November 10, 2015
News & Opinion: Inside the Longlist: General Business
Twice a week over the next two weeks, we’ll have the person who oversaw the discussion of books in each of the award categories of our 2015 800-CEO-READ Business Book Awards Longlist give a brief overview of the books—and perhaps the trends apparent in them—in an attempt to document the best ideas and give you a glimpse into our process.
First up, General Business.
It’s a category that can act as catchall for books that don’t fit elsewhere, that captures books with a 10,000-foot view of business, but also acts as a microcosm of the overall list—clearly showing the competing forces, ideas, and issues you saw come up throughout the year. And this year, we continued to see a trend of books about the rise of digital and information technology in business, but saw more and more that began to at least question the assumed benefit, or even actively explored the profound challenges and dark side of it. We also saw a greater wealth of books that ignored it altogether and focused solely on human agency, action, psychology, society, and culture. The general business books of the year perfectly encapsulate those larger trends.
The book most enthusiastic about technology in business on the list is Steve Lohr’s Data-ism: The Revolution Transforming Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else, but even he documents the “alarms” being sounded and “trade-offs and risks” involved in the rise of its main topic—big data. But, overall, he believes that the rise of bigger, better data, and better analysis of the right data, will lead to a new form of Data-Capitalism that improves management and outcomes, and lead to better decision-making capabilities and benefits for our society overall.
The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford wonders what happens if technology takes over decision making and other things we used to believe were innately human capabilities. “What jobs will be left? How many will there be? And who will have them?” Historically, even when technology has disrupted the labor force in the short term, the economic growth it provided more than up for that with new jobs and opportunities in the long-term. Ford documents clearly just how good our machines are getting at replicating our physical and mental tasks, and how their ability to do so is accelerating exponentially. He shows how, for the first time in history, technology may in fact be replacing human jobs without creating new ones as a result of economic growth, and what we can do about it. There are a few great books that either touched on or dove into these topics this year—Geoff Colvin’s Humans Are Underrated and Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply, among others. Those two would have surely made this list, but we felt Ford’s book rose to the top of this very good field, and brings the overall ideas to the table extremely well.
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family also dives into systemic changes in the our workplaces and society, by continuing a conversation she started about women in the workplace, and beyond it, in an article she wrote in 2012 for The Atlantic about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which has subsequently become the most read article in the history of that storied magazine. The book calls for a reexamination and reorientation not just of the traditionally patriarchal, male-dominated workplace and leadership structure, but of some of the tenets of traditional feminism, as well. By taking such a holistic approach, and addressing the needs of us as family members in the workplace—caring individuals that may want or need to care for young children, elderly parents, or ailing friends in addition to maintaining and advancing a career—she hopes to start a conversation and movement toward finishing the business of equality, for the benefit of all of us.
Steven Quartz and Anette Asp have a brilliant dissection, and defense, of consumerism in their book, Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World. It is both a history of conspicuous consumption, and an in-depth exploration of current brain science, behavioral economics and evolutionary biology around it. It debunks many popular studies on the tie of wealth and consumption to happiness, saying that as status-seeking human beings we have a predisposition to seeking status symbols—hence consumption—and that they do, indeed, fulfill us psychologically. The fulcrum of the book is how many in advanced consumer societies long ago shifted the status symbols we seek from those that represent wealth and power to those that represent “cool.” The use that to argue that rather than railing against or trying to reduce consumption, we need another shift, “a new paradigm of consumption” and production that solves our “Status Dilemma” in a more sustainable way. It is not beneficial to work against human nature and admonish or try to diminish consumption, they tell us. Rather, we should work to “align socially beneficial consumption patterns with status norms.” And, in this way, we can more adeptly increase happiness and bring about more responsible consumption.
And finally, We Are Market Basket: The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement That Saved a Beloved Business is the story of a New England grocery chain that has a little of everything. It’s a great company history and narrative, a good management primer, the story of a family power struggle, and a battle between two visions of American Capitalism—pitting employee and consumer interests against shareholder interests—which shows that undermining the former two ultimately undermines that latter. It is a story so idealistic that it’s hard to believe at first it is realistic, that it really happened. But it did. It is the story of Market Basket employees striking, and Market Basket customers boycotting the store, until a popular CEO and the business model he represented and fought for were reinstated. It is the story of the fight to preserve something more than the CEO, a business model and a model business, and it is a fight they won, after a lengthy media circus, legal battle, and involvement of two state’s governors. It is a truly remarkable story about the very foundations and philosophy of free enterprise. And, tell me, how many stories have you heard of people protesting in favor of a CEO?
What all these books have in common is that they discuss the decisions we make in businesses, at work, in the marketplace or both, as a society. They discuss how we manage information, how we manage others and construct a business, and how we construct our own self-image. Most of all, they represent the most important ideas moving around in the business world today, and moving real, individual businesses everyday. Each of these books also shares the idea that we must put human beings at the center of these discussions, regardless of what tools we’re using. And, most importantly, they are all really well written.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.