June 9, 2004
News & Opinion: Steamship Reads
In an engaging interview, author Jeff Fox points out that his readers enjoy books they can read on one airplane flight. Indeed, airplane reads engaging lesson-delivery products that can be consumed on a plane ridehave become a staple of the business vernacular, with many editors wary of any tome whose reading time exceeds an uninterrupted New York to Cincinnati flight. Thats why its somewhat of a miracle to find several excellent recent books that buck this trend. Case in point: the rich, thoughtful, so-smart-its-in-your-face The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin. This is not a subway read (many Japanese managers read short business books on their commute), nor, in fact, is it an airplane read. Call this 450-page book a steamship read. The 60 pages of footnotes indicate the heft of the highbrow tome. Theres basically more words in their footnotes than you would find in half the book on the current business bestseller list. Not that theres anything wrong with it, as Seinfeld might sayjust another sign that this book is not written with its primary audience in mind. In fact, the Support Economy falls neatly into a classic consultants category: books and people in desperate need of their own advice. The pundits argue that while major corporations have become ever more efficient they have become increasingly adversarial to a new breed of individualone with a higher consciousness and standard of living. The process of consumption has become ever more complicated and burdensome for individuals. Therefore, the authors suggest concierges for consumers in our economy: paid advocates to guarantee that companies identify and serve the underlying demand of individuals. Funny: this is just the kind of support most readers need for this cumbersome book. I will admit that I couldnt read it from start to finish. And I cant believe any busy manager will. This leads me to recommend an excellent website where you can get the gist of their argument from the reviews and supplemental material. I read enough of the book to disagree with some of their points (among them the assumption that consumers today are more concerned with finding meaning and psychological self-determination than ever before) but overall, recommend it to those with the time (or an intellectual factotum.) At any rate, on the return trip of the slow boat to China Id be sure to read Strategy Maps: Converting Intangible Assets Into Tangible Outcomes by Robert Kaplan and David Norton. These two consultant-professors need little introduction, having written one of the key books of the past decade, The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy Into Action. Expanding on a key HBR article,, the two designed a balanced scorecard enabling a company to describe and communicate strategy in a way that every member of the organization can understand and apply. The tool aligns financial metrics, customer feedback, benchmarks for learning and growth, and internal processes on how the company achieved its goals. Kaplan and Norton followed up with The Strategy-Focused Organization: How Balanced Scorecard Companies Thrive in the New Business Environment, a sequel showing how companies apply the Balanced Scorecard as the operating system for a new strategic management process. And now we have Strategy Maps. Weighing in at 438 pages, the book comes chock full of diagrams that seek to deliver on the authors promise of showing how maps can focus a company on realizing key strategic goals. Again, a map for this book would helpthe lengthy text, the myriad case studies, and complicated points are all powerful and carry the weight of authority, but a readers guide would help. For this tired reader, Im saving the book for my next long voyage.