The platform is highly scalable, robust, and customizable, based on a fully tuned, integrated modular solution suite that is optimized for interoperability.

Huh?

Every day, such words are tripping off the tongues of salespeople, describing to bankers technological advances of such magnitude as to defy dictionaries and their definitions.

Not so long ago, a platform was something to stand on, much more likely to be flat than robust. Musical instruments were tuned. Suites were mostly in hotels.

In "Technology English," ordinary pieces of software become "applications solutions," a souped-up computer can be a "convergence product."

Has anyone fully explained "middleware" yet? Or "granularity?" Is a machine's "functionality" anything more than "what it does?"

It can all sound downright comical, but too often it is a source of frustration to bankers. They may have come to learn - to be fashionably verbose - that state-of-the-art technology is critical to their success going forward. Yet many complain that jargon clouds their understanding and impedes their ability to make wise spending decisions.

Thomas J. Kitrick, vice president of strategic emerging technology in First Union Corp.'s capital markets group, rolls his eyes in exasperation.

"Feature-rich, fully integrated," he chants, mocking the vendors who parade before him.

"I say to them, 'What in the world are you talking about? The last guy who came in said the exact same thing you did. What is your product and how does it differ from the other one?' "

Though relatively sophisticated about technology - he manages an intranet and plans to teach a course for banking students on electronic commerce - Mr. Kitrick said he is frequently stymied by sales hype.

"This cliche-ridden environment has really confused what all of this is about," Mr. Kitrick said. "I call it buzzword-compliant. I mean, what are we talking about? Is it going to make me more profitable?"

The language gap creates friction between bankers and sellers of technology. The latter say banks are too slow to adopt new systems; bankers say they don't want to buy from people who talk gibberish.

The issue is as vexing for marketing and technology executives who must listen to arcane presentations as it is for the general managers who sign the checks to purchase the techno-gizmos.

"Top management does not and cannot understand the specifics of the technology decisions being made. They have to consistently rely on their chief tech officers and business-line heads to make sure they don't get snowed," said Charles B. Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting in New York and author of a book called "Business Buzzwords."

Mr. Wendel also recently wrote a book of interviews with financial industry chief executive officers, most of whom "admitted they had a lot of difficulty managing the technology decisions."

CEOs, he said, "are constantly searching to find the right person who can translate for them and be a trusted business adviser, as opposed to a technology nerd."

Robert Schrijver, vice chairman of Siegel & Gale, a consulting firm that specializes in corporate communications, warns that if vendors do not learn to express themselves clearly, bankers will "hire intermediaries who can explain it to them."

"The hunger in the marketplace for knowledge and access to this is incredible - the world is just desperate to understand it," Mr. Schrijver said. "Jargon is deadly, absolutely deadly. We have to get past this."

The problem is not confined to banking or technology. Word inflation is "going on in practically every field of endeavor," said Jeffrey McQuain, a research associate to William Safire, the language columnist for The New York Times.

"There seems to be a conspiracy afoot to make something into something larger or more useful than it seems," he said.

Mr. McQuain, author of a recently published book, "Power Language," blames academia.

"The simple library in a school is no longer a library - it's a media resource center," he said. A Wisconsin high school calls its physical education program the "department of kinetic wellness."

A few efforts are under way to eschew obfuscation. Doctors and lawyers are being taught in school to speak and write less formally and clinically. The Securities and Exchange Commission is offering incentives to companies that file documents in "plain English."

In a pilot program, the SEC staff will give expedited reviews and comments - in plain English - out of courtesy to anyone who files documents in the vernacular.

Nancy M. Smith, director of the agency's office of investor education and assistance, said SEC chairman Arthur Levitt was fed up with "gobbledygook."

"He found that he had a hard time understanding a lot of disclosure documents and was concerned about how some of the investors were faring," she said.

Now the SEC offers writing workshops to companies that want to go back to basics. Bell Atlantic and Nynex were the first to file a document in plain English (their merger prospectus), and a few others have followed.

Moreover, the SEC is proposing a rule that would require plain English on the cover page and the summary and risk factors pages of prospectuses. "I have yet to meet a concept that cannot be put into plain English," Ms. Smith said.

Mr. Schrijver concurred: "You don't have to use words like 'robust' - you can use 'sophisticated.'"

