InReview – Issue 8

Smart Business: How Knowledge Communities Can Revolutionize Your Company by Jim Botkin; New York, The Free Press, 291 pp.

Jim Botkin, or Dr. Jim as he prefers to be known, is cofounder and President of InterClass, the International Learning Association.

This book is a collection of examples and case studies which demonstrate the importance of knowledge and knowledge sharing in a business. Obvious? Yes, of course. The difficulty is that since “knowledge is power,” it is often difficult to create an environment where knowledge is truly shared for the benefit of the business and its employees.

So, the book is more about creating a learning organization, and creating a cultural climate within a company where this is encouraged and practiced. In this part of the story, Botkin is at his best. My copy has lots of underlined sections marking thoughtful comments on what a knowledge organization might look like or how to overcome barriers which block the sharing of knowledge.

Technology plays an interesting role in this. It can enable collaboration through “knowledge management” tools. Here, the author is appropriately cautious: “Some managers hear the word ‘system’ in ‘knowledge management system’ and equate knowledge management with their company’s computer technology. That view is far too narrow,” p. 120. Thus technology can be a fundamental enabler of knowledge sharing, but much more is required.

Second, technology has fundamentally changed the speed of business, and for this reason knowledge management, for speed and agility, is vital. Numerous illustrations of the impact of technology on business are given, starting with automating the ice cutting business at a time when refrigeration was emerging. This is a motivation to take advantage of both internal and external knowledge to lead and respond to the marketplace. While the examples are good, my observation is that the author has less comfort in the area of technology and business. To his credit, he often quotes Tom Davenport, a true expert in this area.

I enjoyed this book, and learned a great deal from it. My only criticism was that I always felt I was reading a book written by a consultant with the objective of selling me something.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know by Andrew L. Shapiro; New York, Public Affairs: Century Foundation Book, 1999; xvi, 286 pp.

Andrew Shapiro is a writer, lawyer, director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project, and a Fellow at the New York University School of Law. Shapiro examines the implications of the Internet with insight and clarity, as he identifies the transforming potential of access to information for business, government, the media, and society.

It is not often that the term “page turner” would be applied to this type of book, but I found myself drawn to the arguments and implications Shapiro laid out with great care and precision. You may not agree with his conclusions or assumptions, but you would still benefit from seeing the argument.

At first I stumbled over the organization of the book. Early on (p.47) he extolled some of the benefits from technology, in this case getting news in only the categories of choice. I found myself saying “but you are missing the serendipity of encountering something of interest outside your narrow preselection, and this is precisely what we get when we read a newspaper.” He hadn’t forgotten. On p. 109, he discusses this very point. He has simply chosen to talk about the wonders of technology in the early chapter, and reserve the downsides and overreactions to Part 3. And what solution does he offer? That’s the subject of Part 4.

Ultimately his thesis is that the information technology revolution, and the Internet in particular, is creating a shift in control, from the government, the large company, or the newspaper editor to the individual. The shift of control has some positive aspects (when used responsibly) and some potentially very negative outcomes. He uses a great number of popular examples to show potential changes brought about by this shift.

I appreciated Shapiro’s efforts to be evenhanded in light of his obviously strong views. For example, he took a strong view against what he considered monopolistic practices by Microsoft. At the same time, he lauded Microsoft without qualification for making technology available to the disadvantaged.

If I would suggest changes in the book, it would be in the way footnotes are handled. The footnotes (34 pages) are excellent, adding a great deal to the material. But they are collected together at the back of the book, organized by chapter. I found myself constantly trying to figure out what chapter I was in so that I could look up the footnote. It would be simple to run the chapter number on each page.

You may not come from the same “free speech” viewpoint that Shapiro does. You may have come to different conclusions on some of the technical issues. But you shouldn’t miss his well articulated arguments, his willingness to take on the hard issues, and the careful way he lays out his conclusions. This is an outstanding book.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Cybercorp: The New Business Revolution by James Martin; New York, American Management Association, 1996; x, 326 pp.

James Martin is a business consultant and prolific author on issues of concern to both management and technology. Cybercorp works well as an introduction to the ways information technology is transforming business today but it is more than just introductory reading.

Cybercorp describes in detail how corporate structures, processes, and relations are changing, from the individual and team level to the global level of operations. Martin writes with insight about marketing, research, personnel (recruiting, training, retention, and compensation), management, strategy, competition, and cooperation in the age of cyberspace.

Much of Cybercorp stresses the hectic, chaotic, frantic nature of today’s business environment. Get with it or get out, I hear him saying. And yet, Martin explains that the cybercorp must not be crafted apart from the wise insights about core values and mission given in Built to Last by Collins and Porras or by Peter Drucker and others. Martin has good things to say about people issues raised by the cybercorp. Work must be exciting and gratifying. Creativity and trust are essential. Techies and executives must come together. All in all, a first-rate book.

Reviewed by David W. Gill