Corporate librarians act as filters and resource consultants for companies that are struggling to manage information overload. A crack team of these experts -- dubbed the InfoPosse -- reports to Inc each month on the good, the bad, and the ugly in the world of business publications. Posse members' biographies appear at the end of this article.
I NEVER METAPHOR I DIDN'T LIKE: The story this month is stories -- specifically, telling stories as a way to educate, guide, and inspire employees. InfoPosse member Lisa Zwickey was skeptical ("just another fad," she assumed) until the May 2001 issue of the magazine Knowledge Management crossed her desk, with Philip J. Gill's article, "Once Upon an Enterprise: The Ancient Art of Storytelling Emerges as a Tool for Knowledge Management." (The piece also appears on the publication's Web site, www.destinationcrm.com.) Zwickey says Gill convinced her by using solid examples of leaders' playing Scheherazade with considerable success. He also explains the qualities of a good story (not necessarily the ones you learned in freshman English) and lays out techniques for effective narration and expression.
Genevieve Foskett is another champion of the Aesopian school of imparting business lessons. One of her favorite recent examples is Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen (Hyperion, 2000), which describes how fishmongers at Seattle's Pike Place Market keep their spirits high and their attitudes sunny while performing dreary, repetitive tasks in the midst of guts and stench. Foskett also recommends a trip to the archives for "HoJo College," a front-page article in the July 2, 2001, issue of the Wall Street Journal, in which former Howard Johnson workers recount their early years beneath the orange eaves and what they learned there.
"Context conveys emotions, triggers individual and group memories, and provides intuition and insights into events in ways that a corporate memo or newsletter cannot."
Given Foskett's enthusiasm for storytelling and metaphor, it's not surprising that her hackles rose when she saw "Stone the Authors," a piece in the July 9, 2001, issue of Forbes that pilloried books representing such figures as Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Franklin, and that oldie but goodie -- God -- as exemplars of various leadership styles. The Forbes piece railed at "unknown authors [who] shamelessly exploit famous figures to peddle warmed-over management advice." But Foskett argues that by manifesting the message in a sympathetic messenger, these books help readers understand the lessons more fully and in a new way.
CRM OF THE CROP: Posse member Christine Klein is hungry for a book that changes the way she thinks. And author Patricia Seybold just isn't cutting the mustard. There's nothing really wrong with The Customer Revolution (Crown Publishing, 2001) and the earlier Customers.com (Crown Business, 1998), says Klein. The basic premise of both books -- it's the customer, stupid -- is unlikely to provoke argument from anyone outside, say, the night shift at White Castle hamburgers. The buzzwords buzz loudly. The companies that Seybold uses as examples -- usual suspects like Amazon.com and Cisco as well as a few ringers like the National Science Foundation -- shine virtuously. And it would be churlish to rail against such unexceptionable practices as branding, constant monitoring of feedback, and redirecting organizational energies based on customer experience.
"These books are products of our times," says Klein. But that's faint praise from someone who demands something ahead of her time. Klein knows what it's like to have your synapses deliciously disordered: it happened to her in the summer of 1993 when a colleague put her on to The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers (Currency/Doubleday, 1993). "After reading it, I knew that my perceptions of both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds would never be the same," says Klein. Of course, the one-to-one future is now the one-to-one present. And although Peppers and Rogers get credit for predicting such phenomena as virtual shopping and B2B marketplaces, those ideas are no longer new under the sun. Fortunately, says Klein, the Peppers and Rogers Group has a Web site that brims with fresh insights and newly hatched case studies while demonstrating -- and embodying -- the principles of personalization. "Customer-relationship management is here to stay," says Klein. So she'll return to www.1to1.com often -- at least until the next mind-altering book comes along.
TRAVEL TIGHTWADS: If you or your employees are on the road a lot, Zwickey recommends a subscription to Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, a magazine whose bimonthly compilation of 20 money-saving tips is more than worth the price of admission. The July/August issue, for example, points out that if you're traveling in the United States, long-distance cell-phone calls are generally cheaper than hotel-room calls. The magazine also suggests eschewing those overpriced hotel vending machines situated by the dripping ice maker. Instead, scope out where employees buy their sodas and snacks and then follow suit. The 20 tips column has been a regular department in Budget Travel since 1998, and the magazine published a greatest-hits version of its top 300 tips in its September issue.
CLASSIC: Business books aren't meant to be lovable. They're certainly not meant to be poetic. But Lisa Guedea Carreño's pick for the "greatest business book ever" is both those things. Although Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace (Viking, 1998) sounds like a long-lost Douglas Adams manuscript, this work by former Hallmark executive Gordon MacKenzie "is as inspirational as it is off-the-wall," says Guedea Carreño.
"Hairs are never taken away, only added. Even frequent reorganizations have failed to remove hairs (people, sometimes; hairs, never). On the contrary, each new reorganization seems to add a whole new layer of hairs."
The hairball, Guedea Carreño explains, is a weirdly apt metaphor for the corporation. MacKenzie describes it as a "tangled, impenetrable mass" composed of millions of individual strands of business decisions, policies, practices, systems, guidelines, precedents, and "intricate patterns of effective behavior [that] have grown around the lessons of success and failure." The hairball's problem is that it is caught in an endless cycle of resynthesizing past successes instead of opening itself up to new thinking. Only by orbiting the hairball -- practicing "responsible creativity" while remaining within the gravitational pull of the corporation's mission -- can leaders and employees make a difference. "And then there's the pink Buddha and death masks and milk cans and high-tech peaches and the conference of angels," says Guedea Carreño gleefully. "I can't do the book justice. You just have to read it."
InfoPosse members are Genevieve Foskett, corporate librarian at Highsmith Inc.; Lisa Guedea Carreño, library director at Goshen College; Christine Klein, director of knowledge and information management at LifeCare Inc.; Jean Mayhew, director of information and learning at United Technologies Research Center; and Lisa Zwickey, senior research specialist at J.J. Keller & Associates.
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