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InReview – Issue 17

Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People by Charles A. O’Reilly III and Jeffrey Pfeffer; Boston, Harvard Business School Press, 2000; xvii, 286 pp.

Charles O’Reilly and Jeffrey Pfeffer are both professors at Stanford University’s business school. The basic argument of Hidden Value is that great (leading, profitable) organizations are built not by attracting the most talented (e.g., top ten per cent) people but by creating an organization that knows how to unleash the value of “ordinary” people. The argument is made by devoting eight of the ten chapters in the book to extended case histories of Southwest Airlines, Cisco Systems, AES, Men’s Wearhouse and other companies. Cypress Semiconductor is included among the eight companies as an example of a company that doesn’t quite yet get the point.

What are the key characteristics of these great companies? First, they emphasize a clear set of values above everything else, including profits. They concentrate on getting their structures and practices aligned with these values. Senior managers focus on making these values alive and real to the employees. Second, they carefully screen and hire for cultural fit, not just for job skills. Third, they invest a great deal in their people’s training and growth. Fourth, they are characterized by widespread information sharing. Fifth, they rely heavily on team-based systems. Sixth, they develop rewards and recognition systems that constantly reinforce their values.

The remarkable thing is how terribly sane and common-sensical all of this is when you read an extended, well-illustrated presentation like Hidden Value. But the most obvious lessons of life often escape us. Hidden Value is a magnificent antidote.

Reviewed by David Gill

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The Minding Organization: Bring the Future to the Present and Turn Creative Ideas into Business Solutions by Moshe F. Rubinstein and Iris R. Firstenberg; New York, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1999; xvi, 208 pp.

Moshe Rubinstein is Professor at Large and Director of the A-B-C Corporate Network at the UCLA graduate school of business. He was honored as one of the top professors of the past century at UCLA. Iris Firstenberg is Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Associate Director of the A-B-C Corporate Network at UCLA.

The Minding Organization is an excellent, insightful book on creativity, management, and fast-paced change in the technological world of business. The chapter on planning alone is worth the price of the book. In the authors’ opinion, organizations plan too much and end up wasting much of the effort when the rules change, technology changes, the business climate changes, etc. They suggest we plan less (about half) and create flexible organizations able to respond to change. They lay out some specifics, illustrated with excellent business examples.

Errors play a big part in their approach. When those who make errors are punished, the errors continue, but nothing is learned. When errors are celebrated, the learning from these errors allows the organization, as an organism, to flourish and develop.

Do these principles work in today’s chaotic times? The authors argue that nothing else works. We need to embrace chaos (and they have some great ideas how to do this) and move from chaos to structure in a way that maximizes flexibility. This book is well written, well illustrated, and a vital resource for anyone running an organization made up of knowledge workers.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black; New York, Crown Publishers, 2001; 519 pp.

Edwin Black, whose parents, but not his grandparents, survived the Holocaust, is an expert in the area of commercial relations with the Third Reich, and author of The Transfer Agreement (The dramatic story of the pact between the Third Reich and Jewish Palestine).

IBM and the Holocaust details how IBM addressed its strategic concerns in Europe through the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Black argues that IBM’s concern focused on maintaining its monopolistic interests in Hollerith (punch-card) technology throughout Europe before, during, and after WWII. He supports this argument with New York Times citations from the period as well as 73 pages of notes and major source citations. Among other functions, IBM’s Hollerith technologies were used very effectively to search and sort census data, permitting devastatingly efficient identification of those the Nazis would destroy, as well as supporting other Reich functions and missions.

This may very well be the most important work that I have come across regarding ethics and computer science, military informatics, and technology. While it is not focused directly on either ethical theory or analysis, it is very much about the consequences of pragmatic business and technology decisions made without consideration for their very human consequences; plausible deniability is certainly presented as a key theme. Evil is not only perpetrated by those with blood literally and directly on their hands; it can be facilitated by those championing their business interests above human tolls. Albert Camus said, “If I can not lessen evil, at least let me not add to evil.” For other reviews see: www.ibmandtheholocaust.com

Reviewed by Sam Nitzberg (sam@iamsam.com), Computer security expert, New Jersey

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