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InReview – Issue 7

Leading Change: The Argument for Values-Based Leadership by James O’Toole; New York, Ballantine Books, 1995; xxii, 282 pp.

O’Toole’s Leading Change made some ripples but hasn’t received the attention it deserves. The author was professor of business ethics at the University of Southern California business school for 20 years before moving to the Aspen Institute in Colorado.

Leading Change provides a wonderful combination of in-the-trenches business lore, history, philosophy, social psychology, and even some art criticism! Heroes and villains are boldly named; blemishes on heroic records are frankly examined. The big question is “why is change resisted, even by those who know it is necessary?” Most other books gloss over this topic and simply lay out their version of “how to bring about successful change.”

O’Toole begins with an interesting interpretation of James Ensor’s painting of “Christ Comes to Brussels,” as a way of approaching the first problem: getting people’s attention and developing a strategy for change in a hectic, crowded world. He is consistently negative about both “situational” leadership (i.e., core values as well as tactics are always negotiable) and traditional hierarchical, command-and-control (e.g., General Patton, Bobby Knight, Jack Welch) leadership.

Instead, O’Toole argues, the sort of change that we want and need in business today must arise from certain deep values that have to do with our humanity, self-respect, and quest for meaning, and that are shared broadly among those changing and being changed. This is values-based, participatory leadership. His position will be controversial in our relativistic and macho age but it is well worth discussing.

Reviewd by David W. Gill

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The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking by Theodore Roszak; Berkeley, University of California Press, 2 Edition, 1994; xlviii, 267 pp.

Theodore Roszak is a widely-respected historian at the California State University at Hayward. As in all of Roszak’s work, The Cult of Information exhibits a massive and careful research on every page. The second edition updates his commentary on artificial intelligence and, in general, responds to critics and reviewers of the first edition.

Roszak repeatedly and emphatically makes it clear that he does not oppose computers (which he uses every day with both gratitude and awe) — or technology per se. What he opposes is, first, the way information technology is exploited by the wealthy and powerful in big business and big government. My only critical caution about the book is that Roszak attributes all evil and difficulty to economic patterns and motives (i.e., greed). This gets some other villains off the hook too easily.

His second concern is broadly philosophical, educational, and cultural. His historical review of the origins of our Western intellectual habits of mind is very helpful. His major point is that storing lots of bits of data is not the same thing as “memory,” and rapidly processing lots of bits mathematically is not the same thing as “thinking.” What Roszak opposes is this confusing of human and machine, especially when it is embraced and promoted by educators. There are many ways of thinking, knowing, and reasoning. The computer mimics one, and only one, of these ways. To value this way alone is to impoverish our education, humanity, and culture. This is his message.

You wouldn’t want Roszak to run your company — but it would be a terrible mistake not to pay careful attention to his deep historical insight and prophetic warning.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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Counterpoint:
by Al Erisman

Roszak does make some effective points, as David observes, but I must strongly disagree with my colleague in his overall assessment. I find the book weak from most perspectives, and believe it adds very little to the discussion of the upsides and downsides of information technology. He makes extreme statements, perhaps for shock effect, which undermine his credibility, for example:

  • “Every mature technology brings a minimal immediate gain followed by enormous long-term liabilities” (p. xlvi), or
  • “…there will never be a machine that leaves us wiser or better or freer than our own naked mind can make us…” (p. xlvi), or
  • “The brutal economic fact of life in today’s marketplace is that we could generate more good jobs by outlawing computers than by multiplying them,” (p. xxxviii).

Perhaps more importantly, he disappointed me with his historical argument. In the early 60s when there was a great deal of optimism on the potential of computing, artificial intelligence advocates made a number of extravagant claims on the potential for “thinking computers.” These claims were made before it was realized how difficult some of the technical challenges were.

These claims were much like those made about television in the early days (only the most excellent of programming will survive) or the early days of the telephone (all accents will be eliminated). So completely have many of these early claims been rejected by the technology community that the once prominent field of artificial intelligence had been largely scattered into its subdisciplines by the late 1980s.

