`Buzz Off My Buzzword'

What's in a buzzword? William W. Neeve obviously thinks there is a lot. For two years, this little-known Toronto-based management guru has been locked in what might be called a battle of the buzzwords with corporate giant Motorola Inc. Neeve says he dreamed up the term "cycle-time management"--shorthand for weeding the unnecessary out of business processes--and wants to protect it with a trademark from the U.S. Patent Office. He even calls his consulting company Cycle Time Management Inc. Motorola, which uses the phrase in management seminars and publications, opposes the Patent Office protection. The dispute currently is being adjudicated in U.S. Patent Court.

The Neeve-Motorola dustup illustrates the latest twist in buzzwords: The effort by many consultants to gain control over key words and phrases by registering them with the Patent Office. Some are even trying to patent buzzwords now in common usage, at least among consultants. Andersen Consulting, for one, has drawn guffaws from rivals by claiming ownership of the phrase "change management." Technically, that means anyone who commercially employs the term, which is widely used to describe efforts to change a company's culture, could be sued by Andersen.

Such aggressiveness by big outfits is one reason Neeve is adamant about gaining control over "cycle-time management." He maintains that five Motorola managers attended a lecture he gave on the concept in 1987, a year after he founded his consulting firm in Canada. Soon, he argues, the phrase began popping up in Motorola publications and seminars. When he finally tried to register the term two years ago with the Patent Office, Motorola fought the move. "I have a file four inches thick on this, and it has already cost me about $50,000," the consultant grouses. Motorola says it believes the term is generic and shouldn't be protected.

In any case, it takes a lot of chutzpah to try to patent a buzzword. That's because the phrases often are used to repackage old ideas so they sound new. For instance, "joint ventures" became "strategic alliances" in the early 1980s and then "strategic partnerships." Now, they're often called "value-managed relationships" or "networks."

Of course, a choice word or phrase can pack a lot of selling power if it catches on, providing the buzzwordsmith with a slew of speaking engagements, consulting jobs, and book publishing deals. Michael Hammer, a consultant best known for promoting the concept of corporate reengineering, concedes that the ideas behind his highly popular buzzword likely would have registered little more than a whimper under a different name. "Ninety-nine out of 100 other alternatives were tedious and boring and would put you to sleep," he says. "If I used another term, it would have fallen flat." But even Hammer, who is beginning to lay the groundwork for a phrase called the "process-centered organization," thinks it is silly to try to protect a bit of conjured vocabulary. "What are you going to do? Spend all your life in court trying to protect [a phrase]?" he asks.

"LIKE COCA-COLA." Hammer's insouciance hasn't stopped rivals from trying to cash in on his term. Indeed, no recent concept has spawned more buzzwords and phrases than "reengineering"--most of them now registered with the Patent Office. CSC/Index Inc., a Cambridge (Mass.) consulting shop, has protected the term "business reengineering." Coopers & Lybrand has claimed "breakpoint business process reengineering." McKinsey & Co. calls the same thing "business process redesign." Notes Edward M. Marshall, president of Marshall Group Inc., a consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.: "If you're a small guy with a creative idea and you don't protect it, your idea will get knocked off as quickly as a designer dress."

As buzzwords go, "cycle-time management" may well be nearing the end of its cycle. But Neeve says he plans to continue his fight, figuring the phrase still has value. "I created something, and it's almost like Coca-Cola to me," he says. Besides, he adds, "I don't like the fact that a little company like mine can be squashed by a big company like Motorola." Now, if he can just come up with a good slogan to use as his battle cry, he might have a chance to win.

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