The Only Sustainable Edge, by Hagel and Brown

As I mentioned last month, I was reading this book mostly because I enjoyed The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid so much. I finally finished it off last weekend, and figured I should at least do a perfunctory review.

It was pretty awful. The writing was terrible – I found it very difficult to read, not because the vocabulary was hard or anything, but because there was no flow to the writing. I’d read the same paragraph three times and still get no content out of it. The ideas were not that interesting either.

I did like the idea I mentioned in that other post: that specialization drives greater achievement, because if a company only does one thing, it has to do it really well, whereas if it is a conglomerate, each department is less crucial to the company’s success. However, in the future when Coase-ian transaction costs are reduced still further, there will be no advantage to a conglomerate over a loose “process network” of specialists.

One other idea I liked was their concept of “productive friction”: “When people with diverse backgrounds, experiences and skill sets engage with each other on real problems, the exchange usually generates friction – that is, misunderstandings and arguments – before resolution and learning occur. … Yet, properly harnessed, friction can become very productive, accelerating learning, generating innovation, and fostering trust across diverse participants.” Since I have generally worked in interdisciplinary environments and have witnessed the clashing worldviews firsthand, I appreciate both the downsides and upsides of such friction. The CellKey instrument would never have happened without a team of biologists, physicists and engineers working closely together for years, but we definitely had moments of friction – at one point, just after we’d gotten picked up by Sciex, the team spent a solid week in a conference room just getting all of our terms and definitions straight so that we were all speaking the same language.

One last idea that I thought had merit was how a company should plan strategy. Rather than the typical one to five year plan that many companies strategize for, they recommend looking at two time horizons – less than a year, and ten years or more. The ten years or more forces you to consider long-term direction and evolving trends. The year perspective forces you to start something today, as an application of those ideas. The example they give of a long-term mission statement is Microsoft’s: “Computing power is moving inexorably to the desktop. To succeed, we must own the desktop.” Bill Gates framed that as Microsoft’s goal in the 80s. It’s twenty years later, and it still applies. That’s a great vision. It sets a clear direction, but gives plenty of freedom to adapt to new markets and technologies as they arise.

Anyway. A couple nuggets of interest, but overall, I heartily anti-recommend this book. Don’t read it.

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