Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Unbearable Lightness of Business Books

Or, I could have said - why I can't read business books. At least, not anymore.

This may seem inconsequential, but it is not for me. In fact, it is an existential problem that I face now: I can't read business books! It is very necessary for my career - being well-read is one of the advantages I brought to table as a professional - and indeed, crucial to maintain my professional credential as a Chartered Marketer, which I attained with great effort, once upon a time. And, yet, I can't bring myself to read Business Books.

This isn't always there. I did read Business Books, quite extensively, until about three years ago. I did maintain a subscription of HBR, bought Strategy & Business and Sloan Management Review regularly at WH Smith, maintained a small collection of business books all the time with books on marketing and innovation prominently featuring on my shopping list. I even had my favourites: I read all of Clayton Christensen, Henry Chesbrough, Michael Cusumano and Charlene Li: Whatever they wrote, I would buy and read. Then something happened: I just could not bear myself to read business books again.

I am still trying to make sense of this disinterest. Sometimes, I have to force myself, to attend Business Seminars and read business books, if only to maintain my Chartered status. I occasionally buy business books too - Ian Goldin and Chris Kutama's Age of Discovery or Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants would work around my disgust - though this has become much less regular. I am still trying to make sense what really turned me off: It is almost as if I need counselling to get back to Business reading.

It started with my discovery of this pattern that most business books summarise whatever they want to say in the first chapter or so. You read the first chapter, you may as well have read the book! Surely, this is a good practise - they are designed to cater to a busy business reader who may not have time to read more - but it is strange why it has to be a book at all. This structure made reading the rest of the book a drag - you almost always knew where it is leading and all the evidence presented were to support the central thesis.

There were other problems too. Most business books never bother to present any contrary evidence. It seems that the world of business is a nice, consistent continuum, where everything happens to support this theory or that: Of course, that is nonsense as there are so many theories, and this tells more about the presentation of evidence. While lots of people are now queasy with the rise of 'alternative facts', the world of business literature has been replete with the halfway house of 'facts that fit' for a long time.

Then there were these perfect categories that these books used. There were Consumers, homogenised and pasteurised, who always behaved in a predictable fashion. Or, if they are being segmented, there were marketers on the other side of the fence. There were investors, always rational, managers, always ethical, and employees, always scurrying after incentives. Within the little lens of a particular theory, where one category may be dissected, the rest were left in a stepford wives' perfection.

And, finally, there was always this unbearable claim of a grand theory: One single solution for all questions! This book told you how innovation happened, how technologies proliferated, how to make profits, how to build a better organisation, anything and everything that you wanted. There was no space to doubt, nothing to question - indeed, a consultant can not provide an indeterminate answer - just one final solution.

One would wonder why anyone believes any of these, and this gives one of the most annoying features of the business books: A long resume of the authors and their thousands of hours of research right inside the book! You may see this on inside cover of any other kind of book, sometimes on a blurb, but this is an integral part of the book in business books - a claim of expertise! One can see the wisdom of it - the rest of the material is so thin on the ground that this is perhaps the only part you should anchor your hopes on - but this is just like voodoo, a trust-me claim based on the author being the rainmaker.

What happened to me perhaps that I got introduced to doubts, indeterminacy and glorious uncertainties of the world, and I find business books unbearable therefore. It is precarious, indeed, where you pick up a book not expecting a definitive answer. It is even slightly embarassing, as I can't often tell anyone why I am reading this particular book or another. From this vantage point, though, the neat world of business books are scarcely believable, and their methods, crude. It is my humanity I preserve by shunning business books, as I escape their straightjackets and narrow fields of vision.


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