THE OBSERVER is moving offices next week, and I'm dismally contemplating a life-endangering heap of business books on my desk that I shall have to deal with before the removal men arrive. Why, oh why, are there so many? Do I have to read them all? Why, as Mark Twain once put it, do most of them seem like 'chloroform in print'?
The short answer is that, despite the health hazards, like chemical substances they are addictive. Although publishers say that appetites are more discriminating than in the roaring 1990s, when almost any management title would sell, business is still good business. People buy basic 'how to' and 'self-help' titles year in, year out, there is a sizable textbook market (business is the single most popular undergraduate and postgraduate course), and while blockbusters have become fewer with the fall of the charismatic CEO, a big autobiography - Giuliani or Jack Welch, say - can still turn out to be a bestseller.
But business books are much more than commodities. Publishing can be seen as an essential part of the the much larger 'management ideas industry', where the prizes are much higher. In the volatile market for ideas, business books form a key conduit linking idea-producers (often consultants or academics) with their target manager-consumers.
Moreover, in a neat piece of positive feedback, books recycle ideas back into the business schools, where as teaching aids they indoctrinate a fresh crop of potential consumers. So as well as being consumer items, books are also producers - of gurus and stars, of fashions, and thereby also, crucially, of markets for consultancy, whose rewards dwarf those of publishing.
A successful book, itself often an expanded version of an article in Harvard Business Review, can easily catapult an author from humble academe to the consultancy stratosphere. The speaker circuit alone can bring in a seven-figure income. Quick to twig the benefits, consultancies have become rich closed-loop publishing markets in themselves - both writing and then buying large numbers of books as selling tools and as a means of demonstrating so-called 'thought leadership'.
Management books are thus more slippery and complex than they might appear - at once a product and a vehicle, the medium and the message. As products, it is easy to dismiss most of them as trivial or worthless. As in any other branch of publishing, or indeed any other human endeavour, the 80/20 rule applies: 'Ninety per cent of everything is crap,' as science-fiction writer Thomas Sturgeon more colourfully put it. There's a less dismissive way of looking at it, however. The crap is the soil from which the stuff of real value grows. In any field you can't have only masterpieces: masterpieces grow from, and define themselves against the lesser material.
Paradoxically, while the unappealing pile on my desk serves a boring but necessary function, the 'masterpieces', or at least the bestsellers, are much more problematic. This is because, like cookbooks but unlike fiction, people act on them. As Keynes famously remarked about the impact of economists, practical men, who believe themselves immune to intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct theorist, in managers' case acting out in their daily lives the ideas of Adam Smith (division of labour), FW Taylor (mass-production techniques) or even Dilbert (fear, uncertainty and doubt).
A poor recipe is unlikely to kill you. But bad management advice can, and regularly does, lay waste whole companies. Fortunately for the rest of the world, 'Chainsaw Al' Dunlap's brutal version of shareholder capitalism was discredited before his book Mean Business could make too many converts. Not so Michael Hammer and James Champy's phenomenally successful Re-engineering the Corporation. Although the success of re-engineering (the concept) is moot, Re-engineering (the book) certainly caused mayhem: at the height of the fashion in the mid-1990s, three-quarters of large US and UK firms were reportedly engaged on three re-engineering projects each, and 500,000 people lost their jobs.
Books on theory may seem dull, and many are. But ironically, it's the absence of theory that makes many 'practical' books potentially much more dangerous. Without a robust underlying theory, giving managers bold prescriptions about re-engineering or transformation is like giving me a scalpel and sending me off to do a little brain surgery.
Lack of a theoretical tether, too, encourages fashion bubbles as managers rush all over the place to adopt the next thing, while the practices of the book trade only increase the publishing churn. The result is not only that all those predictions of change and turmoil become self-fulfilling prophecies, but also that the noise makes it harder for more reflective, less prescriptive texts to be heard, or perhaps even written in the first place.
So what is the thinking manager browsing the airport bookshop - or me surveying my desk - to do? Caveat emptor, is the answer - understand where these books are coming from and the motivations that brought them into being. It's not that they're all bad. The best are clever and thought-provoking, even inspiring. Just remember that you can't outsource responsibility for reflection, contextualisation and critical judgment as to how applicable they are.
As Stanford's Jeffrey Pfeffer has noted, managers 'must decide whether they will be swept up in the fads and rhetoric of the moment or will recognise some basic principles of management and the data consistent with them'. Unless, of course, managers are so anaesthetised by the din that their mind is already made up. Perhaps Twain was more literally right than he supposed.
The Observer, 21 November 2004