Top positive review
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Academic, but practical, must-read book
on April 17, 2000
Most popular and influential books on business management present the highly personal observations, interpretations, opinions, and conclusions of the author. The author's tenets - often in the form of a "newly discovered" business trend or critical success factor that business executives can ignore only at their own peril - seem objective and impersonal because they are supported by real-world examples that provide strong evidence in their support. Examples that do not support the premise are conveniently ignored or dealt with in a cursory, simplistic manner.
Basically, these books are the result of sharp minds drawing conclusions from their own experience. This approach is certainly valuable and has contributed many valuable ideas about the various means of improving business performance - and probably many more faulty notions that have led management up the garden path.
John Kotter and James Heskett's "Corporate Culture and Performance" sits at the other end of the spectrum from this norm. The book is in effect a report on their scientific investigations of a hypothesis. The authors set out a number of hypotheses and then test them against the hard data of long-term business performance. In doing so, they present solid insights into some of the conventional wisdom spouted by management consultants and authors of business books.
The fundamental source of their hypothesis is the question "What is the relationship between corporate culture and business performance?" The fruits of their research yield important observations on the nature of this relationship.
The authors' well-structured research study, and their sharp analytical abilities permit them to trek deep into the jungle of issues surrounding corporate culture. By speculating and then testing their notions against the research data, they uncover some insights that might be undervalued because they seem so intuitively obvious. One of these is central to the book, namely that "adaptive" cultures - ones that help organizations anticipate and adapt to environmental change - are the most effective at helping a company achieve good long-term financial performance.
If the book and - more important - the research were not infused with the analytical skills of the authors, the book would leave the reader with a great many empirically verified observations about culture and management and an understanding of the key issues, but with no practical way of dealing with the issues.
However, the authors have a lot to offer in the way of practical tips. For example, in presenting a fundamental dilemma, they follow it up with a research-tested approach for dealing with the issue:
"Holding onto a good culture requires being both inflexible with regard to core adaptive values and yet flexible with regard to most practices and other values....And it requires providing strong leadership, yet not strangling or smothering delicate leadership initiatives from below....
"...executives need to differentiate basic values and behaviors that aid adaptation from the more specific practices needed to perform well today. This distinction needs to be made explicit when talking about culture...although executives need to foster pride among employees, they also must be as intolerant as possible of arrogance in others and in themselves. They need to confront, and make others confront, as many of their failings as is practical."
In spite of its many qualities, it is easy enough to see why the book isn't likely to top any best-seller lists. In many places it reads too much like a doctoral thesis, severely limiting accessibility. The academic lingo - "Within the limits of this methodology, we conclude from this study...." - and the occasional embalming of the text in footnotes don't add to the readability, and certainly don't lend the text the "personality glamour" that appeals to the mass-cult audience of best-sellers.
However, the writing does have style and a dry humor, and - above all - important empirically verified, occasionally illuminating facts that business people would be better off knowing and using, rather than stumbling along in the dark.