All reviews in alphabetical order by title
"Blur: The Speed Of Change In The Connected Economy" "Business @ The Speed Of Thought" "From The Telegraph To The Internet" "Funky Business" "Living On Thin Air" "Only The Paranoid Survive" "The Spirited Business" "Who Moved My Cheese?" "The Witch Doctors"
CWU Head of Research ROGER DARLINGTON reviews a new book with a radical analysis of how information technology is transforming every aspect of business.
MAY THE BLUR BE WITH YOU
While on holiday in the United States in the summer of 1998, I looked up a friend who works for the accountants Ernst & Young where his major client is America On Line. He recommended to me a new book by two senior members of the Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer.
We were in a crowded Spanish restaurant at the time and it took a couple of repetitions of the odd title before it registered. A business book called “Blur”? The sub-title made more sense: “The speed of change in the connected economy”. Yet, when I read it, the main title seemed obvious and clever.
Starting with what they call “the fundamental dimensions of the universe itself: time, space and mass”, Davis & Meyer examine the derivatives of these dimensions: speed, connectivity and intangibles respectively.
By speed, they mean that every aspect of business is moving faster and indeed increasingly operating in real time. The time between producing and selling and between purchasing and delivering is ever-shortening.
By connectivity, they mean that “everything is becoming electronically connected to everything else: products, people, companies, countries, everything”. This is the result of computers, telecommunications and, above all, the Internet.
By intangibles, they mean that, while every offer in the marketplace involves both tangible and intangible economic value, it is the intangible component which is growing fastest led by the service element and information content.
Put together these three forces and what do you have? Davis & Meyer call the outcome “blur: the new world in which you will come to live and work”. In the blur world, we experience “a meltdown of all traditional boundaries”.
There is a blurring between products and services, between buying and selling, between employee and employer and between company and customer and meanwhile the speed of these changes is so fast it is only a blur.
This is an immensely challenging and thought-provoking book. It is well-structured with useful summaries at the start of each chapter, searching questions at the end of each section, and lots of examples of companies and developments that illustrate the themes.
The final chapter describes “50 ways to blur your business and 10 ways to blur yourself”. There is even a web site to encourage responses from readers.
Of course, at the heart of the changes described by Davis & Meyer is our own industry of telecommunications: digital networks provide world-wide connectivity at literally the speed of light and nothing could be more intangible that the noughts and ones of digital traffic.
But telecommunications is not just promoting blur; it is enormously impacted by blur. New competitors can emerge from virtually nowhere, as we saw when the newcomer WorldCom outbid BT for MCI. Any telecommunications company will only survive if it develops what Davis & Meyer call “blurred offers” which - among many other features - learn and anticipate what the customer wants.
The world of blur is not an easy or comfortable one, but the quicker companies and individuals understand it, the better they will survive and the sooner they will grow.
* “Blur: The Speed Of Change In The Connected Economy” by Stan Davis & Christopher Meyer is published in the UK by Marsden, price £16.99.
CWU Head of Research ROGER DARLINGTON reviews the latest book from Microsoft’s Bill Gates who this time focuses on how organisations can use a digital nervous system to secure competitive advantage.
BUSINESS @ THE SPEED OF THOUGHT
Bill Gates was just 19 when he dropped out of Harvard to form a company that would design software for a revolutionary new device called the personal computer. How, 29 years later, the chairman of Microsoft is worth over $100 billion (check out the current exact figure on the Wealthclock Web site click here).
So it is not surprising that everything the man says and writes attracts special attention. Four years ago, he produced a very readable introduction to the information superhighway called “The Road Ahead” which was supplemented by a CD-ROM. Now comes a new work called “Business @ The Speed Of Thought” which has its own web site.
As the title suggests, Gates’ latest book is about how companies can use information and communications technologies, and especially the Internet, to transform all their operations to serve customers and win competitive advantage.
Gates starts his analysis with an assertion relevant to every organisation, including telecommunications companies like BT, postal administrations like Royal Mail and trade unions like the CWU: “Here, on the edge of the twenty-first century, a fundamental new rule of business is that the Internet changes everything”.
