Plenty to read but not much to learn at the business bookstall

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Buy a typical business book at the airport and you’ll find nothing with which to disagree. Which is the problem.

You’ve arrived early at the airport. You pass a few minutes in the book shop. Ready for you, they have near the entrance a stand of books about business. So you pick up ‘The Twelve Pillars of Business Success’. After all, if it worked it would be great value at £12.99.

You have become part of one of the publishing phenomena of the times. It has not yet reached the heights achieved in the United States where these ‘how to do it’ books are regularly found in the best-seller lists. Still, it has gone far enough to make Heathrow Airport one of the major business book shops in the UK.

At Heathrow last week, I picked up three of these. There was ‘The Trust Effect’, by Larry Reynolds (Brealey, 1997), ‘Managing Transitions’, by William Bridges (Brealey, 1991, 1995) and Ron Sewell offers us ‘The Twelve Pillars of Business Success’, (Kogan Page, 1996). A total investment of £35.97. These books are not better, or worse, than the genre they represent. But they are typical.

The claims the publishers make for these works are not modest. ‘The Twelve Pillars of Business Success’ offers a unique plan for achieving extraordinary results from ordinary people. Armed with this new information (this is after reading ‘Managing Transitions’), managers will look at future changes in a new way, no longer feeling anxious and hopeless, but rather looking at the opportunities. And it you don’t harness ‘The Trust Effect’ to get results, make teams work and drive down costs, somebody else will, and they will drive you out of business. Yet we all know that what these books have to say is as memorable as the faces of the people who sit opposite you in the airport lounge.

That gives one clue for selecting a business book. You will remember a face in the lounge only if it is unexpected, if there is a patch over one eye, for example. By the same principle, open a page and ask if it contains anything with which you disagree. Does it contain anything with which anyone would disagree. For example “So, how do you project your organisation’s philosophies, values and beliefs to everyone in your organisation?” First, we have to live them in everything we say and do. Second, we have to make the time to communicate endlessly on these and related issues’ (‘The Twelve Pillars’, p.65). ‘If you want to build a high trust organisation, you want your people to be competent’ (The Trust Effect, p.169).

These things are true. The trouble is by their very universality they tell us very little. They do not represent a new contribution to our knowledge of the theory and practice of management. But nor are they sufficiently specific to enable us to distinguish between right and wrong actions in particular situations. They supply a sort of middle ground between theory and practice which meets neither the demands of the first for rigour and generality nor the demands of the second for operational effectiveness.

It is like saying that you control a car by applying the right amount of acceleration. True: but it doesn’t either tell you how a car works or how to drive it. The curricula of business schools contain a large, and sadly probably increasing, volume of material of this kind. It is created by an insistence that useful knowledge must be practical – the would-be driver is understandably, if perhaps wrongly, impatient with instruction in the workings of the internal combustion engine: combined with an opposing pressure that demands that MBA teachers should be more rigorous than driving instructors.

These books rarely contain anything in the way of data. There is, however, a particular variety of bogus statistics which is common in business writing and business speeches “Writers Stan Davis and Jim Bolkin estimate that the world’s total knowledge doubles about every seven years” (‘The Trust Effect’, p.170). ‘Research shows that only 12% of decisions made in U.S. companies are soundly researched and decided’ (‘The Twelve Pillars’, p.157). These remarks have an apparent precision, which gives them an air of scientific respectability – our stock of knowledge doubles every seven years, rather than every five or every ten, and it is 12%, rather than a small proportion, of management decisions which are well considered. But how could you ever design a serious project to measure the stock of knowledge, or the proportion of decisions that were soundly researched?

But if there is a shortage of data, there is no shortage of anecdote. All of the books contain more sentences beginning “when x took over as CEO of the ABC corporation, he…”

Nor any shortage of opinion. The views of management gurus have a singular authority: the greatest weight, however, is attached to the opinions of revered business leaders. Jack Welch, Percy Bamerik and Bill Gates are paticularly celebrated: even if he and his organisation have moved on, Jan Garlszon of SAS is still much honoured. Every banality they utter is seized like crumbs from the rich man’s table. Poor Jack Welch might properly be cited as co-author of many of these books, so often is he referred to (and entirely admiringly: the only error these titans ever make is sometimes being slow in ??? the truth). So Jack Welch believes “Give your people every chance to identify with their business. Their enthusiasm is your most valuable asset” (‘Twelve Pillars’, p.165). True enough: but is it any more true because Jack Welch thinks it.

But if these books do little good, perhaps they also do little harm. If I have a concern, it is that they are the equivalent of junk food, which fills you up while offering no pleasure and no nutrition. They slake your appetite for material that requires real effort to appreciate and understand, but – by that necessary fact – offers you an experience that is genuinely enriching. But that is what the business world truly needs.

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