InReview – Issue 11

The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger; Cambridge, MA, Perseus Books, 2000; xxii, 190 pp.

The first two authors have had various high tech positions while the other two are writers for technical and popular publications.

This is an unusual book. From its claim to be the first book which is a sequel to a website to its language and put down of “professionalism” and respect, the book breaks all of the rules. It will make you laugh, which is not the norm for a business book. For my tastes it goes too far in beating down any standards of business etiquette or respect in place of “telling it like it is.”

Having said this, however, I would say this is an important book which business leaders should read. There are great ideas here which make it clear that we are at the front end of the web-transformation of business, not the back end. Hence the title: you need to “get a clue” and “get on the train” in understanding the true meaning of the web for business.

The big idea is that the Web is not simply about broadcast, nor about buying and selling. It is about creating a conversation among your employees, customers, suppliers, and just about anyone. It enables you to truly understand the perception of your product and your company in the marketplace, whether you like it or not. It may even enable you to build your product in a new way.

The implications of this observation touch PR, marketing, product improvement, eliminating the management hierarchy, or the writing of annual reports to name a few things. Touch is the wrong word according to the authors. Detonation would be closer to the way they would describe it.

You may love this book. But, if you start reading it and wonder whether to continue, don’t give up. The ideas are worth it whether you like it or not.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization by Thomas L. Friedman; New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999; xix, 394 pp.

Thomas L. Friedman is a reporter for the New York Times, and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.

The proper understanding of globalization is best done in a six dimensional view involving politics, culture, national security, financial markets, technology and the environment, according to Friedman. Having said this early in the book, however, he focuses primarily on the changing financial markets made possible by immediate information availability. Politics, culture, national security and the environment are definitely supporting players in this book.

The force for globalization is not national powers but the anonymous “Electronic Herd” of global investors connected by screens and networks. Because of the high fidelity of information made possible by information technology, these investors search the world for the place to put their money, moving rapidly away from any market which does not play by the rules of the new (since 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell) economy.

With this approach, this book is not a treatise on globalization in the usual sense. You will not find any advice on setting up and managing a global company. The book does not deal with issues of bribery, the environment, or managing intellectual property unless these issues tie rather directly to the investment rules for world markets. The book focuses strictly on the role of the Internet in creating world-wide markets, where no one can hide and everyone must play according to the rules.

In the domain Friedman has chosen, this is an informative book. It is very well illustrated with examples from around the world, and told in such a way to maintain interest. There is a personal touch to most of the stories. It is easy to get tired of his name dropping–hardly a page goes by that he doesn’t mention some prominent world figure who called him up, asked his advice, invited him to a meeting, etc. Taken in the best of humor, however, these anecdotes add a richness to the story.

Where it falls down is the one-dimensional theme for a very broad topic. All progress is measured in economic terms. There is no room for anyone to have a relationship or enjoy a cup of coffee. Some people complain about the pace and wish to slow this thing down, he says. But, it is like the African plain. “…one thing that the lion and the gazelle both know when they go to sleep is that in the morning, when the sun comes up, they had better start running. And so it is with globalization,” he writes (p. 271).

This global economy is good for everyone, according to Friedman. Without strict adherence to insider trading rules, for example, a country will not be credible in the worldwide market and will be left out of the game. The Asian crisis of the past five years in explained in this context. The country that plays by the rules will do well, and its citizens will improve their standard of living through access to jobs created by this worldwide market, he argues.

Are there some downsides, according to Friedman? The homogenization of cultures is one (hence the title which spans the luxury Lexus automobile from Japan and the Olive tree representing the old ways in the Middle East). Mostly, however, Friedman argues this is good for everyone willing to compete; the slow and the bureaucrat had better get out of the way because they will surely lose in this new economy.

Then in the final section of the book, almost in the form of an apology, he raises the issues about those who get trampled and what we need to do about safety-nets. While global markets run by the Electronic Herd are inevitable, he argues, we must take care of the weak.

In Friedman’s sharp focus, the explanation and implications of the globalization of economic markets, this book is worth reading. It is not a book on the full story of globalization, however.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher; New York, Harper & Row, 1973; xxiii, 324 pp.

