Book Review: Competing on Analytics

I read Competing on Analytics because my boss began swearing by it, and my conversations with her were starting to get seriously confusing. So I bought a copy, and was plowing diligently through it at a local Rochester coffee shop, when a friendly woman — your inevitable next-table laptop warrior — noticed the book, came up to me, and struck up what turned out to be a very interesting conversation (which ended with her heading off to the nearest book store, to buy herself a copy). Since I’ve only ever struck up conversations over a book with random strangers twice before in my life, that struck me as an important piece of evidence in favor of the book. So here is my review-slash-summary.

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The 15 Laws of Meeting Power

We humans are simpler in collectives than we are as individuals. We like to think there is a “whole greater than the sum of the parts” dynamic to human collectives, but there really isn’t. The larger the meeting, the dumber it is. If you find a large deliberative body that is acting in ways that are smarter than its size should permit, you can be sure its workings are being subverted by, say, Karl Rove. I’ll argue that larger thesis in a future article, but for now, I’ll just use that element of my personal doctrine to explain why I’ve been fascinated by meetings for years — they are simpler to study, understand and influence than individuals (in particular that most stubborn individual, yourself). When introspection gets to be too tiring, I turn to thinking about groups.

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Silos and the art of Empirical Theology

In reponse to my attempt to reconstruct the definition of a silo in a value-neutral way, Torp brings up an interesting empirical question about the relative proportions of healthy and unhealthy silos in the “wild,” and how you would add some empirical color to the discussion. It is reasonable to wonder whether any healthy silos actually exist, and ask how you might detect their existence and measure their “health.” I am going to argue here for an answer based on an analogy between macroeconomics and microeconomics that I hope you find surprising.

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The House of Tata and Indian Innovation

As a kid in pre-economic-liberalization India, I grew up with the phrase “import substitution,” and surrounded by a low-credibility innovation culture best captured by the following joke (which we retold in various forms): The US, USSR, Germany, Japan and India decided to collaboratively build a new rocket. The US supplied the design, the USSR the engines, Germany the manufacturing and Japan the electronics. Punchline: what did India contribute? We added a “Made in India” label. Today, fortunately, that joke wouldn’t work. There is a small but growing culture of true innovation taking root. A question that I have been pondering lately is “what is the DNA of the emerging Indian innovation culture?” Whatever the answer, it definitely includes the genes contributed by the House of Tata. And just what might those be? I can’t quite answer the question, but I can provide you with some raw material so you can come up with your hypotheses.

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The Silo Reconsidered

The silo is an ambiguous unit of organizational structure that is a favored strawman for management consultants. Admit it: you’ve probably ranted about silos at some point in your working life. The connotations of the word today are nearly universally pejorative. I have only ever heard the term used to refer to inefficiency, creeping bureaucracy, personal fiefdoms and poor communication. When the silo in question is also a locus of technical competency, it is also the target of accusations of narrow-minded scholasticism (“tunnel vision” is the phrase that appears here). This notion of silo is common enough that there are actually leadership courses out there promising to eliminate the silo mentality from your organization.

As you will see, this is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, it can be a terrible thing.

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Book Review: Wikinomics

Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams

Despite the name, which suggests both a me-too jumping on the Levitt/Dubner Freakonomics bandwagon and a possible reductive identification of all evolving Web technologies with wikis, this is a surprisingly good book, written at a calibrated level of abstraction, with a tasteful blend of concepts, anecdotes and statistics. It has none of the anecdotes-of-a-gunslinger-economist machismo of Freakonomics, and the wiki in the title is synecdoche, not reductive imagining.

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