Books: the good, the bad and the cheesy

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Ideas – even those about business – often find their best expression in fiction. The Financial Times, with Goldman Sachs, has just launched its annual business book competition. So the editor raised the question: what makes a good business book?

A good book should not be confused with a best-seller. Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson is a best-seller but a bad book. Its vocabulary and style are appropriate to junior school students, its message – that “little people” should not ask where their cheese came from but scurry in search of wherever it has been put – is offensive. The use of metaphor enables the author to avoid any requirement to justify his thesis or anticipate objection to it. The object of the prize is to help make a good book a best-seller. To displace Who Moved My Cheese? from the lists.

A better starting point is to ask which books have stood the test of time. I wrote down three titles immediately. The Concept of the Corporation by Peter Drucker; Strategy and Structure by Alfred Chandler; and My Years with General Motors by Alfred Sloan. Only then did I notice that all three volumes are essentially about General Motors.

But perhaps this is not surprising. The rise of the modern, professionally managed corporation, of which GM was a defining example, was the most important management phenomenon of the 20th century. These three authors examined that phenomenon from different perspectives. Drucker’s approach derived from philosophy and sociology, and he posed questions about the role of such an institution in society that still need answers. Chandler used the methods of analytic history. And Sloan wrote a business autobiography in an era when business people were more reflective and self-effacing than they are today.

There is no similarly compelling analysis of the decline of GM. Perhaps the nearest is David Halberstam’s The Reckoning. But Halberstam is primarily a narrative journalist and he focused on Ford rather than GM, presumably because its cast of characters, from Henry Ford to Robert McNamara, was so much more interesting than the diffident Sloan and the hapless Roger Smith.

But for a well told story the easy winner is Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Yet its claims as a business book are vitiated by its own conclusion. The authors address the complete lack of interest of its characters in RJR Nabisco’s markets, products or employees. “What did these events have to do with business?” is the final sentence. The same question might be posed of last year’s FT/Goldman Sachs prize winner: William Cohan’s gripping account of the internal politics of Lazard, The Last Tycoons.

Then there are the books on how to do it. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People still wins friends and influences people after 70 years. The simple, central message, that you get the best from people by making them feel important, is as far removed from the thesis of Who Moved My Cheese? as – well, chalk from cheese, and more soundly based in psychological research.

At the other end of the spectrum, the search for scholarship in management has led to door-stopping volumes, such as Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy and Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. But these books tend to have more sales than readers.

Some of the offerings of consultants and gurus, such as Tom Peters’ and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, are harder to put down. My own favourite in this category is Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. They argue that long-term success, commercial and financial, derives from commitment to business to which profit is secondary rather than commitment to profit to which business is secondary.

But ideas often find their best expression in fiction. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities takes apart the relationship between Wall Street and New York society. More than 100 years before, Anthony Trollope similarly satirised London in The Way We Live Now: “Dishonesty magnificent in its proportions has become so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.” There is reason still.

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