Some technology experts disagree, saying the type of computer - uh - stuff that they work with defies conventional description. How can the language of literature or of conversation define the functions of a computer or the qualities of a microchip?

"I think it's a challenge for all of us because in some sense we're participating in the creation of new paradigms," said Randall O. Kahn, director of electronic banking strategy at H.F. Ahmanson & Co.'s Home Savings of America.

"What happens is that you're trying to use old language and old words to describe totally new technologies and situations."

Take, for example, the trend in computing described as "thin client, fat server."

A bank's "legacy" computers (they are the big, old, clunky ones) can be replaced by a network of desktop devices without a lot of computer power. These are linked to remote computers, or servers, with a lot of power. The clients - at the desktop - are "thin." The servers are "fat."

Technology professionals throw around these girth-oriented terms a lot. They are often mentioned casually in press releases and promotional materials, as if everyone knows what they mean.

A recent announcement from Network Controls International Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., touts the "server-centric, thin-client architecture" of a new product.

The announcement quotes a company executive as saying: "Bankers want to implement multichannel, multiproduct delivery solutions with advanced customer management capabilities."

The announcement itself was written not by a technologist, but by a marketing executive with the company and an outside public relations professional (who majored in English in college).

"It's very challenging because you need to put it in terms that hopefully the main concourse of people will understand, but then the more technical people, too," said Emily Bumann, the marketing person from Network Controls International.

"Sometimes there is just no easy way to say it, and there are some people who understand it exactly," said Pat Ancipink, the public relations person from the Stephenson Group who worked on the announcement. "Server- centric does describe the architecture of the system - it does describe the way the system is configured."

Terms like "server-centric" may have become bread-and-butter to the software and hardware industries, but they do not translate to the mass market. Interestingly, two big-selling books on computers and cyberspace - Bill Gates' "The Road Ahead" and Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital" - are remarkably free of jargon.

In his book, Mr. Gates, the Microsoft Corp. chairman, defined servers as "computers with capacious disks." Software is "a comprehensive set of rules that tell a machine what to do."

Mr. Negroponte helped readers understand "scalability" this way: "When you buy a new TV set, you throw away one and adopt a totally new one. By contrast, if you have a computer, you are accustomed to adding features, hardware and software, instead of exchanging everything for the tiniest upgrade."

Compare that to the description of a Lucent Technologies presentation in the program of the recent Retail Delivery '96 conference: "Lucent's offer direction for financial institutions. Drivers for both the institutions and their retail customers will be discussed. A product path for evolution of RABB capabilities will be outlined ... . The success of direct banking will depend on the optimal deployment of these functional technologies to move from 'brick to mortar' (sic) to a cohesive virtual channel for financial sales and services. The session is participative/exploratory. The goal is to refine plans for RABB offers."

(No indication what RABB is. But we're pretty sure drivers has nothing to do with cars.)

Word inflation even afflicted a company in the more prosaic business of design and signage, as listed in the Retail Delivery conference exhibit directory: "Haas Multiples has over 40 years of experience in ... custom merchandising programs, retail design, strategic environmental marketing, and turnkey trade show displays. We are a single source provider offering environmental on-site analysis, display system design and manufacturing, corporate ID development, creative campaigns, collateral materials, interactive and video communications, installation, and branch design."

Bankers say they are more likely to trust vendors who communicate clearly.

"A banker dealing in these technologies quickly learns to see through the smoke," said Home Savings' Mr. Kahn, an Internet and electronic commerce expert. "The more the technology has its own vocabulary, the more unapproachable it seems to the common woman and man. The art here is to make it approachable to everyone."

Part of the problem, bankers say, is that buzzwords lose their meaning with overuse.

"Open systems - what does that mean?" said Mr. Kitrick of First Union. "It's like saying, 'I'm religious.' What does that mean? Nobody ever says, 'I'm not religious' or 'This is a closed system'."

After one business meeting, his head swirling with ambiguous terminology, Tony Mattera, a Crestar Bank vice president and anti-jargon crusader, sat down and created a "jargon master matrix." It is a grid of 42 mix-and-match buzz phrases that can turn rank amateurs into slogan- meisters, stringing together such vapidities as "value-based customer- oriented proposition" and "overarching discretionary objectives."

"Half the time you come out of meetings with these technology guys and you want to say, 'Oh, please, what do you mean?"' said Mr. Mattera. "You probably buy from the one you understand."

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