His ‘big idea’ is that every organisation needs to respond to the new paradigm by evolving what he calls a “digital nervous system”.
Such a system comprises digital processes that “enable a company to perceive and react to its environment, to sense competitive challenges and customer needs, and to organise timely responses”. He explains that “a digital nervous system is distinguished from a mere network of computers by the accuracy, immediacy, and richness of the information it brings to knowledge workers and the insight and collaboration made possible by the information”.
Although the emphasis is very much on business activity, there are separate chapters on government, education, health care, and the military with fascinating examples from more than 20 industries ranging from Coca-Cola to Microsoft itself.
Gates argues that: “Government, perhaps more than any other organisation, can benefit from the efficiencies and improved service that stem from digital processes”.
One of the major steps which he recommends for government has already been implemented in the UK, namely deregulation of telecommunications and investment in telecommunications infrastructure.
However, he proposes that all government information being shared should be digital and that all government employees should use e-mail. When I was recently in the office of the Secretary of State for Industry – who is, of course, responsible for the government’s information society strategy – I noticed that there was no computer but there was a bottle of ink.
Gates’ book has been criticised for not being particularly original and it is true that there are many similar works on the business shelves of book shops. But this is a tome – it runs to 456 pages - that any thinker in any organisation has to read because the author is so famous and the book will be so influential.
Actually it is quite an easy read with only an appendix being at all technical. The introduction summarises the 12 key steps that will “make digital information flow an intrinsic part of your company” and, at the end of every chapter, there are business lessons and diagnostic questions.
If you are not going to read the book, at least access the web site since it contains key quotes from each chapter, a series of useful hyperlinks, and an interview with the author. Then at least you can talk knowledgeably to your colleagues.
* “Business @ The Speed Of Thought” is published in the UK by Penguin, price £18-99.
Link: associated Web site click here
CWU Head of Research ROGER DARLINGTON reviews a new, autobiographical work by the leader of one of the largest communications unions in the world.
FROM THE TELEGRAPH TO THE INTERNET
Not many trade union officials have the richness of experience or the abundance of talent to write a book which is part the account of a life, part the history of a union, and part the structure of an industry.
But then Morton Bahr - or Morty, as he is known to all his friends - is no ordinary trade unionist. Since 1985, he has been President of the Communications Workers of America, one of the largest and most progressive unions in the USA and indeed the world.
I first met Morty in 1990. I had just been appointed International Officer of the Union and my first visiting delegation was a group from the CWA. I saw him most recently during a private visit to Washington in summer 1998.
Now an astonishingly vital 72, Morty has just combined his re-election for another term of office with publication of an enormously readable account of 60 years of the CWA.
There is so much in this book with which one can agree and by which one can be inspired but, for me, there are three special themes.
First, organising. Not many trade union leaders could write: "My union career began as an organiser.... I have never stopped organising".
Some 40% of the CWA's current members are in bargaining units that were not unionised 20 years ago and the union's constitution now requires 10% of its income to be spent on organising.
Bahr writes: "Organising, with all of the expenses, frustrations and heartbreaks it can entail, remains labour's greatest challenge - and likewise, our greatest opportunity - as we look to the future".
Second, mobilisation. For the CWA, it is not enough to have passive members. The leadership has sought "a more active, more militant and more educated membership".
Bahr emphasises that, in the face of today's telecommunications technology, the old- fashioned strike may not be the best way to pressure the employer. He describes a range of innovative mobilisation tactics including forms of electronic picketing and campaigns which link up with local communities.
Third, internationalism. Bahr - who is a World Vice-President of the Communications International - understands very well the global nature of the telecommunications industry and the need for unions to act internationally to counter the force of the multinationals.
He makes several references to joint activities with British trade unions, notably the Atlantic Alliance which brings together the CWU, the STE and the CWA. Since he wrote his book, the BT/AT&T joint venture has been announced, underlining the need for such joint activity.
Other important chapters of the book deal with the changing nature of the workforce, the need for lifelong learning, the role of political action, and the value of community service.
