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Business books: reading between the lines

Business books have emerged as a large scale global industry over the last 20 years.

By London Business School Review 01 December 2002

Business books have emerged as a largescale global industry over the last 20 years. Their influence on the behaviour of managers is only matched by the high profiles accorded their best-selling authors. In an age in which ideas and information confer competitive advantages, business books matter as never before. In this special report, Business Strategy Review looks at the role of business books, their genesis, the originality of the ideas and presents a survey of the 20 most influential business books of all time.
25NestorFieldofcanvases482x271Business books change things. At least, that is what we are led to believe. No one starts acting differently because they’ve read the latest Roddy Doyle or John Grisham novel. But that’s what happens with business books. People do things differently. They think differently. They treat other people differently. Every intricate detail of the latest business blockbuster is being put to work somewhere. Helped by the fact that business is increasingly global and the skills of management often universal, books make their way round the world, shaping the management of the future.

As you read, a factory in China could be contemplating re-engineering, a start-up in Stockholm may be coming to terms with one-to-one marketing and a Polish conglomerate examining the merits of intellectual capital.

Books are being put to work. If you’re sceptical, look at the big idea of the 1990s, re-engineering. The idea was popularised by a book – Reengineering the Corporation by James Champy and Michael Hammer. It was hailed as a revolution. The book sold in hundreds of thousands. People everywhere began reengineering. At one time, most of the world’s leading companies were re-engineering.

Look at the part played by W Edwards Deming in the renaissance of Japan. Think of the impact of Michael Porter’s work on the value chain, which has been taken up by companies throughout the world, as well as his work on national competitiveness, which has altered the economic perspectives of entire countries. Porter has been called in by countries as far apart as Portugal and Colombia to shed light on their competitiveness. Who thought customer service was a key competitive weapon before Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence? In the business world, books are more than ornamental shelf-fillers.

And then the twist: books do not necessarily change things for the better. Ideas and interpretations of ideas are rarely identical. And many of the ideas are best ignored.

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