Appearing in In The Black magazine, February 2019
Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Says About the Future of Strategy
By Ming Zeng
Harvard Business School Press, $55, 272 pages, ISBN 9781633693296
Zeng is the Chief Strategy Officer of Alibaba Group, a company that has leveraged technology into an incredibly successful position. That success, says Zeng, is based on understanding how technology can put direct interaction with customers at the centre of the enterprise. He calls this the customer-to-business (C2B) model, using feedback loops to drive machine learning, with customer demands and responses incorporated into the system in real time.
Making a C2B model work requires four elements: a smart network that can dynamically adjust the supply and quality of service offerings, an Internet interface where customers can easily articulate their needs and responses, a modular business structure that can grow from an initial beachhead, and three platforms – social media marketing, e-commerce portals, and a network of flexible manufacturers – than can provide agility and innovation.
Zeng acknowledges that re-tooling an existing large company to a C2B model is difficult (it is actually easier if you build it from scratch). Nevertheless, the technology is available and many companies are already moving in this direction. And, once established, the model can provide competitive advantages and growth at low cost. Overall, the book offers a new way of looking at strategy, and a different perspective on business.
Financial Management for Non-profit Organizations: Policies and Practices (3rd edition)
By John Zietlow, Jo Ann Hankin, Alan G. Seidner, and Tim O’Brien
Wiley, $144, 768 pages, ISBN 9781119382560
Managing non-profit organisations presents different challenges to a profit-making company, with one of the most difficult being that the leaders often have limited expertise in financial issues. The authors have a wealth of practical and research experience, and in this comprehensive book they offer practical guidance on financial management for these officers. They systematically work through the basics of proper recording, reporting, and cash flow, and then move on to investment, planning and risk management. There are important sections on fundraising, internal controls and policy-making, where non-profits have particular characteristics.
There is also valuable guidance for financial professionals working in non-profits. They have to bear in mind that many of the people in the organisation are likely to see financial management as something of a necessary evil compared to the core mission of the agency. In fact, the authors emphasise that financial metrics are only one part of the picture for non-profits, supporting and not supplanting non-financial goals. In connection with this, the final chapter includes a series of diagnostic tests and evaluation tools, and there are links to a website for further information.
The Execution Factor: The One Skill That Drives Success
By Kim Perell
McGraw-Hill, $40, 288 pages, ISBN 9781260128529
Perell is a serial entrepreneur whose first few ventures failed before she got it right. She draws on this experience to argue that it is not having ideas or making plans but executing them that makes the difference. The initial step is to set down a clear goal and establish the priorities needed to achieve it. With this done, the next (brave) step of execution has to be taken, whether it is approaching the first customer or creating the prototype product.
A danger is paralysis through analysis. The critical third step is to be willing to move ahead even if you do not have all the information. Collect and digest about 70 per cent of the data, suggests Perell, and then go with your gut.
Linked to the idea of constantly moving forward is realising when we are avoiding a difficult task. In fact, the tough questions are often the most necessary ones, and they have to be asked and answered. Her final piece of advice is to create a ‘to-do’ list, to support the prioritisation process and keep implementation at the forefront of thinking.
None of this is revolutionary but Perell sets out her points in a clear and energetic way. For entrepreneurs wondering how to start, this book will be useful.
Performance-Based Strategy: Tools and Techniques for Successful Decisions
By Steve Fairbanks and Aaron Buchko
Emerald Publishing, $137, 328 pages, ISBN 9781787437968
Many corporate leaders find their time so taken up by the tactical demands of running an organisation that they cannot undertake strategic planning, even while they acknowledge the importance of it. Simply finding the right model for the company is a daunting task. Fairbanks and Buchko have provided strategic advice to companies large and small, and their aim here is to make the process of strategic planning manageable. They examine 22 frameworks, ranging from basic models of market segmentation and product volume margin charts through to project management, brand perception and communication matrices. Each chapter contains an explanation of how it might be used, an estimate of the time taken to develop it, where relevant information can be found, and – a critical point – how the framework can be implemented in practical, measurable terms. There are useful checklists and graphics to further explain the development process.
Fairbanks and Buchko note that strategy-making often helps leaders see their business and the wider environment in new ways. They emphasise that strategy cannot be done in a rush or on the cheap: it requires a dedicated effort. Not easy, but it must be done if a company is to thrive in the long term.