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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Management

Narratives and Paradigms

Greg Niemann
Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS
(Wiley, 2007)

Steve Miller
The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies
(Collins, 2008)

James M. Kilts, with John F. Manfredi and Robert L. Lorber
Doing What Matters: How to Get Results That Make a Difference — The Revolutionary Old-school Approach
(Crown Business, 2007)

Grant Gordon and Nigel Nicholson
Family Wars: Classic Conflicts in Family Business and How to Deal with Them
(Kogan Page, 2008)


Psychologist Jerome Bruner contends that individual learning requires the construction of a mental model of reality to make meaning of our lives. In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Harvard University Press, 1987), he suggested that there were two complementary ways of building such models. The first is the narrative method, or the telling of stories, and the second is the paradigmatic method, or the formation of logical arguments and conceptual frameworks. To learn to manage better, we need to employ both.

Without conceptual frameworks, we easily become addicted to “war stories” and overloaded with vicarious experiences. Unable to distinguish what is relevant to our individual situations, we may simply stumble from fad to fad, mindlessly copying someone else’s best practices. Without narrative, on the other hand, we cut ourselves off from the past, our only database. Indeed, British historian R.G. Collingwood called his field “the science of human action.” The study of history in the corporate world shows how strategies (effective ways of dealing with the world) are developed from competencies (clusters of good habits learned over time, often through a process of guided trial and error). This year’s best management books are worth reading because they are combinations of narrative and paradigm.

Competency to Strategy
In Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS, journalist Greg Niemann explains how a messenger company founded in Seattle in 1907 grew into the world’s largest package delivery company, United Parcel Service Inc. It is the story of how clusters of competencies, acquired through detailed on-the-ground experience, slowly evolved into strategies that could be applied on a global scale.

The drive, focus, and character of founder Jim Casey (1888–1983) are central to the story. Casey’s early life is reminiscent of that of Andrew Carnegie — a bright boy born into indigent circumstances and forced to work at a tender age to support his family. The Caseys moved to Seattle just as the Klondike gold strike of 1896 created an economic boom in the city. With his father ailing, Casey left school at age 11 and took a job as a driver’s helper making deliveries for a department store. Then, like Carnegie before him, the boy went to work at a local telegraph office, getting an inside view of the message delivery business.

In 1907, Casey and a close friend founded the American Messenger Company, offering the best service and the lowest rates. From the start, they hired and trained the most talented people they could find. Soon they partnered with a local motorcycle-based service and offered Seattle’s department stores an opportunity to outsource their delivery activities. It was the upscale nature of this business that persuaded the partners to adopt a close variant of Pullman Brown, the elegant color of the railroad sleeper cars, as the finish paint for their trucks.

Niemann, who worked for UPS for almost 35 years, does a fine job of conveying Casey’s monk-like devotion to the business and his belief that service is “the sum of many little things done well.” This intense focus on the elements of service excellence — systems, operations, and people — meant that UPS was well prepared to respond to the contingencies of the 20th century. As the demands of World War I on the American workforce crimped the ability of department stores to make their own deliveries, UPS expanded along the length of the Pacific Coast. The post–World War II population migration in the U.S., as people moved from cities to suburbs, and the rise of the personal automobile limited the growth of the retail delivery market, and UPS entered the wholesale common carrier business, at which, aided by deregulation, it soon excelled.

 
 
 
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