Rounding up the business year

Appearing in In The Black magazine, December 2021

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

By Cal Newport

Penguin, $33, 320 pages, ISBN 9780241341414

Newport is a professor of computer science who has written extensively about communications technology. In this book he takes a deep dive into the way that email has taken over so much of our life and time, creating a “hyperactive hive-mind workflow”. He readily acknowledges that email was, when it first appeared in the 1990s, more productive than paper memos but now the sheer volume of information circulated by email systems has become a problem. Work has become a web of unscheduled communication threads even if much of the information is, when considered, irrelevant to our actual duties. Email requires a constant shifting of cognitive mindset, leading to exhaustion and muddled thinking.

There are software packages that can help to control the flow but the real answer is company policies to combat overload. Does that message really need to be copied to everyone, or sent at all? Can there be a schedule for particular types of information? Is there a better method of collaboration than strings of fragmentary emails? In other words, think before you send. Some of Newport’s proposals might be easier to say than do, but nevertheless he provides a new way of looking at an important issue.

Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla, and the Bet of the Century

By Tim Higgins

Penguin, $35, 400 pages, ISBN 9780753554388

The idea seemed obvious: why not use lithium-ion batteries, already powering a host of digital devices, in cars? Simple answer: because large lithium-ion batteries can dangerously overheat. Higgins explains how a stream of engineers wrestled with this problem for years but it was only when Musk came up with a reliable cooling system that electric cars became viable. He became a major investor of Tesla in 2004 and jumped into the CEO role in 2008. As a hard-driving leader with decent tech skills he dragged the company into the spotlight, and electric cars eventually hit the road.

It could not have happened without him but Musk is a hard person to like. Known for a mercurial temper, on-the-spot firings, and astonishing self-aggrandisement, he comes across as an entrepreneurial genius with a streak of conman – or maybe it is the other way around. He managed to position the electric car as a civilisational breakthrough even as he was ruthlessly collecting subsidies.

It is not easy to separate the stories of the electric car, Tesla, and Musk, but Higgins manages to keep the narrative streams organised. Fascinating stuff, and it cannot be denied that Musk has made a dent in the universe.

Huddle: How Women Unlock Their Collective Power

By Brooke Baldwin

Harper Collins, $53, 304 pages, ISBN 9780063017443

Baldwin, a journalist and anchor with CNN, is interested in the way that women organise into groups to overcome adversity and discrimination. Such “huddles”, she says, can provide crucial support and advice, and a means to advance causes of special interest to women.

Baldwin speaks with women who have established or joined a group. One particularly interesting “huddle” is made up of lawyers who have found their way up blocked by discrimination, and are working to overcome it. Another is a group of nurses who say that mutual support has been critical in helping them deal with the pressures generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baldwin believes that successful women have an obligation to help others climb the ladder. She looks at an organisation set up by actress Reese Witherspoon to assist women in the notoriously sexist Hollywood environment and speaks with the founders of the #MeToo organisation. Baldwin started out with the premise that “huddles” were a recent phenomenon but she eventually realises that there is a long, if quiet, history.

All of the cases that Baldwin explores are American but nevertheless there are universal lessons in this book about the value of networking and the power of collective action.

Shorter: How Working Less Will Revolutionise the Way Your Company Gets Things Done

By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Penguin, $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780241406786

The way to increased productivity and profits is not working ever-longer hours, says workplace consultant Pang. Just the opposite: innovation comes from clear thinking and creativity. Shorter looks at many companies that have moved to four-day weeks (without reducing remuneration), with good results for the bottom line. Done properly, reducing the work week improves recruitment and retention, and employees – especially those who are parents – report improved focus, less stress and better mental health. People are less likely to experience burnout, and client satisfaction improves.

Pang’s research suggests that most companies that have moved to a shorter week are medium-sized enterprises in the knowledge sector, led by founders who are recovering workaholics. However, there is nothing to stop large corporates making a comparable transition. New-gen communications technology has a key role to play in using time efficiently. Meetings, which consume huge amounts of time, is another area to consider: putting a simple timer on the table can prevent distractions.

Pang emphasises that no single model fits all situations. But now is a good time for leaders to consider whether a shorter week is suitable for their company. Working better by working less might initially seem counter-intuitive but the idea deserves thought.

Talent, Strategy, Risk: How Investors and Boards Are Redefining TSR

By Bill McNabb, Ram Charan and Dennis Carey

Harvard Business Review Press, $49, 224 pages, ISBN 9781633698321

Between them, the authors of this book bring a wealth of experience about investment trends and corporate management to the table. They argue that the short-term metric of Total Shareholder Return is no longer relevant, as the dominant investment players are now institutional funds that look for long-term gains. McNabb, Charan and Carey propose a different kind of TSR called talent, strategy and risk, because decisions and actions around these factors  determine whether and how a company creates lasting value.

