Three Easy Pieces
I love to read fresh, original thinking about management, but it's hard to find much of it these days in mainstream business publications, which (with the notable exception of the Wall Street Journal) have lapsed into a kind of "scorecard" journalism, reporting on winners and losers without any apparent curiosity about--or passion for--the game that's being played. As a result, I wind up reading about management in unlikely places. Here are three recent articles that I've found particularly stimulating:
Frank H.T. Rhodes, "The Art of the Presidency," in The Presidency, Spring 1998
I think one of the most important, and least understood, aspects of contemporary leadership is burnout--an occupational hazard under any circumstances but one that seems particularly acute today. Why? The common wisdom holds that leaders are burning out at an alarming rate because of growing pressures in their work environment.
Not so, says Frank Rhodes, who served as president of Cornell University for 18 years. "Overburdened...presidents do not suffer burnout; they create it, inflicting it upon themselves by their lack of responsible work habits." Rhodes offers that observation in the premiere issue of The Presidency, a new magazine aimed at leaders in higher education. His article, "The Art of the Presidency," is one of the wisest, most cogent essays on leadership I've read in a very long time.
Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, "Making Bill," in Brill's Content, September 1998
Brill's Content, a new media magazine, has a wonderfully illuminating story about the strategy that has led to Microsoft's almost unimaginable market dominance. "Making Bill," by Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, explores the origins and implications of a fateful marketing decision made in 1983. Research conducted by the company that year demonstrated that consumers looked to the editorial pages of computer magazines, and not to advertising, in making buying decisions about software. As a result, the decision was made to build the Microsoft brand using public relations focused on Gates himself and directed at writers and editors in the trade press. Rival software companies, meanwhile, countered with expensive, and ultimately ineffective, consumer advertising campaigns.
Don't be put off by the packaging of the story, which emphasizes how Gates's publicity machine is failing him just when he needs it most. This is one of the most instructive case studies I've seen about Microsoft in particular and about the creation of a brand in general.
Peter F. Drucker, "The Next Information Revolution," in Forbes ASAP, August 24
Peter Drucker is still at it, as provocative and as infuriating as ever. His latest incendiary device appears in the August 24 issue of Forbes ASAP. "Everybody today believes," he writes, "that the present information revolution is unprecedented in reducing the cost of, and in the spreading of, information...and in the speed and sweep of its impact. These beliefs are simply nonsense." Specifically, he challenges the notion that technology has revolutionized the work of top management.
Until now, says Drucker, computers have been used in business almost exclusively to collect and manipulate internal data, much of them about costs. As a result, information technology has had a big impact on operations but virtually none on the management of business itself. In fact, Drucker contends, computers may have had a negative effect on many businesses, aggravating managers' "degenerative tendency...to focus inward on costs." What managers need, he says, is information about what's going on outside the business. That, he contends, is the real frontier on which the true IT revolution will begin playing itself out during the next 10 to 15 years.
What's infuriating is Drucker's vagueness about the nature of that elusive "outside" data. He talks about the importance of demographic statistics and claims that U.S. managers should have seen the Asian economic crisis coming. But there are few specifics as to the kind of "outside" data that we should be collecting and analyzing, or how we can use the information once we get it. All of which leaves a reader with the familiar feeling that the Great One is probably onto something here, but not even he may know exactly what it is.