Big business beware, the bull!@*! detector is here
By Kotaro Miyata and Clayton Hirst
22 June 2003
The days of corporate waffle are numbered. The more management-speak in a company report, the worse a firm is doing, say the developers of a "bullshit" detector.
The computer program - called Bullfighter - sifts through companies' reports and accounts picking out management jargon and obscure corporate language. Expressions such as "lifecycle management", "synergies" and "benchmarking" are to Bullfighter like a red rag to, well, a bull.
Developed by Deloitte Consulting, the Bullfighter is more than just an exercise to rid the world of arcane and convoluted business terms. Deloitte claims that there is a direct link between clear communication and good financial performance. The better the Bullfighter rating, the less jargon there is and the better the company will do.
Brian Fugere, partner at Deloitte, said: "Straight talking companies out-performed non-straight talking companies in terms of revenue growth - consistently."
The view is shared by one of the country's top business academics. Richard Teffler, professor of accounting and finance at Cranfield School of Management, said: "Jargon is used primarily to obfuscate and mislead.
"It is a way of denying what's going on. It avoids acknowledging how bad the problems really are. You can predict fairly accurately whether a company is going to survive or fail based on its statements."
To put Bullfighter to the test, Deloitte ran Enron's accounts through the program. "We found that as the company got into deeper and deeper trouble, the language got more and more obscure," said Mr Fugere.
So far, only US companies have taken the Bullfighter test. But The Independent on Sunday decided to run the last set of accounts from some of the UK's largest companies through Bullfighter.
The results showed Britain's high street banks were particularly guilty of corporate gobbledegook. Barclays, which is currently running an advertising campaign with the slogan "fluent in finance", came out worst.
Barclays had a particular passion for the word "synergy", a term which Bullfighter describes as "the consulting version of buy one, get one free". Barclays sinks to a particular low with the phrase "non-organic opportunities".
"It's a case of choosing words to look more impressive and important when you don't have anything specific to say," said a spokesman for the Plain English Society.
But a spokeswoman for Barclays said: "We focus on trying to explain complex issues in user-friendly, easy-to-understand language. We are committed to making reports as easy to understand as possible."
Royal Bank of Scotland was fractionally better than Barclays. The bank was particularly keen on the word "strategic". The Bullfighter program says: "This is a real word but overused to the point where it sounds like hyperbole. Just because something has no short term, immediate value doesn't mean it's strategic."
A spokeswoman for the bank said: "We are constantly striving to be clear, concise and transparent."
At the other end of the scale, the plainest-speaking of the companies was AstraZeneca. "We have a chief executive and chief finance officer who use simple language to explain complex scientific matters," says a spokesman. "That's where the motivation comes from."
How the top companies rate...
Market value: £30bn
Bull rating: ******
Who are they? High Street bank, owns Barclaycard.
Jargon: Although we continue to seek out value-creating non-organic opportunities in selected European markets, we will continue to be rigorous in applying the disciplines of value-based management in analysing potential companies.
Real meaning: We want to buy other companies.
Market value: £96bn
Bull rating: ***
Who are they? Oil giant.
Jargon: The fourth-quarter trading environment was ... less favourable for Refining and Marketing where adverse crude price differentials depressed BP's refining margins relative to the industry marker. The trading environment for the year reflected significantly less favourable gas prices and refining margins.
Real meaning: We've had a shocking year.
Market value: £44bn
Bull rating: **
Who are they? Drugs company that makes Losec, an ulcer treatment.
Jargon: Seroquel sales exceeded the $1bn megabrand milestone in 2002 ... An sNDA submission in the US for use of Seroquel in the treatment of acute mania associated with manic bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) was announced on 2 January.
Real meaning: It's selling like hot cakes.
Market value: £ 84bn
Bull rating: *****
Who are they? World's largest mobile phone firm.
Jargon: We are progressively building a brand ascendancy ... which is gaining recognition within our industry and in the world at large.
Real meaning: We want to conquer the world.
Royal Bank of Scotland
Market value: £ 51bn
Bull rating: ******
Who are they? High street bank that owns NatWest and Direct Line.
Jargon: The Group successfully completed the conversion of NatWest IT systems on to the RBS technology platform ... The scale and complexity of this project are without precedent.
Real meaning: We have some big computers.