Winston Fletcher urges business writers to bite their bullet-points
"Comparisons are odious" is, at best, a half truth. In most comparisons there will be a winner and a loser. For the winner, the comparison will be flattering. For the loser, well, comparisons are odious. This self-evident truth is conclusively endorsed by two recent books that purport to be about business and the internet.
What You'll Never Learn On the Internet is by Mark McCormack, the massively successful manager of sporting celebrities whose previous book, What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School , was a worldwide bestseller in the 1980s. Riding the Revolution: How Businesses Can and Must Transform Themselves to Win the E-Wars is co-authored by Robert Heller and Paul Spenley. Heller, like McCormack, has penned some hugely successful management books in his time, including The Naked Manager and The Super Chiefs . Both these books come, then, from writers with impressive pedigrees.
The similarities do not end there. As might be expected given their provenance, both books are simply and clearly written. They avoid management gobbledegook and jargon. In comparison, most other management books are turgid. Like all books on management, both are full of advice on how to succeed in business.
Businessmen, like cooks and gardeners, seem to have an insatiable hunger for self-improvement books. Week after week new ones are published and, though the management tomes rarely climb as high in the sales charts as their gardening and cooking cousins, they can still be nice little earners. Thus the authors make small fortunes for themselves by advising others how to make small fortunes for themselves: the ambiguous role of consultants throughout the ages.
Both books, again like most modern business books, are replete with lists. Numbered lists, bullet-point lists, lists of questions. Did business books have so many lists before computers made list-making as easy as clicking on an icon? I think not. Most books used to be written in sentences and paragraphs with only the occasional summary list at the end of a chapter. Today, business-book writers seem unable to get through a page without breaking into laundry lists of dicta and maxims. Were these marvels of pithy wisdom, or Wilde-like wit, all would be fine. Few are. Most are ghastly truisms, which the authors hope to imbue with weighty importance by shoving little blobs and bullet-points in front of them. Here are a few typical platitudes from lists in the books under review:
- Eliminate delays where possible (Heller and Spenley)
- People tend to overestimate their contribution to a project (McCormack)
- Team up for success (Heller and Spenley)
- Be an extra day ahead of the curve (McCormack).
And my favourite, from Heller and Spenley:
- Always aim to produce the best long-term results.
Maxims rarely come more banal than this last one. If there are millions of businessmen around the world who always and resolutely aim to produce the worst long-term results, I have not met them. Perhaps I have led a sheltered life.
The similarities between the two books end there. For, although both sound as though they deal with the internet, e-commerce and matters cyberspatial, only Riding the Revolution actually does so. It is really a genuflection to the internet and all who surf with her. In the authors' oft-repeated opinion, any businessman who is not a webhead is a dunderhead. If you are not part of the future you are part of the past, as the futurologists chant. To misquote Orwell's Animal Farm : "E-commerce good, old commerce bad."
McCormack's book, however, after its first chapter hardly mentions the internet again. Indeed the inclusion of the "i" word in the title is quite simply naughty. It is there to make the book sound trendy and up-to-the minute. Everyone knows you cannot judge a book by its cover. Now, it appears, you cannot judge a book by its title either.
What You'll Never Learn on the Internet begins by proclaiming: "No matter how tempting it is to hide behind technology, there's more to be gained by looking into another person's face than by staring into a screen." Thereafter, it continues as if the internet did not exist or, at any rate, is utterly unimportant in people management. And for McCormack, people management is the keystone of business success.
So far these two books may have sounded about equally good, albeit different. But from here onwards the comparison becomes flattering to one of the books and depressingly odious for the other. For, despite having too many lists, one of the books is lively, original and occasionally radical, while the other is predictable, stale and repetitive. The irony is that the book that pretty well ignores the internet is the one that is fresh and forward looking. McCormack's style is vigorous, his advice is based on experience, and he whacks at conventional management wisdom with verve and gusto.
By contrast, the book which focuses on the internet, Riding the Revolution , already feels timeworn and dated. This is partly because e-commerce is changing so rapidly that anything written yesterday will be old hat by today. But it is more because its authors have no direct experience of the businesses they are writing about, and all their learning is secondhand. Throughout, for example, they repeatedly and insistently advise businessmen to hurry, hurry, into e-commerce. Their urgency is unceasing: "You haven't got time to take your time", "Speed kills - if you don't have it", "Second is last", "Don't wait for anything, not even the establishment of standards", and so on.
Unfortunately - as many investors who did not have time to take their time have painfully learned - the costs of e-trading can be massive. Thus far, almost no e-commerce company has yet made a profit (and several have gone spectacularly bust). Yet Heller and Spenley blithely ignore the whole question of costs. Like all books written by zealots, Riding the Revolution is a polemic masquerading as serious analysis. In comparison, What You'll Never Learn on the Internet - although most of it could have been written at any time in the past 50 years - is wise, occasionally witty, and full of rigorous common sense. Find the time to take your time, and read McCormack's book.
Winston Fletcher is chairman, Royal Institution, and communications director, FCB Europe.
What You'll Never Learn on the Internet
Author - Mark H. McCormack
ISBN - 0 00 257171 4
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 218