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InReview – Issue 51

Profit with Honor: The New Stage of Market Capitalism by Daniel Yankelovich; New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006; xii, 189 pp.

Daniel Yankelovich is best known for his work in the field of social values and public opinion and has served on the boards of numerous corporations including CBS and Loral Space and Communications. He is co-editor of Uniting America: Restoring the Vital Center to American Democracy.

Yankelovich looks at the ethical scandals in business over the past decade and sees hope. In fact, he argues that business, more than other spheres of American life, “will help dispel moral confusion in the culture at large. In our country, the business sector occupies a role of centrality and prestige.” He sites the rising expectations for business as a force for social change, and the growing urge for reform within the business sector, as foundations for his optimism.

Yankelovich does not see the prevention of future business scandals coming from more laws, but rather from values centered in what he calls “stewardship ethics.” This view takes ethics beyond compliance, even beyond the “smell test” for appropriate behavior in the absence of laws. Stewardship ethics provide a basis for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and a system of values. Yet, he makes the point that CSR by itself is not enough.

In chapter three, he discusses seven deadly norms that have created much of the ethical mess in business, and sets out values to counteract these norms.

He argues the goals of “shareholder value” should be to align managers’ interests more closely with owners’ interests. This view has been distorted by greed managers, urged on by complicit Wall Street analysts, who focus on short-term gains. In contrast, “A company responsive to its employees, customers, and the public, is the best way to achieve shareholder value.”

I found the book to be very thoughtful, well argued, with great illustrations and case studies. I don’t personally share the author’s acceptance of shareholder value as the purpose for business. I would agree more with the great companies that focus on their customers and employees in their purpose statements. But with his long-term focus, the two views may look very similar as they drive most day-to-day actions.

I highly recommend this book.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the dot.com Juggernaut by James Marcus; New York, The New Press, 2005; 278 pp.

From 1996 to 2001 James Marcus was senior editor at Amazon.com. He has written for Atlantic Monthly, the Village Voice, The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Newsday, The Washington Post’s Book World, Salon, and The New York Review of Books.

This book deals with the period of rapid growth and decline of Amazon.com. The company grew from 55 (Marcus was employee number 55) to 8,000 employees in just over a year, followed by a number of layoffs. Marcus left in 2001, so the focus of the book is on the wild ride up and then down. The recovery after 2001 is covered in an epilogue.

This book does more than tell the story of one person’s career experiences in the middle of the dot.com Amazon boom era. James captures the psychological roller coaster of the paper-money insanity that was the late 1990s’ gold rush. Speculation drove unjustifiable values for companies with no profits, creating millions in wealth for book editors who also spent time packing books into boxes. He depicts the simmering resentment of other corporate employees as Amazon’s “unconventional” employees moved to an office building downtown and with their paper millions, began to rub elbows with banking employees working hard for normal wages.

The book is written well as a first-person narrative, and is fun to read. James shares the events and emotions and blends them so the reader experiences some of what it was like from the trenches. I laughed out loud at his depiction of MBAs and absurd corporate jargon that started to permeate the literary service provided by Amazon’s online editors. While most of Jeff Bezos’s decisions paid off for Amazon, the author also discussed some of the outrageous prices paid for acquisitions, many of which are comical in retrospect.

The only complaint I had was when he veered off subject with a chapter-long diatribe on literary commentary. Granted, he was a book editor and therefore is knowledgeable on the subject, but it seemed a bit pedantic and detracted from the commentary on the company.

I recommend this book as a fun personal story and a recent historical retrospective on a unique era.

Reviewed by Michael S. Erisman

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Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change by Bob Seidensticker; San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, Inc, 2006; xii, 254 pp.

Bob Seidensticker has been a participant in, and a contributor to, the technology revolution. He started programming in the 1970s, on a computer designed in the 1960s. He has worked at large (IBM) and small (Television Laboratories — a 10-person startup) tech companies. He also was at Microsoft from 1989 until retiring, seeing it grow from 10,000 to 40,000 employees. His proudest achievement was his work on the Nomad operating system at Microsoft, designed to run on pagers, watches, and other small devices. In 1986, he authored, The Well-Tempered Design.

Seidensticker began studying technological change while at Microsoft, and this book represents his current thoughts on the subject. In summary, he argues that stories about rapid technological change are largely myths. He makes the case from a sweeping historical perspective that this era is less astonishing than the era from 1810 to 1860, which gave us the telegraph, Erie Canal, the steam engine, reaper, and the powered printing press.

Technophiles should read this book. Technology is indeed over-hyped, and getting another point of view is a healthy practice. Seidensticker makes many great points that need to be heard.

But the author reminds me of the scientist who comes out of his lab and is disappointed to see that the world is not as changed as he thought it should be. There is a disillusioned tone to this account that often seems to override the author’s sensibility. Criticisms of technology are too often made on an emotional rather than rational level. Here are a few illustrations:

“The most important information — at least for the past few centuries — has always had an outlet. Information that is new to us and that didn’t have an outlet in the past, didn’t have an outlet for a reason. The newest categories of information are the least important.” [Medical information, the human genome, quality manufacturing information, online searches …?]

“There are different kinds of electronic purchases. On one hand are purchases that would have been made anyway, even without the Internet. And on the other are purchases that wouldn’t have happened without the Internet. Only the latter are new. Most e-commerce sales are diverted, not new. Be aware of the difference. [Is newness the issue? From the point of view of the seller, without getting on board the new technology those diversions matter a great deal.]

Most technology leaders (other than those caught in the hype) recognize any progress is uneven. Today’s great idea may fail, but when combined with yesterday’s discarded idea, together they may yield great progress. As Ed Lazowska (Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science at University of Washington) said in a recent lecture, all progress is uneven, and much comes from unanticipated byproducts of technology. That’s the nature of technology progress. Seidensticker seems to miss this point in a large portion of his examples.

But throughout the book there are some great points as well. For example, “Is your PTA or local government pushing for more computers in the local school without first asking what benefit they will provide (and what that money could be used for instead)?”

This book will create some great discussion about the value and extent of the technological revolution. And if that is all the book accomplishes, it will do a great deal of good. But it takes a careful, informed reader not to get lost in the side trails.

Reviewed by Al Erisman


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