Monday, March 23, 2015

Onboarding, buying-in and re-skinning: Gerunds gone wild

Image courtesy NBC
Today’s hottest buzzword is: “onboarding.”

A group of corporate Internet professionals has “onboarding” an official part of a major, inter-departmental project, as in “The onboarding phase will continue until buy-in has been obtained from a significant majority of players in this space.”

Do you see what they’ve done here: defined one buzzword with another in a passive sentence that avoids telling the reader who or what is responsible for the action.

After I pulled my attention away from that disaster of a sentence, my next thought was “What’s the difference between ‘onboarding’ and ‘boarding’?”

Onboarding—also known as “on-boarding”—means committing to a process. If someone needs others to “onboard,” it means the success of the process or project depends on the commitment of those involved. In other words, you cannot just accept what’s going on—you have to contribute some effort to make the process work. 

You become a part of the process when you onboard. It suggests something more active than “buy-in.”

Buy-in has been a trending buzzword for a few years, now. “We have to obtain buy-in to the new paradigm.” I still prefer “accept” or “agree.” But of course, when you buy in—or even better, when you get someone else to buy in, you’re talking or writing like one of the cool kids.

But the best new jargon term I heard has to be “re-skinning.” It means changing the visual appearance of a website or Web page so that it matches an established look. The word revives the concept of “skins” from at least 10 years back—I remember being able to choose different skins, or combinations of colours and icons for various websites or programs.

The most interesting thing about “re-skinning” is that the current meaning is the opposite of the original meaning of the root word. “Re-skinning” means putting a new look, or “skin” over an underlying structure, while not so long ago, to “skin” something meant removing the skin, or outer layer.

So what’s wrong with buzzwords?

The trouble with buzzwords is that they lead to confusion. Usually, most people can glean the meaning of any new buzzword. However, someone whose first language is not English can get the wrong idea, especially with a word like “re-skinning” that reverses the original meaning. 

Worse, though, is the creeping application of buzzwords to new things. Take the term “off-line.” It means “disconnected,” typically from the Internet and other electronic media. At one time, it meant not operating, as a paper mill being off-line. But in meetings, people will often say “Let’s take that off-line” to mean “Let’s talk about those details just between the two of us, and not bog down this meeting for all these other folks.”

“Re-skinning” is an example, where to “skin” something is being applied to more and more things. I can understand using it to describe covering or decorating a physical product, but today it’s more often used for websites and apps.

And when a buzzword creeps into more uses, it gets used everywhere. Remember “busters” in the 1980s? After the movie Ghostbusters became a hit, dustbusters started advertising more and more. Then snack advertisers described their treats as “hunger busters.” The nadir always comes when politicians get involved, and the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario called themselves “Grit busters,” referring to the nickname for the Liberal party, “grits.”

I just dread the day when people tell me they’re on-boarding to getting re-skinned at the outlet mall.


  1. My boss of years ago would also say "I'll take that under advisement." and I'd happily go about my work thinking the boss would be mulling it about. I started to use the term at home with my four sons. Finally, one day, my son awoke me from my Pollyanna dream. I replied with the standard "I'll take that under advisement." and he replied, in front of his siblings, "That's a no. We ain't getting it." Talk about lightning from the skies! I realized my boss had been telling me no in the most polite way possible. At the next meeting when he said that little blurb, I replied, "Well, since he doesn't want to move in that direction, what other alternatives do you see as viable." He never took another opportunity under advisement - he said no and started a new phrase: "Let's table that for the next meeting." which meant deep-six it and nobody mention it at the next meeting. It is all about reading between the lines.

  2. I think a gerund must be derived from a verb. These words are neither -- they're the contributions of illiterates. During my corporate and consulting work, I persisted in stopping people who used buzzwords, protesting that I didn't understand their meaning, and forcing them to express themselves in plain English before allowing them to proceed. It ceased to surprise me that they were often unable to articulate a coherent thought, at which point another needless meeting was ended. Some would protest that buzzwords are useful shorthand; the problem is that they don't mean the same thing to everyone. Allowing them to slip by is dangerous.

  3. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming crop of office seekers adapt re-skinning to their campaign blather.

  4. Definitely know what you mean, I try to avoid buzzwords and jargon if I can - but it's not easy!