The more you become indoctrinated into the world of business and management consulting, the more you will find yourself incorporating jargon into your communication—it’s inevitable, but not necessarily beneficial.


If you are able to remain one of the rare independent consultants who can stick to non-technical language throughout your career, without jumping on the buzzword bandwagon, I applaud you.


If not though, it will at least pay you to try to use certain consulting buzzwords sparingly or better still, avoid their use completely. I would suggest that “workstream” (or sometimes work stream or work-stream) is one such term. Another would be “leverage”, THE most overused and misused word in business today.

What’s Wrong With Workstreams?

The problem with consulting buzzwords like workstream, is that once they catch on, they often become so popular that consultants throw them around with little regard for what they actually mean—or for whether their clients know what they mean.


The wanton use of a buzzword can be especially frustrating when the term in question has no dictionary definition that can be looked up on the quiet.


Workstream is a typical example of this, which is why word processing software like MS Word insists on placing a squiggly red line under it. Of course, this only serves to confuse the issue further, as writers try to defeat the spell-checking function by turning “workstream” into “work stream” or “work-stream.”

Workstream: A Term to Use with Care

No amount of spell-check cheating will change the fact that workstream is not a real word, at least not until it is added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Furthermore, if you are a student of a project management doctrine such as PRINCE2, you’ll know that the term is not a component of official PM jargon either.

Real word or not, the “workstream” term is undoubtedly going to be with us for a while, which means if you decide to add it to your independent consulting buzzword portfolio, you should always be sure to clarify exactly what you mean by it.


Perhaps the best way to ensure understanding is to include a glossary of your chosen consulting terms in the initial documentation or presentations you deliver to your clients.


This is not merely to guard against a lack of understanding. After all, “workstream” is a term so commonly used nowadays that your client might be very familiar with it, while applying it in a completely different context to yours.

One Consulting Buzzword, Many Meanings

Depending upon who you talk to, a workstream can be:

  • A project
  • A subprogram or group of projects within a large business program
  • A collection of tasks which are related to one another in some way
  • A flow of departmental activity within a project, such as a “testing workstream” or “change management workstream”

These are only examples of some of the potential uses of the “workstream” term. As you can imagine, if you and your client are not on the same page regarding its meaning, the scope for embarrassing and perhaps costly misunderstandings is considerable.

State of the Workstream Buzzword in 2020

Since I first published this article back in 2016, the use of the ‘workstream’ buzzword has certainly not diminished. Therefore, I thought I’d add a quick update on the state (and status) of the workstream term as it stands in the first quarter of 2020.

So far, the word has yet to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, but some online dictionaries attempt to define it. Interestingly enough, the definitions are not at all consistent, so I find it hard to believe that the ‘W’ word has achieved an unambiguous status in business circles.

According to the online Business Dictionary, a workstream is “The progressive completion of tasks completed by different groups within a company which are required to finish a single project.”

Meanwhile, the Collins English Dictionary definition of a workstream is “any one of the areas of activity into which a company’s business may be divided.”

Just to add one more for good measure, and to prove my point about consistency, Definitions.net describes a workstream as “The organised output of several distinct, and often unrelated work groups.”

Should You Swear off Using the ‘W’ Word?

Depending on which of the above definitions—if any of them—you (or your clients) adhere to, ‘workstream’ might be a project management term, a commercial business term, or one that applies to any organisation in which work groups exist. Therefore, if workstream advocates were hoping that by now there might be a standard to justify the use of the word, 2020 does not look like the year in which their convictions will be vindicated.

Leverage—Let’s Leave This One Behind

In the business world, you hear it used all the time—and often inappropriately.

Consider the following examples, all of which did appear in print in business publications:

  • Leverage technology to improve customer intelligence
  • Many businesses leveragemass mail through a CRM system
  • These resources are clearly leveragingperformance metrics
  • When the meeting was over, we leveraged some lunch.

The first three examples represent a misuse of the “L” word, while the fourth is just patent nonsense.

 Leverage is a Noun, not a Verb!

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition:

Leverage

Noun

1) (formal) the ability to influence what people do

2) (specialist) the act of using a ; the force used to do this

It gives the following as an example of the proper use of the noun:


“Retailers can exert leverage over producers by threatening to take their business elsewhere.”


In the world of finance, leverage has a specific meaning:  The use of capital to increase a return on investment.

But when the business people you encounter from day to day throw out the word “leverage” they are unlikely to be referring to accomplishing something through influence, using a lever to gain a mechanical advantage or returns on investment.

That being said, so many business people use the “L” word as a verb these days that it is becoming acceptable to do so, even if it is incorrect. Still, I would caution you against following the trend.

What’s so bad About Buzzwords?

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with including buzzwords in your conversations and writings, especially if they are used properly and in context. If those you interact with use similar buzzwords, you can conceivably all communicate in a sort-of business shorthand.

But by deploying too many buzzwords, or by misusing them, you can lessen your credibility as a creative, independent thinker.

After all, do you really think you will impress your colleagues by continually repeating a term that American business magazine Forbes identified as the most overused word of the last century?

Buzzwords Can Create Confusion

Uses of a word like leverage can lead to confusion. For example, if a company states that it is “leveraging a project”, how will we know if it is starting the project, ending it, or is involved in some intermediate process?

It is possible, of course, that businesses or managers are obfuscating and when they say they are busy “leveraging” things, either because they are trying to hide the truth or because they themselves don’t know what the answer is.

Do yourself a business favour and try to avoid buzzwords if you can.


In the case of “leverage”, there are a number of alternative words or phrases that could be used, such as “use”, “take advantage of”, “exploit”, “process”, or “apply”.


So in the examples mentioned above, we could rather say the following, and provide much more clarity, while being perfectly succinct:

  • Use technology to improve customer intelligence
  • Many businesses  process mass mail through a CRM system
  • These resources are clearly taking advantage of performance metrics
  • When the meeting was over, we ordered some lunch.

Rule of thumb: If you wish to communicate clearly and unambiguously, NEVER us the word ‘leverage’ as a verb. And unless you are employed by a firm that sells levers, you are unlikely to use it very often as a noun either.

Still Not Convinced?

Grammatically, the word “leverage” is derived by adding the suffix –age to the verb lever (as in “to lever the rock”). The same process is used to derive words such as spillage, dotage, and advantage. Adding the suffix –age to all these words transforms them into nouns.


Verbs transformed into nouns by adding “–age” can’t be used as verbs as well.


But if after reading this post you still can’t resist including “workstream” and “leverage” as terms within your professional consulting vocabulary, at least heed my words of warning (as tongue-in-cheek as they may be).

For your own sake and that of your business credibility, please play it safe and make sure your client’s use of the term and your own are completely aligned—before you start leveraging any workstreams!

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2016 under the title “Consulting Buzzwords to Beware Of: Workstream”. It has since been updated and expanded, with the addition of a new buzzword to beware of, and further information to make the article more comprehensive. The most recent update was added in March 2020.

Best Regards,
Rob O’Byrne
Email or +61 417 417 307