A key part of this transition is the expansion of the role of the Investor Relations Officer. Instead of a predominantly PR function, the new IRO has to have the financial acumen to explain and contribute to corporate strategy. This would include the implementation of plans as well as risk assessment and mitigation in areas such as cybersecurity and geopolitical changes. The IRO also has to be able to think like an activist shareholder, and shape company responses to emerging issues accordingly.

At the board level, the strategy of a company has to be clearly communicated to institutional investors, including the impact of recruitment decisions. None of this will be easy, say the authors, but all of it is essential.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

By Adam Grant

Penguin,  $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780753553893

One of the hardest things to change is your own mind. But the world is a turbulent, unpredictable place, says Grant, an academic specialist in organisational psychology, so knowing when to rethink your thinking is valuable skill. He provides a framework for determining when circumstances have changed enough to require a new approach, with examples of failure and success at thinking again. Conviction and grit are important but so is flexibility and dynamism.

It takes humility to accept that one’s outlook needs revision. But Grant emphasises the importance of maintaining an open, flexible mind. He notes the importance of systematically seeking out different opinions and testing hypotheses. A “challenge network” of people of diverse views can be a great asset, offering advice on which ideas need rethinking in the face of new evidence. This is an ongoing process but there is also value in a regular “life checkup” to avoid an escalation of commitment to an unproductive path.

Grant suggests questions to ask of yourself and of others. Unlearning and relearning require effort and time, he says, but the benefits are substantial. In the end, what got you to here might not get you to where you need to go.

Digital Finance: Security Tokens and Unlocking the Real Potential of Blockchain

By Baxter Hines

Wiley, $50, 208 pages, ISBN 9781119756309

Blockchain technology has enormous potential but so far it has not really broken through to the general public. Hines, a manager of portfolios consisting of traditional assets, securitised properties, and digital assets, believes that this will change with the broad adoption of security tokens. Such tokens, he argues, will address the security concerns of blockchain and the complexity of blockchain systems, the main constraints to date.

Put simply, a security token is a digital device that authenticates a person’s identity electronically by storing personal information. The owner plugs the security token, such as a usb, into a system to grant access to a network service. In the blockchain context, a security token can be loaded with value from nearly any source, allowing for safe, instantaneous transactions. The blockchain connectivity and security measures are embedded in the token itself.

Companies like IBM, Fidelity Investments, and AXA are already deploying blockchain and tokenised options, and many others are gearing up for the change. But there will need to be an education program to explain the system to retail investors. There is still some way to go but blockchain-linked security tokens are likely to eventually become a key part of the financial landscape.

Nothing is Too Big to Fail: How the Last Financial Crisis Informs Today

By Kerry Killinger and Linda Killinger

Simon & Schuster, $22, 568 pages, ISBN9780795353031

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the financial system was developing dangerous cracks, according to the authors of Nothing Is Too Big To Fail. As senior bankers with experience on the regulatory side, they study the financial meltdown of 2008 for lessons. While regulators have done much to strengthen the banking system there has been an alarming growth in the ‘shadow’ finance system of pension funds, disintermediated loan providers, and even technology corporates. The outcome has been an alarming increase in debt, built around speculative bubbles in the stock market and the real estate sector. Killinger and Killinger see comparable troubles in China, abetted by a lack of transparency in government decisions.

There is also the constant problem of Washington’s spiralling spending on social programs and tax cuts. In an appendix to the book the authors discuss the stimulus packages connected to the pandemic, which might have been necessary but made the US economy even more leveraged and fragile.

Dealing with these problems will involve hard decisions, with an emphasis on paying down debt at all levels and extending regulatory oversight further into the non-bank finance sector. It will be a tough haul but it would be better than the alternatives.

Sustainability Accounting and Accountability (3rd edition)

By Matias Laine, Helen Tregidga and Jeffrey Unerman

Taylor & Francis, $105, 300 pages, ISBN 9781032023106

This book is designed as a textbook for advanced students but would be of interest to any finance professional who wants to know more about sustainability reporting. Nearly all large corporates now have some form of sustainability reporting, according to the authors, but there is a great variety of purpose, substance, format and utility. Lane, Tregidga and Unerman review the various frameworks available, especially the Global Reporting Initiative and the Task Force for Climate-Related Financial Disclosure. These are useful but each company has to tailor its reporting to the specific circumstances and the demands of its stakeholders. The authors support moves towards standards and guidelines but they argue that regulation in this area requires a light touch.

There are chapters dealing with specific issues such as accounting for climate change and weather events, biodiversity, water management, human rights and inequality. Reporting about these issues should not only deal with recent activities but future challenges and strategies for meeting them.

Lane, Tregidga and Unerman believe that there is still much work to do in this area but they see progress being made. In any case, sustainability reporting will continue to be a growing field. After all, what gets measured gets managed.

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