Books: What the rise of the machines means for our working lives
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Given the strength of the field, it was never a sure thing that a technology title would be business book of the year in 2015. But it was a safeish bet.
In the 11 years of the Financial Times award, which is backed by McKinsey, only one book on technology had won before, The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s account of the rise of Amazon, which took the prize in 2013, and was as much a book about Jeff Bezos’s entrepreneurial drive as it was about the technology behind it. For years, authors, publishers and the prize’s judges seemed to prefer analyses of the build-up to the financial crisis of 2008-09 and its cataclysmic aftermath.
But since the damaging high tide of the financial crisis started to ebb, the business bookshelf has increasingly been crowded with titles documenting the rapid rise of tech companies, profiling tech entrepreneurs and describing the impact of automation on the economy.
The 2015 longlist of 15 titles was dominated by books on these themes. The £30,000 prize duly went to Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots. One of the judges was the leadership professor Herminia Ibarra (herself author of the excellent Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, another of my favourite business books of 2015). “I’m a strong believer that the theme is important and people should pay attention to it,” she said of the book.
“As a reasoned piece of argument on a really important topic, I think it’s superb,” added Rik Kirkland, another judge and McKinsey’s director of publishing.
As a ready-made manual for how to deal with the future of business, the selection below is hard to beat, containing practical advice, cautionary tales and vivid visions of the future. Offered a seventh or eighth slot, I would also have mentioned How Music Got Free, Stephen Witt’s page-turner about how piracy nearly destroyed the established music industry. I could also easily have included, in a completely different vein, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s heartfelt Unfinished Business, about the obstacles that continue to hold back women’s advancement in the workplace, a theme that she makes clear is as political as it is personal.
Business books are inevitably a lagging indicator of trends — a lag exacerbated by the long lead times of traditional publishing, even in a world of ebooks, self-publishing and instant opinion.
But it is possible to discern some future trends in the 2015 crop. For one thing, many books (including The Rise of the Robots) directly addressed the human element in fast-automating organisations and economies. My colleague Gillian Tett, for example, applied her anthropology qualifications to business in her 2015 book The Silo Effect, looking at the internal walls that often hold back organisations. Interest in the advancing frontiers of neuroscience was reflected in some titles. Last year’s Neuroscience for Leadership, co-authored by a neuroscientist, an executive coach and a psychologist, is a good primer of more to come on the subject. Both trends suggest the rise of the machines is making management and business authors re-examine our human identity.
Still, it is Martin Ford’s bleak prognosis that sticks in the mind. As he told an audience in his New York acceptance speech: “Even people that do everything they are supposed to do [to get a good job] may find it difficult to get a foothold in the economy,” once automation accelerates. If there is a silver lining, at least they will have more time to write books.
Andrew Hill picks some of the best titles from a crop written with an eye to the future
The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, by Martin Ford, Basic
This was the deserved winner of the 2015 FT and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, for the importance of its message and the clarity of its explanation of what will happen as machines take on more tasks.
Ford’s prognosis is that a less labour-intensive economy will be miserable, even dangerous, as inequality, technological unemployment and climate change collide. His radical solutions, notably a guaranteed minimum basic income for everybody, underline his pessimistic outlook. Even if this were feasible, Ford warns that “the future may arrive long before we are ready” — and professionals will not be exempt.
Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, by Herminia Ibarra, Harvard Business Review Press
If your first reaction on being appointed to a leadership role is to plan how to do it, think again.
Ibarra, an Insead professor, points out that the best way to learn how to be a leader is to lead. She lays out four important responsibilities: building bridges between a leader’s team and others; crafting and explaining a vision of the future; engaging people in change; and “embodying the change”. The transition to leadership will be “unpredictable, messy, nonlinear, and emotionally charged”, she warns. She includes great advice about networking, authenticity and storytelling, areas that in other hands can seem like hopeless fads.
Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, Flatiron
Two contrasting figures, a genius engineer and a hard-charging salesman, built the emblematic business communications device of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the BlackBerry, and then squandered their lead.
This book provides an object lesson for managers and entrepreneurs everywhere. McNish and Silcoff lay out how Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie oversaw Research in Motion’s breakneck growth. They got a lot right. But when the iPhone appeared in 2007, they proved unequal to the task of matching its innovations.
Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations, by Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone, Harper Business
Bookshelves are crowded with titles about heroic leaders, so the premise here is a good, and rare, one: a team’s contribution to success is usually underrated. The authors draw on a host of examples, from Silicon Valley start-ups to the US Navy’s aerobatics unit.
The book includes advice on scaling up and building diverse teams (more successful, but less harmonious, than homogeneous groups). It features good explanations of how to dismantle a team and analyse its successes and failures, an often neglected skill. But in the end, you have to conclude that assembling the best team is still more art than science.
The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society, by Charles Handy, Random House
The octogenarian management writer could be resting on his laurels, having correctly predicted developments such as outsourcing and the danger of an obsession with shareholder value. But his latest book is a warning against just such complacency: a fierce manifesto for radical political, corporate and social change.
Handy ranges widely. He has long held that people should leap to the “second curve” of their lives and careers, before the first curve turns downwards. Here he applies the same idea to companies, governments and organisations, revisiting some of the striking ideas that first made his name.
Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future, by Ashlee Vance, Virgin
Still in his early forties, Elon Musk will merit many more biographies if he achieves only a fraction of his goals, but this is a wonderful start. It would be easy to be drawn into the charismatic entrepreneur and space pioneer’s sphere of influence, but this is no eulogy.
Vance paints an unvarnished picture of the would-be world changer, even if Musk’s motivation (childhood trauma? Christlike urge to save humanity?) remains elusive. Like the late Steve Jobs, Musk sets outrageous goals and pushes his staff hard. Whether he realises his bold vision or not, the book outlines the drive needed just to get to the launchpad.
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