Book review: The books that will improve your networking skills

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World
by Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta (Wiley)

A modern variant of spam comes in the shape of unwanted messages asking us to sign up as contacts for friends, colleagues, peers or similar who want us to vouch for them, help them find new jobs, meet up or whatever else. Fine if you know the person, even finer if you like them, not so good if you have never heard of them or can’t stand their company.

Social networks aren’t perfect but they are powerful instruments of communication. MySpace has changed music marketing forever while Facebook – whether you think of it as a great way to meet people, an innovative sales and marketing tool or a stalkers’ best friend – is the latest way the technology industry has helped us fill gobs of time. And LinkedIn may be the biggest aid to automated career development since email.

The authors of this book go further, citing The Economist’s suggestion that “society is in the early phases of what appears to be a media revolution on the scale of that launched by Gutenberg in 1448”, and describing the Web 2.0 as an “e-ruption”.

The argument is that where once a solid set of shared values and institutions governed our lives, careers and relationships, that is no longer the case thanks to the loosely coupled interactions that are the new networks. These networks include social networks themselves but are also influenced by search, virtual worlds, wikis and blogs. However the authors, a pair of INSEAD academics, have a tendency to over-egg that thesis. Take this from the preface, for example: “We are increasingly trusting our gut feelings and acting on instinct and intimate conviction. We have grasped that crowds, when their collective intelligence is harnessed, are smarter and wiser than the most exalted expert.”

What, always smarter and wiser? On national defence issues, for example? And how about this: “We have realised that everything important in life is miscellaneous, unplanned, unexpected. We have learned the value of cooperating with others.”

Everything? How about marriage? Or childbirth? And surely we always knew the value of collaboration, hence concepts that predated the web such as the electoral system, company meetings or the office suggestion box.

And sometimes the authors slip into politician-speak: “[We have] felt the liberating power of consumer sovereignty and citizenship engagement.”

However, once the vaulting ambitions have been set out, this becomes a much more solid exercise, rammed full of case studies and examples. This is a valuable examination of a very real change in the way we all communicate and share ideas, but a little more perspective of the world outside the Web 2.0 cliques would have been nice.

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom at Amazon

The Accountable Leader

Developing Effective Leadership Through Managerial Accountability
by Brian Dive (Kogan Page)

The spotlit black leather chair on this book’s cover recalls the iconic Mastermind set, and to many people the very idea of leadership brings on cold sweats, rabbit eyes and stress. However, many of the problems that managers experience are due to frustrations at things that lie outside of their direct remit.

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Thankfully, Brian Dive’s The Accountable Leader is a sober, cogently argued exploration of leadership, accountability and organisational structure. Rather than couching his message in jargon, Dive talks about details and in particular the need for a close coupling of organisational setup and the people who make executive decisions. If moon and stars are not aligned, he suggests, you have a problem.

As Dive, an experienced manager and consultant, puts it: “After all, what use are potentially brilliant leaders (or managers), if an organisation is structured in a way that prevents them from using their skills to the advantage of that organisation?”

To which many managers will shout “hear, hear”. There are plenty of books around that profess to tell people how to become good managers, but this one tells managers how to spot faults outside their direct roles, and as such is a refreshing change.

The Accountable Leader at Amazon

The Long Tail

Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More
by Chris Anderson (Hyperion Books)

Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote about the concept of The Long Tail in an article in 2004 and the book of the same name appeared in 2006 but the idea is now an ever-present theme of sales and marketing conferences, used to describe the importance of the huge numbers of books, CDs, DVDs and other products that sell individually in small numbers but, when taken together, have tremendous value.

Interestingly, few people recognise that Anderson was not first in identifying the existence of the long tail. In fact, the concept goes back decades. Wikipedia suggests that even the “long tail” term itself goes back at least to 1946, appearing in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics. There are also close comparisons between Anderson’s description and what are known as Pareto tails and other terms.

Anderson himself cited research by Erik Brynjolfsson, Yu Hu and Michael D. Smith plotting a line that recognised the importance of small-selling items to Amazon’s success.

However, lest we underestimate Anderson’s insight, his real achievement was to equate the concept with the rapid changes wrought by the internet and eloquently describe the implications for companies like Amazon, where all those unloved titles became available, and even profitable even though no sensible retail outlet could ever justify giving them cheap shelf space. In other words, even the latest Harry Potter cannot hope to outsell the total volume of books you didn’t even know (or care) existed.

In many ways, Anderson’s discovery is a joyous one. It is pleasing to know that in an age where Tesco, Oprah and Richard and Judy can make or break books, the internet makes it possible to build a market based on the arcane, niche and quirky. Not only that but the tail is supported by other tools that rely on the fundamental ubiquity of the web: social networks, comments and ratings can bring new life to old titles. This is all, surely, for the good.

Today, anybody working in the IT, publishing, communications and retail sectors can hardly afford not to profess some knowledge of The Long Tail, but they should go further and read the thing too because this is a book written with admirable rigour and balance. Taken together with John Battelle’s The Search, it is nothing less than a primer for understanding the economics of business-to-consumer e-commerce and, therefore, essential reading.

Anderson’s next book, due out next year, sounds just as interesting. Called FREE, it is an examination of another aspect of the economy the internet has helped popularise – giveaway products.

The Long Tail at Amazon