Overall the book is an articulate and persuasive advocate for modern, progressive trade unionism.
*"From the Telegraph to the Internet" is published by National Press Books, price $24.95
Note: This review was published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of "Review", the magazine of the Society of Telecom Executives.
Link: CWA Web site click here
"Funky Business" by Kjell Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle
In many respects, "Funky Business" is a management book of its time, reflecting much conventional wisdom among enlightened leaders and organisational theorists. What makes the work different is two things. First, it takes the message that little bit further by emphasizing the emotional human being rather than the rational one - an approach I wholeheartedly endorse. Second, it packages the message in an astonishingly lively style that one can only call funky - something I rather enjoyed.
So, what is the conventional wisdom about what the authors call our "weird, wild, wired e-conomy"?
They argue that "funky business" is truly global, means more competition for everything everywhere, requires a constant search for differentiation, involves organisational innovation, puts management and leadership centre stage, and gives power to human intelligence.
So "Funky Inc" must be focused, leveraged, innovative, and heterarchical. In such a fast-changing business environment, knowledge must be treated as perishable as milk and unlearning is as important as learning. They write of working smarter not harder and of replacing information for inventory.
To my delight, they attack some of the business mantras of the 1990s: "If you have stopped believing in Santa Claus, you may as well give up believing in synergies too" and "You cannot shrink to greatness. Downsizing easily becomes dumbsizing instead of rightsizing".
But the authors go beyond this essentially conventional wisdom.
In our "blurred, fragmented and hyphenated world", they see "a gigantic spiritual vacuum". As a result, the "key idea" of the book is that "the way to trick the trap of the market is to appeal to the emotional human being - not the rational one".
They insist that: "True competitiveness must .. be built around something we all know exists but which is seldom discussed in the business world: emotions and imagination".
This requires people to be motivated through values rather than cash and calls for a new type of manager or "funky leader": "Direction is not a matter of command and control, but of focusing, allowing and encouraging people to focus on what really matters. It is spiritual management rather than micro-management".
What further distinguishes this work is the whole packaging?
The authors are not Americans but Swedes and they describe Sweden as "the most modern place on planet earth". They are bespectacled, shaven-headed guys who usually wear black and speak and write in colourful metaphors that both entertain and illuminate.
What other business book would use a four-letter word besides "funk", talk of managers having wet dreams, claim that Marx was right to call for workers to own the means of production, and call Christ "a great value innovator" who "took risks and was crucified"? There are lots of unusual pictures such as Richard Branson dressed up as a bride and the Pope riding on a Harley Davidson and wonderful images such as managers being circus jugglers or storytellers.
Yet this is a business book - first published in 2000 - which has become a best-seller and now been translated into more than 25 languages. The authors have their own web site and are working on a new book, so they must be saying something - and communicating it in a new way - that appeals to people.
*"Funky Business" is published in the UK by FT Prentice Hall.
Link: Authors' Web site click here
ROGER DARLINGTON reviews a new book which calls for radical changes in all our institutions if we are successfully to face the challenges of the knowledge economy.
LIVING ON THIN AIR
The odd title of this book comes from the author’s assertion that “Most of us make our money from thin air: we produce nothing that can be weighed, touched or easily measured”. This is certainly true of those working for telecommunications companies like BT or AT&T. After all, telephone calls, Internet connections, and data streams cannot be seen, let alone weighed or touched.
Yet communications companies are among the most capitalised and fastest-growing in the world. What is happening here and how should we respond to these transformational changes?
The British author Charles Leadbeater used to be a journalist on the “Financial Times” and the “Independent” and more recently has been a research associate with the think tank Demos and a policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has produced a very readable and immensely challenging work, refreshingly free of jargon and footnotes.
His analysis of the ‘de-materialisation’ of the economy is not particularly novel – it has been covered by other authors like Diane Coyle in “The Weightless World” – but his prescriptions are notably radical.
Leadbeater insists: “I think the government’s problem, in the long run, will be that it is not modernising enough; it needs to go much, much further, and more confidently, for modernisation to succeed”.
