Books: How multinationals can win in the austere Noughties

The big idea behind this authoritative volume by three Dutch business consultants is the loose and flexible 'international network corporation'. Review by Roger Parry.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Co-operation and collaboration are the ways to create value for international companies. This is the central idea of The Next Leap, so it is fitting that the book is a team effort by three Dutch consultants, Hans Bakker, Martijn Babeliowsky and Frank Stevenaar. Their densely packed thesis argues that partnerships with suppliers and customers are the secret of growth for multinationals. The ensemble writing is a strength and a weakness: it results in a tightly structured, closely argued and intellectually solid book, but lacking a single author's distinctive voice.

Being asked to review a management book during a winter holiday in the Caribbean is inviting tough comparisons when the usual holiday read is a John Grisham, Dan Brown or Bill Bryson. Under these circumstances, a book is expected to entertain as well as inform. The Next Leap does not give a new twist to the legend of Leonardo da Vinci, but it paints a clear picture of the issues facing international business leaders in the rather austere first decade of the 21st century after the riotous party of the 1990s. Implementing all those exciting, headline-grabbing deals is proving hard work. The Next Leap offers lots of expert analysis and advice, but a debatable conclusion.

Its opening premise, that companies are facing dramatic change in terms of markets and customer behaviour, is incontrovertible. The M&A boom of the 1990s allowed the creation of sprawling global empires and, as Bakker, Babeliowsky and Stevenaar observe: 'Many companies have become bigger and more international... yet results have often not improved... and some are balancing on the brink of the abyss, over-financed, under-performing and destined for trouble.'

Having identified a genuine problem, any good group of management gurus needs a big idea around which to build its solution, and the one in this book is the INC - the International Network Corporation. The authors' argument is that multinational businesses and their leaders must learn to co-operate more with suppliers and governments and especially customers.

An INC is 'a customer-driven organisation with one vision, one identity and a single set of co-operation-based core values led by a passionate, reconciliatory and co-operative leadership'.

This formula for success is less convincing than the analysis that precedes it. But the book is authoritative on ways to handle post-merger integration, with many practical and solid suggestions for process and approach. Many managers will agree with the book's observations on the difficulties of optimising the performance of recently created pan-European groups; the authors specialise in this type of consulting and are clearly good at it.

They seem to have a mild dislike for chief executives. They observe: 'The tycoon CEO who has bought half the world is not the right leader to generate maximum performance from an international network corporation.' However, they present little evidence for this dismissal, apart from the usual sideswipe at the hapless Jean-Marie Messier - the poster boy for Napoleonic corporate failure.

The book has a very European and democratic feel to it; it has a collectivist management credo to sell. The authors 'argue the case for transformational leadership based on empowerment'.

Although it talks a lot about 'the board', their book often seems aimed at middle management struggling with integration problems dumped on them by over-ambitious CEOs. But this is one of its strengths, as it deals with real issues that real people face every day, rather than just the big picture.

An observation about international businesses that rang a bell with me was that 'organisations no longer consist of one legal entity, but often comprise a group of interconnected operations, some of which are more or less independent (alliances or joint ventures) whilst others are wholly owned.' The old ideas of simple command and control do not cut it any more - common goals must be found for companies.

The Next Leap is an example of the professional publisher's art at its most accomplished. Well presented, well structured, well illustrated, well edited and easy to navigate, if not always easy to read. It is rich in chapter outlines, bullet points, charts, boxed summaries and highlighted case studies.

If you make your living by running a large international business, you may find the idealistic tone of 'knit your own caring, sharing and empowered culture from organic materials' a bit annoying, but the challenge to conventional top-down, macho thinking is valuable. This is a serious book that deserves to be taken seriously. Although not ideal for pool-side relaxation, it warrants a place on the bookshelves of open-minded multinational managers.

The Next Leap; By Hans Bakker, Martijn Babeliowsky and Frank Stevenaar; Cyan £14.99; MT price £13.99; To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

Roger Parry is the CEO of Clear Channel International, which since 1999 has invested $2.5 billion-plus in more than 100 acquisitions

All the books reviewed are available from the MT bookshop. To order, call 08700 702 999 or visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk. P&p at £1.95 will be added to each order.

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