InReview – Issue 18

Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know by Thomas H. Davenport and Laurence Prusak; Boston, Harvard Business School Press, 1998; xv, 199 pp.

Thomas Davenport is the Director of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change and a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Babson College and has written many books and articles. Laurence Prusak is a managing principal of the IBM Consulting Group in Boston.

Knowledge management attempts to capture the knowledge of the corporation and put it to use. Many companies today recognize that their human capital may be of more value than anything they carry on the balance sheet, but taking business advantage of this value is another thing. The authors lay out a strategy for doing this, with examples from companies they have studied.

Some would say that knowledge management is a technology problem, but the authors rightly emphasize technology as the enabler, not the answer. They recognize knowledge management in relationship to artificial intelligence and expert systems. They show the pitfalls of tackling too large a project, or not understanding the business objectives. They are also very clear about the importance of continued face-to-face contact between people. Knowledge management is not simply capturing the ideas of key people in a computer for others to reuse. There is a nice summary at the end on misconceptions about knowledge management projects.

In spite of all these good aspects, the book left me unsatisfied. Maybe it was the constant mention of Lotus Notes as the answer no matter what the question–like I was being sold something from a consultant. Maybe it was that the good ideas were all mentioned but were not knit together in a tight theme. I continue to admire Tom Davenport’s work but I came away disappointed in this book.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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The Mind of the CEO by Jeffrey E. Garten; New York, Basic Books, 2001; ix, 309 pp.

Jeffrey Garten is Dean of the School of Management at Yale University and a monthly columnist at Business Week. He served the Clinton administration as undersecretary of commerce for international trade and, still earlier, worked as an investment banker. The Mind of the CEO is Garten’s summary and analysis of interviews he conducted with forty CEOs from leading global businesses.

The Mind of the CEO explores first the two great forces of the Internet (and information technology) and globalization. Part Two then focuses on internal leadership/management challenges such as mission, vision, execution, shareholders, and stakeholders. In general, Garten is impressed with the thoughtfulness, insight, and competence (or even genius) of his CEO interviewees in these areas.

In Part Three, Garten argues that the biggest blindspot among CEOs is in not recognizing and assuming responsibility for reshaping public policy and reordering the global marketplace. The power and skill resident in today’s global businesses and their CEOs has the potential (often more than governmental agencies) to create or influence the rules and practices of the global economy. Yet CEOs are reticent to get involved. But this chaos, along with the growing disparities between rich and poor, will undermine the global order if not overcome in some significant way. To find sufficient leadership for this larger agenda, Garten recommends that CEO, Chairman, and President posts be held by different individuals rather than one person.

Two pages (127-28) on executive compensation do not do the subject justice and no doubt other readers will wish for further discussion of other issues–or for a more aggressive critical analysis from Dean Garten. Nevertheless, The Mind of the CEO is a substantial contribution just as it stands.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkerts; New York, Fawcett Columbine, 1994; xiv, 231 pp.

Sven Birkerts is the author of several books of literary criticism, and has had essays and reviews published in The New York Times Book Reviews, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic. He is concerned that information technology will lead to the end of reading as it has been known for the past several centuries. In the midst of dramatic technological changes, he sees a fundamental change coming in reading and is frustrated that his colleagues don’t see the problem. They “cannot see the transformation going on around us because they cannot pry themselves free from the synchronic worldview. They are not, most of them, interested in projecting backward and forward in time–they prefer the here and now.” (p.5).

Birkerts loves to read. More than that, he loves books. His passion is clear throughout this collection of essays. Browsing a used bookstore and reading for pleasure, not just information, are desires that he arouses in his readers. I particularly enjoyed “The Shadow Life of Reading” which captures how a book is being read all the time, not just when the eyes are on the text, and how it becomes a part of the reader.

Nevertheless, Bickerts lets his passion for books get in the way of his argument. He calls us to project backward and forward in time, yet he doesn’t go back to the historical transitional point when writing and reading arose to interfere with oral story telling and also created a loss. He seems hardly aware of the paradox that, in spite of electronic communication and video, there seems to be a strong growth in books and reading today. Perhaps this is because Birkerts is in the role of critic in much of his writing, and that carries over to this treatise. He can be a critic on the potential state of things without having to construct a realistic alternative.

Concerns aside, there are some very enjoyable passages in this book. His criticism can carry over to other areas where technology is changing the nature of work. So whether you buy the thesis or not, the passionate picture created here is worth considering.

Reviewed by Al Erisman