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History has some potent lessons for business, but it is the future that really excites most corporate leaders, entrepreneurs and investors. That is not only because the future offers fresh opportunities to make money, but because it gives the ambitious and talented the chance to write their own new chapter in the lore of management, finance and economics.
This week the Financial Times and McKinsey launch the 10th edition of the Business Book of the Year Award and a new initiative to identify promising young authors. The £15,000 Bracken Bower Prize – named after Brendan Bracken and Marvin Bower, respective architects of the modern FT and McKinsey – will go to the best proposal for a book on the challenges and opportunities of growth.
We invited high-profile people from the worlds of business, economics, academia and publishing to identify themes they hope the next wave of business writers will tackle. Their suggestions were dominated by the changes that new generations of workers, entrepreneurs and technology could bring about.
The Gen X CEO: Mark Preston
Mark Preston, chief executive of Grosvenor, which runs the property interests of the Duke of Westminster, singled out “Generation Z communication” as the most promising theme for a new business book. Born in 1968 and a Generation Xer himself, he says it is clear that the biggest difference between his generation and that of his “Gen Z” children is their use of digital communication and media, which spills over into their relationships and social attitudes. “Understanding how this will then affect them as consumers, clients and employees would be fascinating from our perspective, as a company looking at the long term.”
The author: Mohamed El-Erian
The democratising power of young entrepreneurs in established sectors such as consumer finance is a subject that excites Mohamed El-Erian, former chief executive of Pimco and author of When Markets Collide, the 2008 business book of the year. “Operating with fewer real and perceived constraints, their perspective can do more than disrupt,” says Mr El-Erian, who is a judge of this year’s book award. “They can succeed in materially improving access, lowering costs, enhancing collaboration and dismantling some of the barriers that limit delivery [of goods and services] to less privileged segments of society.”
The entrepreneur: Sean Gourley
What would young entrepreneurs like to read? Sean Gourley, co-founder and chief technology officer of Quid, a Silicon Valley data analytics software company, is hoping for an update of The Art of War by Sun Tzu (left), including lessons “from the past decade and a half of insurgent fighting in places like Iraq and Afghanistan”. He also believes there is a gap in the market for a book about “augmented intelligence” and the ethical issues around how people are now using immersive 3D visualisation, “designer chemicals” and artificial intelligence to improve their strategic decision-making.
The academic: Herminia Ibarra
Insead’s Herminia Ibarra is waiting for a book on how robots are changing the nature of work and how humans work alongside them. She is also hoping LinkedIn’s statisticians will eventually produce a book to update Mark Granovetter’s groundbreaking 1973 paper on the importance of weak network links in creating job opportunities for individuals.
Prof Ibarra, who joins the book award judging panel this year, also called on writers to put a “human face” on the massive open online courses that are disrupting the academic world. “I’d love to read a great journalistic account that actually takes us into the life of different Mooc-takers,” she says – one that ranges from the “precocious kids who home-school themselves” with such courses, to the women who want to “beef up credentials to get back into the workforce after a hiatus at home”.
The chairman: Simon Murray
Even in a discussion of what future trends may emerge, it is hard – perhaps even dangerous – to dodge the lessons of the past. As Liaquat Ahamed, author of the 2009 business book of the year The Lords of Finance, pointed out in his account of how central bankers created the conditions for the Great Depression, breakdowns in trust in the financial system “are not some historical curiosity”.
Simon Murray, chairman of GEMS, an Asian private equity group, and a former director of companies including Vodafone and Glencore, would agree. He remains compelled by monetary policy, inflation and exchange rates, having experienced the Hong Kong currency crisis in 1983. Mr Murray says an easy to understand book on how money functions would be a best-seller.
“How do exchange rates work? The Chinese fix their rate every day. The Americans print paper every day. The euro doesn’t work . . . What would really happen to the German economy if the euro collapsed and they returned to the old currencies. Should we be going back to the gold standard? Is cash always in danger? Is property the answer?”
The literary agent: Caroline Michel
Caroline Michel, chief executive of literary agency Peters Fraser & Dunlop, is enthusiastic about the value of looking back in order to look forward. She points out that Jesse Norman, a Conservative member of the British parliament and one her agency’s authors, is embarking on a new book about the lessons of the economist Adam Smith in the current “age of inequality”. In general, she says, tracing the history of ideas through remarkable individuals sets the lessons of the past within a strong narrative. It can often lead to a book that stands the test of time – which, coincidentally, will be one of the measures of what constitutes a worthy business book of the year.