IBM's partner in £400m deal calls for less jargon

Somerset County Council has formally recorded as one of its business challenges the task of understanding the use of jargon and acronyms by IBM, its partner on a £400m outsourcing contract.

In September 2007, the county council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Constabulary formed with IBM a joint venture company, SouthWest One. IBM is the majority shareholder. 

Now the county council’s Audit and Resources Sub-committee has published a paper on early successes of the joint venture and the challenges facing the authority in monitoring SouthWest One.

One of the challenges is listed as:

“Plain English – Our new partner has a challenge to consider in reducing jargon
and explaining acronyms which are in common use within IBM.”

No specifics are mentioned but IBM’s association with jargon and acronyms dates back decades. There is even a 65-page dictionary of IBM Jargon and General Computing which is in its tenth edition, compiled in part by Mike Cowlishaw, formerly of IBM UK Laboratories, Hursley Park, Winchester, Hampshire. 

Members of a council’s audit committee could find it hard to grasp quickly some of the language used in IBM’s literature.

For example IBM’s online publication “Infrastructure considerations for service-oriented architecture” warns that SOA adoption introduces new and unforeseen challenges with security integration, including “…multiple security credentials, such as Kerberos, Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML)”, the “Web services security and Resource Access Control Facility (RACF)”, and “multiple protocols, including SOAP, HTTP, HTTP over the Secure Sockets Layer (HTTPS), Java Message Service (JMS) and Message Queuing (MQ)”.

It is also said that IBM employees have a language of their own.

However Somerset County Council has far more praise for IBM than criticism. It says of the ethos of staff at IBM and its subcontractor Mouchel Parkman that they are “always attentive and enthusiastic and have a ‘Can Do’ attitude; taking personal responsibility for resolving issues and urgent service requests”.


These are some definitions from the unrivalled “IBM Jargon and General Computing Dictionary Tenth Edition”.  Many of the definitions are technical but not all:

BAD: usually refers to something non-IBM and means “Broken as Designed” –  a design flaw not an implementation problem.

Blivet : usually refers to a program that has been touched by so many incompetent programmers it cannot be maintained properly.

To Go Transparent:  is to avoid responsibility by not providing any solid place on which blame can be rested, as in “When they found out that a GPD [not explained in the dictionary] person caused the problem, they went transparent on it.”

Great Oral Tradition:  explains why important information is not to be found recorded anywhere.

Prayer meeting: usually a task force gathering where participants hope for a miracle to solve an intractable problem, as in “The Performance prayer meeting starts at two.”

Task Force: may be a group of friends and one or two experts who meet to affirm the predefined conclusions of the leader.

Visionary: someone who reads the outside literature


It’s difficult to see how any major outsourcing contract can work well without candid, straightforward communications. And we’ve seen some council documents which indicate that it does not always put across its messages particularly clearly. 

If the council and IBM cannot easily communicate with each other, one wonders how they’re going to make a success of a deal that’s one of most complicated in the IT industry.


Somerset County Council audit paper – July 2008

Dictionary of IBM jargon and acronyms – recommended reading  

On three-letter acronyms and IBM-speak – Dave Shields’ blog

ITV West’s documentary on SouthWest One – link to West Eye View’s “Public Service, Private Gain”

IBM seeks to stop council divulging some details of £400m contract – Computer Weekly July 2008  

Do we need more data quality jargon? – Vincent McBurney blog  

Cloud computing – the jargon is back – SOA World magazine

Plain English Campaign