Synergy, Adjacency, Inanity

Matthew Karnitschnig’s report last week in The Wall Street Journal on the death of “synergy” at Time Warner documents a loss of religion at the media behemoth. Having preached “vertical integration” of its businesses for years, the company now plans to build a “looser federation” of its divisions and to sell those that under-perform. The idea is to preach, for a change, something that Time Warner can actually put into practice.

Karnitschnig calls it a “philosophical turnabout.” Maybe, if you believe that repetition of the synergy mantra throughout the management ranks at Time Warner constitutes anything like a coherent philosophy or even a viable business strategy. And if you believe a turnabout in philosophy can bring about a turnaround in business operations.

For analyst David Card , Time Warner’s story for the past fifteen years has been a failure to execute, not a failure of strategy. “Synergy” was little more than shorthand for the bubbly, magical thinking that led everyone to believe that the merger with AOL would make Time Warner (somehow) into an agile, well-oiled machine. Unfortunately, the realities of culture and operations just kept breaking the spell.

Time Warner President Jeff Bewkes is candid enough to dismiss synergy as “bullshit” in the pages of The Wall Street Journal; but apparently he and other executives interviewed by Karnitschnig are ready to substitute mumbo for jumbo. Having failed to realize the false promise of synergy (and the magical thinking that underlies it), management resorts to the foggy language of magical proximities (or guilt by association). These days, according to the article in the Journal, the buzzword among Time Warner management is “adjacencies.” Whether this amounts to anything like a strategic principle — and at least one knowledgeable commentator thinks it is nothing more than an admission that the old Time Warner “fiefdoms” refuse to play together — remains to be seen.

Of course the talk of “adjacencies” at Time Warner may simply be an attempt to put a good face on a deteriorating situation. It‚Äôs hard to say from The Wall Street Journal coverage, as both Card and Rafat Ali have complained. Part of the trouble is that Karnitschnig seems still enchanted by the old and the new strategy speak even as he observes that “it’s not clear what, if any, corporate solidarity remains‚” at Time Warner.

And for me that’s the crux: whether it’s “synergy” or “adjacencies,” the real story here is about the mystifying power of management jargon. The bromides of management theory don’t only confuse (or captivate) journalists, they also tend to muddle decisions, obscure important differences, and even hinder right action. The particulars of everyday experience, the texture of real decisions, the cultural realities of the workplace, all usually tell a different story — if only someone would attend to them.

Would I go so far as Matthew Stewart does in a recent Atlantic Monthly article and dismiss most management theory as “inane” or just bad philosophy? Probably. But I would also add that I have faith, ultimately, in good language, or in the goodness of language.

By that I mean simply that ordinary language gives us all the resources we need to have meaningful conversations. There’s no need for a new religion. Theory (especially management theory) tends to obscure real points of contention and make conversation difficult, if not impossible.

There’s no rule that says people have to agree with one another or that things ultimately have to work out; real dialogue translates across individual and cultural differences and includes stories that capture different points of view. And sometimes people deserve respect simply for guarding their fiefs jealously.

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