Yet Roszak spends a great deal of time in his book (updated in 1994) making major points about the failure of these same predictions. I would expect more from a historian.

I do agree with David that some of Roszak’s cautionary points are good. I certainly agree that I wouldn’t want him running my company. But the effort required to find the good points, and sort them from the misinformation, would keep me from recommending this book.

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The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen; Boston, Harvard Business School Press, 1997; xxiv, 225 pp.

You are the CEO of a very successful company. You pride yourself in listening to your customer’s every need. You are constantly looking for ways to improve your products and processes. You are the market leader in your particular product, with a 60% share of that market. If you see new companies competing directly with your product, you move quickly to enhance your product’s performance, lower its cost, or add new features to maintain your edge. You feel pretty safe as long as you stay this course.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School Professor, would say, “Look out, or you might fall prey to a ‘disruptive technology’.” Disruptive technologies do not appear as potential competition to the existing technologies. As the CEO of a successful company you might not pay any attention to this new technology, thinking there is no customer demand. Christensen cites real-world examples in two industries to show that you had better pay close attention.

The introduction lays out four principles that help us understand why companies don’t recognize or go after disruptive technologies.

  • The first is that companies depend on customers and investors for resources. If a customer has not asked for a particular technology, then you will be hard pressed to get the resources you need to pursue it. There was no one beating down Edison’s door for the light bulb…
  • The second principle states that small markets do not solve the growth needs of large companies. Christensen gives the example of a $4 billion company needing $800 million in new sales to sustain continued growth. Disruptive technologies usually have very small markets initially, and therefore cannot support these growth figures.
  • The third principle says markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed. Most disruptive technologies do not have a defined set of customers. This makes market analysis very difficult. If you ask your existing customers they will not see a need for this new technology.
  • The final principle states that technology supply may not equal market demand. Product choice evolves over time from performance, to reliability, to convenience, and ultimately to cost. At some point in the product life the performance has exceeded the customers’ needs.

The book goes through each of these principles in more detail, using the disk drive and mechanical excavator industries as the primary examples of how currently successful companies can be caught flat-footed, while those that are willing to take a chance can grow their businesses in whole new directions.

Christensen does a good job giving the reader cause to worry and incentive to constantly look over your shoulder. He also gives good advice on how to approach these markets and how you might want to organize to be successful. He does not give specific answers, but suggests various guidelines with real-world examples of what has worked and what hasn’t. A criticism of the book could be this lack of hard answers to the problem. But how do you answer a question that currently doesn’t exist? The only problem I had with the book was thinking there are more good examples of this dilemma that could be cited. The integrated circuit and the fuel injection system; for example. I got a little tired of the disk drive industry by the end.

If I were a CEO, I would require my entire management team to read this book, especially those involved in marketing and business development planning.

Reviewed by Timothy J. Wente
IBTE Member Long Beach, CA

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The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage; New York, Walker and Company, 1998; ix, 227 pp.

Tom Standage is a British journalist who writes on science and technology, and this is his first book. The upsides and downsides of today’s Internet are not so new after all, he tells us, through this history of the telegraph.

The book starts with pre-electronic message passing through crude signaling (allowing messages to move faster than people could travel) in the late 1700s. The electronic telegraph showed promise in the late 1830s of added speed and effectiveness in the fog. It also had the drama of competing inventions, the usual naysayers (what good is this, how can it possibly be used?), problems of implementation and the like. But the added drama here is the eirie parallel with today’s Internet which the author plays up through the organization of the material.

There are chapters on “Wiring the World,” “Codes, Hackers, and Cheats,” “Love over the Wires,” and “Information Overload.” We find out that there were troublesome issues in how to charge users for services, the establishment of international standards, and attempts by the government to regulate telegraph traffic.

There is a great deal to learn about yesterday and today in this fascinating, well written, highly enjoyable book.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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