Advantage, new work, overload

Appearing in In the Black magazine, August 2021

Rethinking Competitive Advantage: New Rules for the Digital Age

By Ram Charan

Random House Business, $35, 224 pages

With several dozen bestsellers to his name Charan is a heavy hitter in the field of business thinking. His 2020 book was a detailed examination of Amazon, and Rethinking Competitive Advantage builds on the lessons found there to establish a conceptual framework. Success no longer comes from hard assets, distribution channels, or established brands, he says, but from continuous innovation to capture, hold and develop consumer preferences. He backs this up with good case studies and data, pointing to cash generation and growth rates as the crucial metrics.

The key is to think of the company as an ecosystem which constantly responds, adapts and evolves. Leaders who are ‘born digital’ are usually better at it but even those whose early training was in the pre-digital era can make the transition, if they are open-minded about it. Charan provides a set of rules ranging from the use of algorithms to the personalisation of customer experiences, knitting them together to form a competitiveness model. He notes that this is not only for technology-based B2C companies but for B2B firms as well, and even government agencies. It adds up to a package of clear thinking, useful to managers and executives at every level.

Work From Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Becoming a World-class Hybrid Team

ByAlison Hill and Darren Hill

Wiley, $27.95, 240 pages

The authors of this interesting book are the principals of a consulting firm specialising in workplace organisation, training and coaching. Pre-pandemic, the company was based on close-fitting teams. Then, almost overnight, the company structure had to be re-configured for remote working – what the Hills call ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA). To their surprise, they found that it was actually more effective and productive. Here, they explain the model they developed, combining their hands-on experience with research and the views of experts in the area.

Getting the technology linkages right is important but the real issue is keeping people connected and on track. Creating maps with team members’ responsibilities and timelines is useful, and everyone has to understand and share the goal. Do not overuse Zoom and similar tools, advise the Hills. Instead, the team leader should maintain regular one-on-one contact and supervision. Effective teams are often a combination of WFA people and others working in a central office.

Getting the mix, the tech and the culture right takes effort and planning, and sometimes adjustments will be needed along the way. But remote working in some form is probably here to stay, so it is a skill that managers need to have.

Too Much Information: Understanding What You Don’t Want to Know

By Cass Sunstein

MIT Press, $48, 248 pages

Here is an odd piece on information: Facebook is bad for you. People who use it are, on average, more likely to become depressed, anxious and stressed – yet most would not want to give it up, even knowing that. This is one of the strange things that Sunstein, an expert in consumer law who has worked in government on regulations that require disclosure about matters like nutrition and safety, uncovers in this fascinating book. He admits that he long believed in maximum disclosure in all matters but has had a change of heart, and now thinks that authorities should focus on the question of whether a particular disclosure has a positive effect. Endlessly increasing the information burden can lead to people feeling overwhelmed, and that they are being admonished by an intrusive nanny-state.

Regulators should think about whether requiring a particular disclosure is making people happier, and recognise that there is no one-size answer. He has some harsh words for companies that bury information under jargon and volume (software providers are especially guilty of this). Keep it simple, useful and relevant, he says. This might be easier to say than do, but nevertheless Too Much Information is thought-provoking and entertaining.

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