E. F. Schumacher was a British economist who was suddenly thrust into a modest celebrity by the publication of this book in 1973 (he died in 1977). It has sold nearly a million copies and is deservedly a classic. Perhaps the most famous chapter in the book is “Buddhist Economics” in which Schumacher carries out a thought experiment: what would our economic thinking be like if it was guided by the values embedded in a great philosophy or theology? It is a masterpiece, not as scholarship on Buddhism but as a challenge to our conventional ways of thinking.

Schumacher opposed neither technology nor global development nor entrepreneurship. What he famously promoted was “technology with a human face,” “appropriate technology,” and “intermediate technology.” He advocated development programs that distributed intermediate technologies to help people do better what they already knew how to do and needed to do. He opposed exporting huge advanced technological enterprises that would scar landscapes and require a new workforce divided into drones and highly trained experts.

Schumacher believed in corporations with employee profit-sharing plans and with programmatic good works in the surrounding community with some of the profits. He not only taught these ideas, he helped start and run businesses that practiced these principles. Reading Schumacher is a bit like reading Max DePree — very wise, insightful counsel, delivered with charm, warmth, and a positive attitude.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley; New York, Penguin Classics, 1985; lvi, 261 pp.

It is still hard to fully appreciate Mary Shelley’s accomplishment. Frankenstein was her first book, begun at age 18 and published at age 20. Her project was actually provoked by a light-hearted suggestion from Lord Byron (with whom Mary and Percy Shelley were vacationing) that they should all try to concoct ghost stories. Her work became the most famous gothic horror story, and science fiction, in English literature.

Victor Frankenstein goes off to university to study chemistry but he has already read widely in alchemy and natural history. He is consumed with interest in learning the secrets of life. The movie versions of Frankenstein give the scene of the creation of the monster a lot more pizzazz than Mary Shelley’s calm description in the book. In any event, Victor Frankenstein is horrified by what he has created and rejects his creature. The monstrous creature meets Frankenstein again after years of wandering, persecution, and a remarkable self-education. He begs Frankenstein to create a partner for him so that he will not be so utterly lonely. Frankenstein refuses; the monster kills some people; a wild pursuit ends in a deadly chase over Arctic ice flows.

The big questions: is there ever a boundary (e.g., tampering with the creation of life) we should not cross? If so, how would we recognize it? If we do bring about unfortunate consequences will we accept responsibility for our actions and follow through wisely and courageously? Frankenstein makes a good film; the book itself makes for a great reading/discussion group in today’s business/technology context.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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When Good Companies Do Bad Things: Responsibility and Risk in an Age of Globalization by Peter Schwartz and Blair Gibb; New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1999; xiv, 194 pp.

Peter Schwartz is chairman of Global Business Network, a former strategic planner for Royal Dutch/Shell, and author of The Art of the Long View. Blair Gibb, a principal at GBN, is a former planning officer for Amnesty International.

The primary emphasis of this book is on how large companies get into trouble in areas of environment or corrupt practices. Thus, it has a great deal to say about business ethics, but very little to say about technology.

There are several reasons to review this book in Ethix, however. First, the authors are seeking to bridge communities that often don’t come to the same table; in this case NGOs (non governmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Unicef, and others) and businesses. In the same way, we are trying to bridge the technology enthusiasts (often in business) and the technology critics (often in the academic world).

Second, the authors are making a case for sound business responsibility, but are arguing it on the basis of economics, not simply on the basis of social responsibility. We often will do the same in the responsible use of technology.

Third, they make a great point in showing how attracting and retaining the best employees in the current highly competitive market is strongly affected by whether an employee is proud of the company he or she works for. “A company attracts the best, brightest, and most committed employees not as a result of slick recruiting campaigns, but by creating a corporate reputation that makes the best people want to work there,” p. 175.

Much of the book deals with case studies of how good companies got into trouble. Whether Exxon, with its oil spill in Alaska, or Texaco with its discrimination suit, the ethics statement was not enough to keep them out of trouble. The authors build a great case for “mission control” ethics, rather than “damage control” ethics, as David has done in his Benchmark Ethics series.

The book is sobering, and certainly worth reading in its own right even if it doesn’t add directly to the technology discussion for most of its pages. Interestingly, technology does come into focus near the end of the book in the chapter entitled Issues of the Future.

Reviewed by Al Erisman