Bookshelf | September / October 2017

View a selection of reviewed books from the September/October 2017 print issue.

Has your smartphone permanently compromised your ability to focus? Maybe yes, maybe no. “Digital communication tools may just be the latest in a long line of technological advances that people were initially sure were ruining their lives, including the printing press, the telephone, and the radio,” write Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers and Jennifer Gibbs of UC Santa Barbara. They draw on recent research to examine how technology changes the way we think and learn. For instance, multitaskers believe they’re good at juggling activities, but their performance is worse than that of people who focus on one thing. However, the authors suggest that the multitasker’s ability to notice competing bits of data could end up being a strength. They also examine tech in the classroom, noting that its mere presence can distract students from learning, but also make different kinds of learning possible. They conclude, “Though reading and learning from online materials is indeed a different process with changed outcomes, the adaptable mind is adjusting to the new type of inputs.” (Praeger, US$37)

The Efficient Market Hypothesis is based on the notion that no investor can beat the stock market because it always reflects all known financial information. But the hypothesis took a hit after the great recession of 2008 when the “rational market” essentially disappeared. “The Efficient Markets Hypothesis isn’t wrong—it’s just incomplete,” writes Andrew W. Lo of MIT. “We need a better theory.” He proposes the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, which treats the market as a biological, not mathematical, construct that is subject to all the principles of evolution— competition, innovation, reproduction, and adaptation. To make his points, he detours into the fields of psychology and neuroscience, showing how humans make decisions based on fear, risk aversion, and irrational beliefs. “Changing business conditions and adaptive responses are often more important drivers of investment behavior and market dynamics than enlightened self-interest—the wisdom of crowds is sometimes overwhelmed by the madness of mobs,” he writes. Clever and insightful, the book is an absorbing glimpse into the human brain—and the financial system it has devised. (Princeton University Press, US$37.50)

“Who are your customers? Do you know?” Barry Cross of Queen’s University asks a version of that question numerous times as he encourages readers to simplify their strategies and product lines until every company activity is aligned around serving the customer. “Lean is, and always has been, about the creation of value (what your customer wants and will pay for) and the reduction of waste and complexity (what your customer does not want to pay for),” he writes. Simplifying doesn’t just make organizations leaner, it makes them more agile, which allows them to react quickly to industry shifts and changes in customer preferences. Cross identifies other barriers to agility, including a lack of urgency, a lack of resources, an unclear time horizon, and a culture of “no.” He believes that companies get bogged down in this complexity when they try to maintain “excess products, segments, categories, services, processes, policies, projects, regions, or whatever.” He knows that simplifying is not, in fact, simple—and it’s usually not fast—but he’s certain it’s essential. (CRC Press, US$39.95)

“Education is ultimately a design problem: the goal is to create structures and processes that will encourage students to engage in behaviors that lead to learning,” write José Antonio Bowen of Goucher College and C. Edward Watson of the University of Georgia. In the opening pages, they review the current literature on learning and note that face-toface—or “naked”—interaction between faculty and students is still a university’s greatest value. The rest of the book is a step-by-step guidebook on how to promote student learning. For example, a chapter on creating digital content not only explains how to create a podcast, but includes a list of resources and a selection of notes from other professors describing tips and tools that have worked for them. Another chapter explores how—and why—to create online exams students can take before a class so they are better prepared for what will be covered that day. “Remember that motivation was not your problem; you liked school so much that you are still there,” the authors note. The book should be a tremendous resource for anyone teaching in higher ed. (Wiley, US$32)

In this sequel to Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne of INSEAD lay out the steps organizations must take to move from the shark-infested “red” oceans of competition to the uncontested “blue” water of new opportunities. The authors studied businesses, nonprofits, and governmental agencies that have implemented blue-ocean strategies and found they followed three steps: They adopted new perspectives on market realities, relied on a humanistic process that invited employees and outsiders to participate, and developed practical tools to identify new opportunities. Naturally, the book goes into detail about these tools, but it also provides many examples of organizations that are thriving in blue water. The most fascinating is Malaysia’s Community Rehabilitation Program (CRP), an alternative to prison for petty criminals. In five years, recidivism has dropped by 90 percent and cost savings are estimated at US$1 billion. “By not benchmarking and following the existing global best practices, CRP made a blue ocean shift,” the authors write. They show how other organizations can do the same. (Hachette Books, US$16.99)

Mark William Roche, longtime dean of arts and letters at Notre Dame, explores how whole universities—and the academic units within them—can and should develop their own individual characters that set them apart from competitors. He notes that too many universities appear identical, describing themselves with “vague and indistinguishable rhetoric, which often amounts to fostering excellent research and educating future leaders.” He believes a distinctive university starts with a vision: Is it religious or secular? Does it cater to the elite or educate all students? Does it exist to address a particular weakness of higher education, such as an opportunity gap for minorities? Can this vision appeal to diverse stakeholders but retain its distinctiveness? Roche draws heavily on his own experiences at Notre Dame as he ruminates on the historical idea of the university, the current state of higher education, and the pragmatic tools administrators have at their disposal. His goal is “to bridge the normative (what we should be) and the descriptive (what we are now).” Thoughtful, personal—and yes, distinctive. (University of Notre Dame Press, US$25)

Close to half of American workers today earn less than US$15 an hour, and about 33 percent of men don’t earn enough to care for a family of four. Why? It’s certainly not because U.S. corporations are struggling, writes Rick Wartzman of the Drucker Institute. “Corporate profits have reached historic highs in recent years,” he notes. To understand the present, Wartzman turns to the past, examining the history of four iconic companies: GE, GM, Kodak, and Coca-Cola. He details some of their early benevolent efforts—such as medical insurance, pensions, and profit-sharing—alongside their strenuous resistance to unions and endless legal maneuvering. While remaining clear-eyed about the failings of U.S. corporations, he is convinced there was a time when these companies genuinely saw themselves as partners with society in the attempt to create a better life for all. “We as a country have to find a way to share our prosperity more broadly again,” he writes. “At stake is nothing less than the well-being of our democracy.” (PublicAffairs, US$30)

Innovation is all well and good, writes consultant Brian Reich, but it mostly focuses on incremental improvements. To bring about the sweeping changes we need to solve the refugee crisis or send humans into space, we need to use our imaginations. Reich believes adults lose their imaginations as they learn that only certain ways of thinking and behaving are acceptable. He knows that many business leaders prize creativity and encourage employees to develop it by “going offline, rejecting technology, or setting aside designated times to think expansively.” But that’s not enough, says Reich. “The key is to break the pattern. Try new things. … Imagination requires our brains to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, to produce new and novel ideas.” When people use their imaginations, he writes, progress will be unlimited for everyone, including individuals, governments, schools—and businesses. (Emerald Publishing Group, US$43.99)