BOOKS: Delicacies for the sceptical

No sausages and mash here, but a smorgasbord of ideas, says Julian Birkinshaw

by Julian Birkinshaw, associate professor at London Business School and fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Business, The Universe & Everything

Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Capstone £14.99

MT price £12.99 (see panel, p29)

There is a vibrant market for ideas in the world of management, and like any other market, it needs buyers, sellers and market-makers to function effectively. The sellers are the gurus, the consultants and the academics, all with their own unique recipe for business success. The buyers are practising managers constantly on the lookout for new solutions to their timeless management problems.

And then there are the market-makers, the brokers, who oil the wheels of this vast and imperfect market in management thought. Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove are market-makers par excellence. Between them, they have written more than 50 books about management ideas and gurus.

Their latest offering is Business, The Universe & Everything, a collection of interviews with 23 of the world's leading management thinkers. Each chapter provides a pithy and eclectic mix of a management guru's latest thoughts. For example, Charles Handy provides an overview of his major books, while Sumantra Ghoshal touches on corporate philosophy, the nature of capitalism, human capital, and the relationship between business and society - all in six pages.

There are chapters from most of the world-class gurus: Philip Kotler on marketing in the digital age; Warren Bennis on leaders; Gary Hamel on strategy. There are newer names, too: Kjell Nordstrom and Jonas Ridderstrale, the black leather-clad Swedish authors of 'funky business', and John Patrick, IBM's internet guru.

The book is highly engaging. Crainer and Dearlove describe it as a 'smorgasbord of business ideas', presumably hoping the wise consumer will pick a small selection of offerings from among the many. Unfortunately, I sampled every item on the menu and ended up feeling rather ill. So be warned: there are no sausages and mash here. If you want a primer on strategic innovation or intellectual capital, this is not the book for you. But if you feel you are already up on the current state of knowledge, there is enough new insight and variety here to stimulate.

The tone is nicely sceptical. Crainer and Dearlove have been writing on management for far too long to buy into everything the gurus have to say. Most of the interview with James Champy is about where re-engineering went wrong, and several other chapters push the interviewee on whether they are just peddling snake oil. The ideas of Gary Hamel, Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, and Costas Markides, for example, cannot be separated easily. Certainly, there's room for them to coexist, but we should not convince ourselves that they are unique.

Ideas, concepts and principles are abundant, but they are also highly fungible. Management gurus set out their ideas in abstract or generic terms to ensure they resonate with the widest possible audiences. But the flip-side is that the ideas are easily corrupted - imitated by rival gurus and consultants, and adapted to the needs of the practising executive.

Concepts such as re-engineering and core competences fell out of favour not because they were bad, but because they were overused and abused.

The situation is changing. Traditionally, gurus left companies and consultants to figure out the practical application of their ideas, but this approach underplayed the potential of the genuinely good ones, as well as short-changing their clients. Companies have become more street-smart, often partnering with the guru to put the idea into practice. And some thought-leaders have persuaded their clients to act as beta test sites for their ideas: Hamel's consulting company Strategos sells a range of new practices and tools developed through experimentation with clients such as Whirlpool.

The market for business ideas works in a highly imperfect way because ideas on their own have little value. It is the application of the ideas that is truly valuable. As Crainer and Dearlove say in their introduction: 'Ideas are nothing without application.'

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