Appearing in In The Black magazine, February 2018
The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence
By Amir Husain
Scribner, $50, 224 pages, ISBN 9781501144677
Artificial intelligence is emerging as a key issue for business in 2018, and this book is a good way to come to grips with it. Husain knows a great deal about the technical side although the book is aimed at the reader who needs to understand where AI is going in broad terms. He makes an important distinction between Artificial General Intelligence – human level and post-human capability, still a few decades off – and Artificial Narrow Intelligence, which is already appearing and is likely to lead to a profusion of autonomous machines. ANI points towards a revolution in transportation infrastructure, from autonomous cars to package delivery drones. Likewise, energy production is likely to move away from fossil fuels and towards grass-roots sharing systems. Large chunks of agriculture, construction, retail, healthcare and even crime will be taken over by ANI robots.
Husain clearly is a firm believer in the capacity of AI to improve the human condition but he is equally aware that it will create massive dislocations, as whole employment sectors disappear. This will be a central challenge for governments, but Husain’s point is that now that the AI genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back. For business, the question is how to ride the wave, and the book offers some useful suggestions. It’s going to be scary, but you can’t say you weren’t warned.
Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World
By Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel
AMACOM, $35, 272 pages, ISBN 9780814438336
Adamson and Steckel, academics who specialise in marketing and branding, are interested in how companies form their responses to changing market conditions, and their good reputations in the field meant that they could conduct a wide range of interviews as well as draw on their consulting experience. There is no single answer to ensure relevance but there are recurring themes. Interestingly, there seems to be more to learn from the companies that failed than those that succeeded.
The story of the venerable National Geographic magazine is a case in point. The people running it took the view that the brand formula had always worked, so they did nothing to change it even as sales declined. They, like Blackberry and others discussed here, were blinded by past successes and failed to see how the market was changing. ‘Digging in’ was akin to digging a grave.
The companies that have stayed relevant to their market put concerted effort into it. Hiring people with new ideas is a good start. Some ruthlessness is also required: if an old product line is dragging the brand down, cut it loose. Another lesson is to move fast, even if it means taking a chance.
This is interesting stuff, with illustrative case studies. Not revolutionary, but the book does a solid job at explaining the thinking required for surviving and thriving.
Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy
By Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake
Princeton University Press, $60, 288 pages, ISBN 978069117503
According to academics Haskel and Westlake, there was a pivot in the early twenty-first century: the point when the developed economies began to invest more in intangible assets, like design, branding, R&D, and software, than in tangible assets, like machinery, buildings, and computers. The idea that the deployment of intangible assets is crucial to a company’s success is not new; the value of this book is that it offers a detailed explanation of it as well as its wider consequences. Haskel and Westlake even go so far as to say that it underpins economic inequality and stagnating productivity. Those companies that have the right intangible assets and the capacity to scale them can overpower competitors but there is little in the way of the spillover or flow-on effects seen in an economy that actually makes things. In short, there is not much in the way of a tide that raises all boats.
Haskel and Westlake believe that we do not have the tools to properly measure intangible assets – not, at least, in the way they are currently being used. It is hard to disagree, but they are on less firm ground when they argue that intangible asset valuation cannot be accommodated in the current model. Either way, it is an area that needs more attention. The intangibles revolution, one feels, is just getting started.
More Important Than Money: An Entrepreneur’s Team
By Robert Kiyosaki
NewSouth Books, $29, 429 pages, ISBN 9781937832872
Through knowing his market and being clear about his message Kiyosaki has turned his bestselling 1997 book Rich Dad Poor Dad into an international brand, spawning numerous variations and updates. He has always made clear that the project has been a team effort, with specialists contributing expertise. More Important Than Money is, in fact, about how successful entrepreneurs gather teams around them, looking for countervailing strengths and people who can share a vision. Having a great idea is not enough; it is the team that gives it practical form.
At another level, the book is meant to give the team members a chance to shine (although each has written a book under the Rich Dad brand). Each provides a short biography, an excerpt from their book, and their ideas on building a team in their particular area. Kiyosaki knits this into the “8 Integrities” of a team, laid out in useful chart in the concluding chapter. The whole thing could easily have looked like a promotional gimmick but there are plenty of useful insights, especially on branding, cash flow, investing in assets, and raising funds. Kiyosaki’s contribution is on how to lead, including giving feedback, establishing the right mindset, and knowing when to say no. A good team, he says, does not just make business profitable, but also enjoyable.