So, for example, he suggests that all welfare might be organised by five to ten mutually owned, consumer-controlled, welfare providers, independent of the state, but awarded contracts by government to run the whole gamut of welfare services from unemployment benefits to pensions.
His advice for companies is no less radical. He describes “the knowledge-creating company of the future”: “It will be good at learning and unlearning. It will be open to new ideas from a diverse network of contacts, but able to integrate them smoothly, with the financial, production and marketing skills needed to make money from them. Staff will have a large measure of autonomy to try and fail. Employees will be encouraged to challenge the status quo”.
Does this sound like your company?
Leadbeater sees the need for a new style of management in the knowledge-creating economy: “In a know-how company, decisions need to be made by the people who have the relevant knowledge, rather than the appropriate people within a hierarchy. This implies a much more distributed, networked structure and style in know-how firms, where power – and responsibility – should go with know-how rather than hierarchy”.
Leadbeater recognises that “’Living On Thin Air’ is optimistic”. Yet he admits that: ”Success in the new economy requires inner resources of confidence and resilience, that most of us lack. The solution cannot be to re-engineer ourselves to become entrepreneurs, internalizing these pressures. The most humane, democratic and in the long run efficient solution is to create more supportive yet flexible institutions which will pick us up when we fall down”.
One of such institutions must be trade unions which Leadbeater mentions several times in passing but never really addresses. However, this would mean that trade unions themselves would have to become open, flexible institutions, able and willing to embrace new ideas and implement radical change.
The reviewer is Head of Research at the Communication Workers Union and Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation.
*“Living On Thin Air” by Charles Leadbeater is published by Viking, price £17-99
Does the Internet represent a strategic inflection point for organisations like BT or Intel? CWU Head of Research, ROGER DARLINGTON, reviews a new book which explains what this concept is and how a company should react to it.
ONLY THE PARANOID SURVIVE
In the mid-1980s, the American company Intel was a major manufacturer of memory chips being challenged in a vigorous way by high-quality, low-cost Japanese competitors. The company decided that the only way to survive was to abandon the memory market and to move rapidly into the microprocessor business.
Today Intel - known to virtually every PC user by the famous ‘Intel inside’ advertisements - is the world’s largest chip maker, the fifth most admired company in America, and the seventh most profitable company in the “Fortune” 500.
How this happened and the lessons for all companies is the story told by Andrew S Grove, Intel’s Chief Executive since 1987, in a book named after his most famous motto “Only The Paranoid Survive”.
From his experience, Grove has fashioned the concept of the strategic inflection point (SIP). What is this?
He says that : “A strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end”.
Grove offers another way of looking at this concept. A strategic inflection point occurs when a very large change - what he calls “a 10 X change” occurs in one or more of the forces that determine the competitive well-being of a business.
Besides Intel’s experience in the memory market, Grove offers other illustrations of strategic inflection points such as :
How does one know whether a change signals a strategic inflection point and when fundamental change is necessary in the company’s strategy? Grove answers bluntly : “You can’t wait until you do know: timing is everything. If you undertake these changes while your company is still healthy, while your ongoing business forms a protective bubble in which you can experiment with new ways of doing business, you can save much more of your company’s strength, your employees and your strategic position".
But he gives some tips for recognising the advent of a SIP. Ask questions like : “Is your key competitor about to change?” and “Do people seem to be ‘losing it’ around you?”. Listen to the warning voices of the Cassandras in the organisation and the sales and marketing people who are closest to the customer.
Once one believes that a SIP is upon the company, how should management react? Grove offers a two-stage process with a play on words. First, “let chaos reign” and then “rein in chaos”.
In the first phase, one vigorously debates new ideas and rapidly experiments with new products. In the second phase, one decides the new direction for the company, traverses “the valley of death” and (hopefully) arrives at a new point in the marketplace.
Arguably BT has already faced one SIP: privatisation or what Grove calls “the mother of all regulatory changes”. Now maybe it is facing another, as the Internet accelerates the move to the commoditisation of telephone calls.
Grove devotes the last chapter of his book to the Internet and includes a table headed “The Pros and Cons of the Internet for the Telecommunications Industry”.
