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InReview – Issue 4

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies By James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras (New York: Harper Business, paperback ed., 1997), xxiv, 342 pp.

This is, quite simply, the one best book on business leadership and management in the past twenty years. Better than Hammer & Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation, better than the former title-holder, Peters & Waterman’s In Search o/Excellence.

Built to Last was the result of a six-year research project by Stanford business profs Collins and Porras. They were in search of key characteristics of successful, admired, long-term, leading companies. They focus on eighteen visionary companies (such as Boeing, Hewlett Packard, Johnson & Johnson, 3M, Philip Morris) and compare them to less successful competitors (such as McDonnell Douglas, Texas Instruments, Bristol-Myers, Norton, R. J. Reynolds).

Collins and Porras find a yin and yang pattern whose basic mantra is “Preserve the core/Stimulate progress.” On the one hand, great companies preserve a clear, compelling core ideology (mission and values), create a “cult-like” culture to reinforce this core, and emphasize homegrown management to maintain continuity and fidelity to that core. On the other hand, they stimulate progress by committing to “big, hairy, audacious goals,” trying a lot of stuff and keeping what works, and creating mechanisms of discontent so that “good enough never is.” They have great counsel on striving for “alignment” so that the goals fall clearly within the core values, the culture and organization clearly reinforce the core ideology, and so on.

The paperback edition adds some helpful material to the business best-selling version of 1994. Criticism? Their approach to the question of “what” core ideology is appropriate remains too arbitrary. They argue that anything goes as long as it is firmly held. My opinion? If the core ideology is fundamentally anti-human the company must fail much sooner than if it is pro-human. Examples: the tobacco industry, the Third Reich.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul (New York: Vintage, 1964), xxxvi., 449, xiv. pp.

The Technological Society was originally published in France in 1954 and has remained in print there as well as in the United States for these several decades. Ellul, long-time professor of history and sociology at the University of Bordeaux, wrote some sixty books in his lifetime, many of them concerning twentieth century technology and its impact on all aspects of human life. The Technological Society was his most important book.

Aldous Huxley once said about it that “it made the case” that he had tried to make in his Brave New World.

For Ellul, technology is not just machines and tools, it is the thinking behind them; and the challenge of technology is not in this or that technology in particular but in the total ensemble as it takes over more and more of our life and more and more of the world. “Be aware!” is Ellul’s message. Reading Ellul is no walk in the park and many readers find his work all too pessimistic. But this is a massive, insightful, challenging, and genuinely prophetic classic in 20th century literature.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui; Harvard Business School Press, 1998, xix, 243 pp.

Michael Hammer and James Champy popularized the message that information technology is about transformation not automation. The rapid pace of technological change makes possible new ways of improving business processes, and you must consider what is possible from technology before laying out how the work gets done. Downes and Mui take these ideas to another level, raising fundamental questions about what business might be made possible by technology. New business opportunities are made possible by “killer apps.”

The authors begin with a discussion of two “laws.” The well-known Moore’s law forecasts the rate of change of technology: roughly a factor of two in price performance every 18 months. Metcalf’s law (named for 3Com founder Robert Metcalf) says that the utility of a technology grows exponentially with the number of users. This is obvious for the telephone (not useful with only one user, limited use with two, but growing in usefulness as the number of users grows) and is extended to all forms of information technology.

Put these together and we have applications made possible by Moore’s law and made useful by Metcalf’s law emerge which are so powerful they open up not only new ways of doing things, but new things to do. The Internet has given rise to many such “killer apps.” But this is not a new phenomenon. The cotton gin and the Model T also produced discontinuities in business opportunities. The difference in the information age is the rate at which these applications are created.

In addition to illustrating this transformation, the book provides ways of anticipating these changes through understanding the possibilities of new tools from the information technology revolution. The goal is to help companies develop a digital strategy, anticipating and growing through these transformations.

On the downside, little is said about how this technology may produce unintended consequences, and how to anticipate these.

Reviewed by Albert M. Erisman

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