Bookshelf | January / February 2020

View a selection of reviewed books from the January/February 2020 print issue.
Designed for Digital


While digital transformation is the key to future success, most “big, old companies are simply not designed for digital,” write Jeanne Ross of MIT, Cynthia Beath of the University of Texas, and Martin Mocker of Reutlingen University. One problem is that digital initiatives are often shunted off to the IT unit, when they should be part of the core management strategy. The authors identify five essential building blocks companies need for transformation: customer insights on what buyers want; the operational backbone that can support the work; the right digital platforms; an accountability framework; and an external developer platform that allows companies to expand their offerings. But companies also need a responsive culture and managers who understand that digital transformation is an ongoing process. While the authors note that few companies have made much progress on the digital journey, they examine some that have, including Royal Philips, LEGO, and Northwestern Mutual. And they provide helpful signposts for other organizations that want to take the first steps. (The MIT Press, US$34.95)


Think Outside the BuildingTHINK OUTSIDE THE BUILDING

Today’s messy, complex problems will be solved only by what Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls advanced leadership. “It stems from a sense of purpose oriented toward changing the system,” she writes. While advanced leaders might come from anywhere, she sees the most potential among “values-carrying millennials” with fresh ideas and seasoned veterans seeking new challenges. These older leaders, in particular, have “accumulated the three Cs of capabilities, connections, and cash” that they can invest in working on issues they truly care about. She offers plenty of examples, such as financial executive Torsten Thiele, who left the banking field to launch the multi- stakeholder Global Ocean Trust. Kanter is an optimist overall, and her book is “a field guide for the journey toward leadership with significant positive impact.” (PublicAffairs, US$28)




Under the InfluenceUNDER THE INFLUENCE

Laws that regulate cigarette smoking are designed to protect other individuals from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. But the real danger is that smokers make the activity look attractive, so nonsmokers take up the habit, too. This behavioral contagion affects every choice humans make, from buying clothes to investing in solar panels. But economists and policymakers tend to overlook how human decisions are influenced, for good or bad, by the behavior of their peers, says Cornell professor Robert H. Frank. To achieve better outcomes, he writes, “taxation is often more effective and less intrusive than regulation.” When polluters are taxed, they often reduce their harmful emissions, and air quality improves. Frank believes an understanding of behavioral contagion could help solve some of the great challenges of our times. (Princeton University Press, US$24.95)



See Sooner Act Faster


The only survivors in a rapidly changing business environment will be vigilant companies that respond to risks and opportunities before their competitors do, according to George S. Day of the Wharton School and Paul Schoemaker of Q2 Tech. Vigilant leaders, they write, “focus externally and are open to diverse perspectives, they apply strategic foresight and probe for second-order effects, and they encourage others to explore widely by creating a culture of discovery.” Day and Schoemaker share stories of vigilant companies that paid attention to background signals and reacted more quickly than their rivals—such as Adobe, which was an early adopter of software-as-a-service. “Today’s environment of digital turbulence … increasingly penalizes tardy responses,” they write. They show business leaders how to think—and act—fast. (The MIT Press, US$29.95)



Diversity Inc.DIVERSITY, INC.

Despite decades’ worth of diversity initiatives, minorities are still underrepresented in America, even in progressive fields like education, writes New York University journalism professor Pamela Newkirk. “While racial/ethnic minorities make up roughly 38.8 percent of the national population, they comprise just 17 percent of full-time university professors, which includes faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” she writes. Businesses and their boards have also largely failed to integrate, she notes, even though companies spend billions on diversity efforts. Why spend so much to achieve so little? One reason might be that companies are less likely to lose discrimination lawsuits if they have diversity programs in place. Another is that diversity is big business for those who offer training sessions and conferences on the topic. Newkirk asks compelling questions as she takes a hard look at the American mosaic. (Bold Type Books, US$27)



Fit to CompeteFIT TO COMPETE

Companies often fail in their transformation efforts because senior managers don’t know how to solicit information from lower-level employees who have hands-on knowledge, says Harvard’s Michael Beer. Beer and colleagues have created the strategic fitness process that facilitates open dialogue between managers and employees to identify problems or gain consensus around proposed strategies. The interviews focus on what the interviewees think about the new strategy, what organizational strengths should be preserved, and what the barriers to implementation might be. Beer writes, “Honest conversation is arguably the best method of organizational transformation.” (Harvard Business Review Press, US$32)