He considers the impact of the Internet on Intel itself and concludes : “All this suggests that the Internet is not a strategic inflection point for Intel. But while the classic signs suggest it isn’t, the totality of all the changes is so overwhelming that deep down I think it is”.
Grove takes one concept - the idea of the strategic inflection point - and pads it out into a book of 202 pages with some repetition and simplification, but the concept is a powerful tool for analysing company change. As one reviewer puts it : “You must learn about strategic inflection points because sooner or later you are going to live through one”.
*"Only The Paranoid Survive" by Andrew S Grove is published in the UK by Currency Doubleday, price £25
ROGER DARLINGTON reviews a new book which claims that companies with soul can combine principles with profit.
"THE SPIRITED BUSINESS"
I have spent a quarter of a decade as a national trade union official because I believe powerfully in the dignity of people at work. Yet I have to accept that trade unions rarely change the culture of management and, in any event, most workplaces do not have trade unions. Indeed trade unions themselves as employers frequently fail to live the values that they profess.
Would it be possible to bring to the workplace the values that we embrace in our family and home, in our church and mosque, in our social and community organisations, or are the fundamental divisions between capital and labour in post-capitalist societies just too great to bridge?
Georgeanne Lamont believes that "There are companies that quietly but firmly take away your soul" and her book "The Spirited Business" is sub-titled "success stories of soul-friendly companies". She insists: "The soul perceives those things that our physical senses alone cannot grasp: courage, truth, goodness, beauty, forgiveness, kindness, trust and joy". Does this sound like your company?
The alternative to most companies is what the author describes as "the spirited business". She asserts: "The resource that most organisations have not yet acknowledged and which releases fresh strength and reduces waste is that of the spirit. It clears away low morale, conflict and resentment and in their place provides trust, vision, courage, creativity, patience, integrity, connectivity and community".
Surely in a tough, competitive marketplace no company can really operate in accordance with such principles? Yet the core of Georgeanne Lamont's book is case studies of seven companies that are both "soul-friendly" and profitable:
How can one bring such qualities into companies that want to succeed, but through valuing rather than exploiting people? Georgeanne Lamont believes that the answer is to use what she calls "tools of reflection" that borrow from, but are not dependent on, various religious traditions (she herself is a Quaker). These tools are stillness, listening, story, encounter, celebration, grieving, visioning, and journaling - each of which is explained.
She insists: "The book involves spirituality but it is not about religion nor is it an esoteric practice meant only for a few. It is a robust spirituality that is relevant to those of all faiths as well as those of no faith" (that's me). Of course, the ultimate test is whether companies will pay for this sort of transformative process and whether they will obtain what they seek.
Georgeanne Lamont has 13 years experience as a trainer and she has now formed a training consultancy called SpiritWorks to offer this vision and these values. It deserves to succeed. Meanwhile "The Spirited Business" is celebration, inspiration and motivation.
*"The Spirited Business" by Georgeanne Lamont is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £9.99
Link: SpiritWorks - now called Lamont Associates - web site click here
"Who Moved My Cheese?" by Dr Spencer Johnson
This is the shortest business book that I have ever read - only 90 odd pages of large text in all and a mere 50 pages of large text for the central story. But the subject matter is huge - how does one deal with change?
American writer Spencer Johnson is the author of the best-selling "One Minute" series of business books. Here he tells the simple story of four little characters who live in maze. Two of them are mice called Sniff and Scurry and two of them are littlepeople named Hem and Haw. All of them are looking for cheese.
The mice can only use simple but inefficient methods of trial and error, but the littlepeople have the ability to think and learn from experience. In their different ways, they all discover a plentiful supply of cheese at Cheese Station C.
But one day there is no cheese and each of the four have to cope with this profound change. The two mice react instinctively without thinking too much and immediately look for new cheese but with the same simple trial and error techniques. However, the two littlepeople give the matter a lot of thought and go through a range of emotions from anger to frustration to denial.
