Real words or buzzwords?

Jan. 24, 2017
How real words become empty words and stifle technology progress

Editor’s note: This is the first entry in a new column series from contributor Ray Bernard designed to separate fact from fiction surrounding various industry terms and help security practitioners wade through the industry’s marketing jargon.      

The paradigm shifts of cloud, mobile, machine learning and big data are bringing innovative, cross-platform, robust and scalable next-generation technologies to the physical security industry. Oops! Did I forget to mention best-of-breed and value-added offerings for high market synergy?

Every industry has its buzzwords, but the physical security industry appears to have suffered more than other industries from the misunderstanding, misapplication and general misuse of buzzword terms.

What is a Buzzword?

The terms “buzz word” and “buzz phrase” were first used by Harvard students in 1946, to represent key terms in lecture or reading materials which, if used in test answers or discussions, would give the impression of being familiar with the subject matter. Over time, the term has been variously defined to reflect the different ways that people use impressive sounding words, usually without clearly defining them. Most of us have experienced the buzzword phenomena:

  • A keyword; a catchword or expression currently fashionable; a term used more to impress than to inform, esp. a technical or jargon term (Oxford English Dictionary)
  • A word or phrase, often sounding authoritative or technical, that is a vogue [popular or fashionable] term in a profession, field of study, popular culture, etc. (
  • An important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen (Merriam-Webster)
  • Trite, empty words that may sound good to your ear but say almost nothing (LinkedIn)

Buzzword Danger

Michael Johnson, then editor of the prestigious European business journal International Management, wrote the book Business Buzzwords, published in 1990. In it he explained how business buzzwords develop and described the phenomena that has been the cause of several security industry setbacks over the past decade. A buzzword doesn’t start off as such. A buzzword arrives when a specialist in a technical field or an area of business practice discovers that a new term is needed to represent an important concept or idea. The term is useful and has a precise definition in its original area of application, before it comes into use as a buzzword.

Then it becomes fashionable among non-specialists as a way of impressing others and simultaneously loses its precise meaning among the broader audience. People try to figure it out its meaning from the context in which it is used, and it becomes a foggy concept that people equate with other terms they know, or they decide that it’s really a meaningless term being used to hype something up. Either way, they are cut off from the fruits of knowledge, and don’t get the true and original message of the term. Thus, the term’s original purpose is thwarted, and understanding is replaced by confusion, by a partial picture or a wrong idea. That’s the buzzword cycle.

Convergence, the Progress Killer

One of the most severe buzzword impacts in the security industry came from the word “convergence”. The long story can be found at this link; the short story follows below.

The convergence of physical security and information technology was introduced to the physical security industry in the early 2000s, got picked up by folks who didn’t really understand it, who then threw the term around at every opportunity, attempting to show that they or their company were “IT-savvy.” By 2006 convergence had become a popular buzzword. On the show floor of the 2008 ASIS Annual Seminars and Exhibits conference, most technology companies proudly displayed the word “Convergence” at their booths. Yet there were few real stories of substance behind it. Many people thought it just meant connecting systems over an Ethernet network. Thus, when customers couldn’t see any new security benefits in it, they stopped asking about it, and in 2010 trade magazine articles declared that convergence was now over, done and dead.

Convergence, the Progress Enabler

However, other industries—such as the automotive and medical device industries—have a different convergence story. First, in neither industry did they make convergence a buzzword. No one in the industry breathed the word “convergence” to end-user customers. You never heard it on an auto dealer showroom floor or in a TV commercial. But, believe it or not, the auto industry had their first convergence conference back in 1974. And they’ve held that conference every two years since. In 2014, at its 40th anniversary, over 8,000 engineers descended on Detroit to define the customer driving experience using a 40-year look-ahead. They didn’t kill convergence, they embraced it.

Thus, by steadfastly working to use emerging information technologies to improve the customer experience, we now have safer cars (a 25 percent reduction in auto-related deaths in the U.S.), self-parking cars, and even self-driving cars. Did the security industry achieve a 25 percent reduction in security incidents? No. In fact, after the video system failed to record the Dallas police shooting last year, the city manager in Dallas told the city and the press that having 80 percent of the cameras recording properly at any time was to be expected, given the states of technology and funding.

In no other technical industry, would an 80 percent rate of functionality be acceptable for any product. But in the security industry, thanks to the buzzword convergence replacing the real word, substantive progress on convergence just didn’t happen. A huge gap exists between the security industry’s state of technology and the state of technology in IT. This is well known in the industry; see the explanations by BluB0X and Brivo (scroll down to see the Brivo’s diagram).

So, history records that the buzzword convergence seriously stifled progress in the security industry, while the real word convergence was the enabler of amazing progress. What can we do to keep history from repeating itself? That’s what this article series is about. Watch for the latest article in the series every two weeks on

About the AuthorRay Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities ( Mr. Bernard is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security.