Usage and Grammar

Q. I work for an organization that uses a fair amount of corporate lingo in its publications. The expression “visibility into” seems to be widely used in place of the expression “insight into” . . . this confuses me (okay, it also annoys me). Based on the common definition of “visibility,” does it really make sense to say that one has “visibility into” something? Before I start a campaign to eradicate what I see as an unsightly phrase, can you tell me if the phrase “visibility into” meets the standards of acceptable usage?

A. Sometimes it’s necessary to avoid turning your nose up at a word or phrase that seems to be the awkward brainchild of new ventures—unless, of course, something old and standard does the job as well or better. A glance at the first hundred or so of the 147,000-odd Google hits (as of Monday, October 20, 2003) for “visibility into” suggests that the phrase is being used these days primarily to do a couple of things: (1) convey that whatever is going on—corporate accounting, say—is entirely transparent, or (2) indicate that software can offer some understanding of activities that are difficult to conceptualize or see—such as data from myriad sources moving over a network, or products moving along a supply chain. An example of the second use might go like this:

Without the kind of software that provides continuous visibility into activity across a range of networks using a variety of protocols, you might as well send your entire staff on a field trip, asking them to report back every few seconds with a question: “Can you hear me now?”

This sort of usage can easily turn into jargon (or euphemism; think “surveillance”), but I wouldn’t automatically rush to find a substitute. First, the phrase itself doesn’t violate any grammatical rules. Second, in technical contexts that involve physical monitoring, “visibility into” might be more appropriate than the relatively metaphorical “insight into”—a phrase that’s lost most of its visual roots.