We're used to reading business books that focus on how to manage our companies better. That topic has been the stock-in-trade of the consultants and academics who have taught us the intricacies of reengineering, total quality management, customer service, competing in the global marketplace, and so on. But over the last three or four years, Nancy Austin, coauthor with Tom Peters of the 1985 best-seller A Passion for Excellence and a veteran of the lecture circuit, has noticed a shift in the information that businesspeople are seeking.
"The speaking circuit is one of the fastest, shortest feedback loops there is," Austin says. "I began noticing that what people were really interested in was, How is the changing economy going to affect me? What am I going to do? What should I be thinking about? What are the skills I might really require?
"In In Search of Excellence and even in A Passion for Excellence, the main operating idea was that there was this entity you would be committed to and enthusiastic about--the organization and what it did. Most business advice was based on that assumption. You can no longer count on a company for the same sort of security that you once could. That is what is changing the nature of the advice.
"The books that we can expect to see--rather than books about strategy and big things like vision or corporate culture--will be clearly and explicitly aimed at the individual. How the individual can cope with these wacko times--I think we're going to see a lot more of that.
"People are frantically searching for something to help them make sense of the world today. And when people start searching for structure and they want to apply it to business, you know that something big is up. A 1990s-style neospiritualism has seeped into the American managerial psyche. At its worst, it's kind of like The Celestine Prophecy applied to corporations, and it's horrifying to me. I say, 'Leave my soul alone, thank you very much!"
Austin, who is currently working on a book tentatively titled Not for the Faint of Heart, which focuses on the challenges faced by those navigating the new economy, predicts that psychologists will be the next big class of business writers. "If you look at the shelves now," she says, "you see people writing about increasingly tiny pieces of the market, and among the writers are the psychologists."
Take My Village...Please
In the manuscript for their book, Grassroots Leaders for a New Economy: How Civic Entrepreneurs Are Building Prosperous Communities, authors Doug Henton, John Melville, and Kim Walesh quote Ed McCracken, the chairman and CEO of Silicon Graphics, on "the economic importance of the community":
"In an information-age company, people are your greatest resource. And that resource goes home every night to the community, and they either will or will not come back the next morning. The most enlightened companies view all their employees as freelancers who are independent entrepreneurs. They just happen to be inside your boundaries and on your payroll, but in fact they can choose to live and work anywhere. So the quality and vitality of the community matters a great deal--it affects employees' ideas, what they bring to the job, and their staying power with your company."