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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Miscellany

Handy uses an insight gained as a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management to suggest a shift in business school curriculum. “By the end of the program I realized that I had really known most of the important things all along,” he writes. “But I had to have gone there to find that out. By that I don’t mean to diminish the experience. We all go through life accumulating a bundle of private learning. Much of the time, however, we don’t know that we have it. It is lodged in our subconscious. To make it more readily available when we need it we have to drag it out into our conscious mind. That was what MIT did for me.”

Handy then briefly describes what a business school curriculum designed to educe that knowledge might look like — and that curriculum has few similarities to what is taught at most business schools. He explains the need to educate a new cadre of corporate leaders focused on the “why” rather than the “how” of business. In a mere 13 pages, he summarizes what those leaders need to know, distilling the wisdom that might be found in a review of the best management books ever written, and crafting it all into a coherent, practical whole.

Although Handy writes on an elevated philosophical plane, it is striking the degree to which his thinking is consistent with, and reinforces, cutting-edge organizational research. For example, he shows why organi­zational self-renewal is as necessary as individual human development, and how the two processes are similar. As he explains the connection, it becomes so obvious that the reader is left wondering why so few business leaders see it or act on it. In the late Sumantra Ghoshal’s apt phrase (originally applied to Peter Drucker), social philosopher Charles Handy is a brilliant practitioner of “the scholarship of common sense.”

Sociology (Kind Of)
Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman is about the old-fashioned virtue of doing a job well for its own sake. He addresses a fundamental question all employers should, but too often don’t, ask: What is “good” work? That is, what characteristics of a job make it motivating, interesting, rewarding, and, above all, developmental?

Sennett, a professor of sociology at New York University and the London School of Economics, searches high and low, far and near, past and present, to help us find answers. He moves effortlessly from Homer’s description of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and patron of craftsmen, to an explanation of the work done by Linux software engineers. He offers insights from Diderot, Ruskin, and Wittgenstein, as well as from Tom Peters, Robert Waterman, W. Edwards Deming, and Julia Child.

In these intellectually challenging pages, we learn what is lost in human terms when work is de-skilled, when the design of jobs wittingly or unwittingly breaks the “intimate connection between hand and head.” We come to see that workers are ultimately motivated by the opportunity to develop and exercise skill on the job, whether workers are carpenters, physicians, accountants, reporters, or Starbucks baristas. Were Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to read this book, he would discover why the quality of the coffee and service in his shops deteriorated when the company introduced automated espresso machines. When baristas have the ability to grind coffee themselves, tend to the entire process of brewing, and estimate the right amount of foamed milk in a cappuccino, they become skilled craftsmen (and women). In the process, they create both a better cup of coffee and more satisfied customers.

I don’t know if this book is history, philosophy, or social criticism, but its author is one of the last remaining in a distinguished line of broad-gauged sociologists that once included such “public intellectuals” as David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Robert Merton, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Sennett’s closest precursor, C. Wright Mills. An entire generation of post–World War II undergraduates avidly read those learned generalists to discover why we lived in a society deeply divided by invisible barriers of class and caste. Those writers were domestic anthropologists exploring the mores of our own exotic culture, documenting our often unconscious striving for status in corporations and suburbia. Alas, the discipline of sociology is dominated today by technicians — statisticians rather than scholars — whose narrow writings are of interest mainly to their academic peers.

 
 
 
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