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Putting books to work

What is unique about the 3,000 business book titles published every year is that they are put to work. Executives try and convert their ...

By Georgina Peters . 01 March 2005

What is unique about the 3,000 business book titles published every year is that they are put to work. Executives try and convert their ideas into reality. As Georgina Peters argues, the trouble is that books do not necessarily change things for the better and many of the ideas are best ignored.
Putting books to workBusiness 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 Alan Hollinghurst novel. But that’s what happens with business books. People do things differently. They think differently. They treat other people differently. They manage and lead differently. They make different decisions, decisions which influence often large organisations.

Author and consultant Max McKeown, for example, observes of Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: “From the cutting subtitle – ‘A study of economics as if people mattered’ – to the first ominous line announcing that the, ‘most fateful error of our age is the belief that the problem of production has been solved’ and throughout the intricate and convincing argument, it changed the way that I managed and the way that I saw the relationship between society, the world, its resources, managers and workers.”

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 reengineering, a start-up in Stockholm may be coming to terms with one-toone 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 – Re-engineering the Corporation by James Champy and Michael Hammer. It was hailed – inaccurately – as a revolution. The book sold in hundreds of thousands. People everywhere began re-engineering. At one time, for better or worse, 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. The contemporary strategists, W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne are heavily involved in governmental initiatives in Singapore to maximise the impact of their theories on value innovation (see the review of their latest book on page 56).

Who thought customer service was a key competitive weapon before Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence? In the business world, books are more that 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.

Making things happen is more difficult than any of the books ever suggest. If you read Nick Hornby and buy an Arsenal football shirt you do not become Thierry Henry. Read Charles Handy and you do not find yourself automatically transplanted into a shamrock organisation in possession of a portfolio career. Life and business life isn’t like that.

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