Do You Know What the Problem Is?

My gut reaction when someone offers a solution is, “That’s great, but do you know what the problem is?” The mere characterization of a product as a solution suggests that people are pushing the answer without first knowing the question!
– Joe Puglisi, CIO of EMCOR, quoted in an ITSMA / Babson College study

Since I’ve woken up as a language crank this morning, here are links to two of my favorite writers complaining about the same lazy “solution” to a hard copywriting problem: how do you explain what a company does, and why people should care?

From Erin Kissane, whose Call to Arms is worth following:

Solution: Meaningless, Self-Indulgent, Arrogant
“Solution” is much too vague to be useful. To compound the problem, companies frequently use it in the short blurbs that describe what they do – in which clarity is essential and space precious. It’s a punt at precisely the wrong moment, and throws away a crucial opportunity to communicate something real.
Read the rest

And Tim Bray sputters:

May it visit laryngitis, halitosis and a severe stutter on those vendors who describe disk drives, network routers, printers, computers, or pretty well anything that contains silicon and plugs in, as “solutions”. A disk drive is not a solution, dammit, it’s a disk drive.

But though Tim’s business card says Director of Web Technologies at Sun, even he can’t keep this nonsense off their home page. He’s reduced to translation:

Dear world, take it from me: at Sun we sell actual real computers and networks and consulting and infrastructure services and software subscriptions; you can safely ignore the marketing-speak.
Read on

2 thoughts on “Do You Know What the Problem Is?”

  1. Well, if all Sun sells is disk drives and computers, then they might as well shut the doors now, and avoid the directors being charged with reckless trading after the fall. A disk drive is worth sixty bucks. You can get a computer for around 200, and a lot of that goes on the case, power supply and ventilation. You can’t make these things economically in North California, and Sun were run out of these businesses years ago. You can get a more credible software subscription for free from FreeBSD and you can hire in perfectly respectable technical consulting services almost anywhere on the planet for USD 600/day (and it’s only that high because the dollar is in such a sorry state).

    On the other hand, you can develop sophisticated reliable products and designs, and you might be able to get some sort of premium. I had assumed up to now that this was the business Sun was in.

    The reality is that the value of a company like Sun is very hard to pin down. The expertise the company has built up is abstract and hard to describe, but it is of great value.

    I agree that ‘solutions’ is a weak word, no more meaningful than ‘nice’. It arises from a weak marketing department and weak corporate strategy. But you can’t just abandon the challenge of describing the valuable work that Sun employees do. You have to find new, better words to describe it and new better ways to communicate and market it.


  2. I think Tim’s point is that “actual real computers and networks and consulting and infrastructure services and software subscriptions” is a better, more honest start towards explaining why their services might be worth a premium than an empty word like “solutions.” And it’s worth noting, as he does, that Sun is far from the worst offender when it comes to this fear-based jargon.


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