certainly think so. I still get worried, listening to intelligent people talk in such an abstract, imprecise way, about one of the world’s most impactful businesses.

I also worry about the effect this conversation has on viewers. People assume this is how experts talk about business. They use language like “globalization wrapped around…industrialization”. They assume (a) this language means something, and (b) other people understand it. It encourages awkward conversation after awkward conversation, where we all pretend we know what everyone else is talking about.

Don’t fall into this trap. You don’t have to use such arcane language to speak intelligently about your business. Use simple language. Anchor your questions and answers in concrete reality.

If you want to talk about “a new kind of globalization”, clarify what you mean. Do you mean doing business in new countries? Do you mean introducing different business models, tailed to different parts of the world? Do you mean balancing your commitments differently between customers, employees, and the community, depending on where you are?

The same thing applies with “industrialization”, or any other buzz word you might choose. The buzz words aren’t harmful, in and of themselves. But they need context. It’s too easy for different people to use those words differently. Anchor those words. It’ll give your audience confidence that you’re not trying to hide anything.

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