Hem is afraid to let go of what he knows and risk exploring new parts of the maze, but Haw eventually takes control of his predicament, visualises the cheese ahead, and goes searching for new cheese in spite of his fears. As his journey progresses, he realises that he should have anticipated the change and been ready to act quicker.
This incredibly simple but effective tale is a metaphor for us all. The cheese represents whatever we want in our working or personal life, while the maze is the organisation or relationship in which we operate. So many people find change very difficult even to talk about, let alone to act upon rationally, that this book can serve a valuable purpose in providing a vocabulary for discussion and hopefully an incentive to action.
*"Who Moved My Cheese?" is published in the UK by Vermilion, price £5.99
It is not every day that a book on management gurus mentions the STE. ROGER DARLINGTON, CWU Head of Research, explains all.
WHICH DOCTORS OR WITCH DOCTORS?
Anyone who works for BT or MCI - or any large company in the UK or USA - has experienced the fashion for new management theories. There are so many consultants out there peddling every variety of organisational or motivational theory and there are so many companies desperate to survive in an ever-more competitive world who are prepared to pay vast sums to benefit from such new thinking.
Which company doctors make the most sense or are they all simply the corporate equivalent of witch doctors? A new book - appropriately enough entitled “The Witch Doctors” - seeks to answer these questions. It is subtitled : “What the management gurus are saying, why it matters and how to make sense of it” and it is written by two journalists on “The Economist”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.
This is a long book of almost 400 pages, but it is very readable, informative and balanced. The authors are certainly advocates of the Anglo-Saxon school of capitalism with little time for concepts like stakeholding, but they are sharply critical of so much management thinking, posing the question : “Why does a discipline that contains so much sense contain so much nonsense as well?”.
Of course, so much management theory is contradictory. Partly this is because it is based on different assumptions about human behaviour and partly it is because companies are too easily seduced by a ‘new’ idea even if it is diametrically opposed to an earlier one.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge offer a comment on the contradictions between three particular fashions embraced by BT (and many others): “The three most popular .. fads - downsizing, re-engineering and total quality management - are, on many points of substance, mutually incompatible. Downsizing argues that workers are expendable; TQM sees them as an invaluable resource. Re-engineering depends on ripping up the organisation and starting again; TQM is a doctrine of continuous, incremental improvement”.
In the same chapter on “Re-thinking The Company”, they quote Bert Roberts of MCI, the company now being taken over by BT, on his somewhat bizarre corporate strategy: “We run like mad, and then we change direction”.
One of the most thought-provoking chapters in this very interesting book is entitled “The Future of Work”.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge warn that the nature of work is changing profoundly. More work will be part-time, contract and self-employed, there will be much more teleworking, and more work will be moveable around the globe.
What does all this mean for the role of the manager? “Whether a manager’s job is at a big firm or a small one, a striking number of things about that job are changing - from whom the manager bosses about to what hours they work, to whether they have an office, or even a desk. This explains why managerial insecurity runs much deeper than mere fear of losing a job”.
What does all this mean for trade unions? “There are doubts about whether unions for knowledge workers make sense. The battle lines are not fixed ones where the opposing sides are divided by class and money. Unions tend to be male, manufacturing-oriented and good at negotiating with similar dinosaurs such as General Motors, not small multimedia companies. Most of the knowledge worker’s problems are to do with contracts, empowerment, employability, parental leave and part-time work. Put bluntly, unions have changed far less than companies”.
Finally, what about that reference to the STE?
It occurs in the chapter on “The Future of Work” when the authors explain how delayering and flexibility have largely meant more work - sometimes for more pay - for an increasingly burdened workforce, especially line managers. They note : “A study of British Telecom managers by Britain’s Society of Telecom Executives showed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that those who worked fifty to sixty hours a week were much more likely to get one of the top two grades in their annual reviews than those who did not. Indeed, the whole system of incentive pay is geared towards persuading staff generally - and managers in particular - to work ever harder”.
Few members of BT’s workforce are likely to disagree.
*“The Witch Doctors” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge is published by Heinemann, price £20
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON
Last modified on 5 April 2003
Any of these books can be purchased on-line from any one of the following suppliers:
Amazon click here
Waterstones click here