The revered and the rubbish

Roger Trapp studies a book distilling the thoughts of management gurus

Given the increasingly wide, if overdue, acceptance of the idea that many management books are a waste of paper, selecting the best of them would seem an empty task.

Yet even the most sceptical acknowledge that some books contain more insight than others and that among the duds are some containing worthwhile insights. Accordingly, a volume such as The Ultimate Business Library, from Capstone (pounds 15.99), is a great deal more valuable than it might at first appear.

Not that this volume is just a synthesis of management texts. Besides summaries of key messages in books as varied as Dale Carnegie's 1937 blockbuster How to Win Friends and Influence People and Philip Kotler's seminal 1960s work Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning, Implementation and Control, there is a commentary by Gary Hamel. Professor Hamel, who divides his time between a visiting professorship at London Business School and international strategic consulting work, is himself co-author of one of the works included in the list. But rather than being a weakness this is in fact a strength in that it enables him to give an insider's view at the same time as commenting on the competition.

Moreover, as anybody who has read his and CK Prahalad's Competing for the Future will know, the quick-talking academic is more gifted than most of his competitors at coming up with the telling phrase. Hence this comment from his complimentary appraisal of Michael Goold, Marcus Alexander & Andrew Campbell's Corporate-Level Strategy: as large, multi-divisional organisations grew, decentralised and diversified, "the corporate center often became little more than a layer of accounting consolidation. In the worst cases a conglomerate was worth less than its break-up value, and the difference between unit strategy and corporate strategy was a stapler."

Although often regarded as something of a young turk, Prof Hamel also has a reverence for some of his elders. Take, for instance, his comment on Peter Drucker, frequently described as "the guru's guru" and one of several authors to have more than one book in the top 50. Pointing out how Mr Drucker's 1969 work The Age of Discontinuity accurately predicted the emergence of the now much-vaunted "knowledge workers", he says: "I'd like to set a challenge for would-be management gurus: try to find something to say that Peter Drucker has not said first, and has not said well."

When it comes to Tom Peters, the man who unquestioningly made the management guru the Hollywood-style industry it has become in the past decade, Prof Hamel reassuringly adopts the line that most commentators have taken. In Search of Excellence, written with Robert Waterman in 1982, is praised for mostly avoiding "the facile and the tautological" while reminding managers that success can come from "doing common things uncommonly well".

However, when it comes to Liberation Management, Mr Peters' introduction to new-age management philosophy of a decade later, he finds himself wishing that "the ratio of insight to data were a bit higher, and that there were a few less case studies and a bit more conceptual structure".

So what is his assessment of his own book? Cannily, he leaves that for the reader to decide. But he sets the scene by writing: "By the 1990s strategy had become discredited. All too often `vision' was ego masquerading as foresight; planning was formulaic, incrementalist and a waste of time in a world of discontinuous change; `strategic' investments were those that lost millions, if not billions of dollars. In practice, strategy development too often started with the past, rather than the future. As strategy professors, CK and I had a simple choice: change jobs or try to reinvent strategy for a new age."

As Stuart Crainer, the management writer who provides the summaries, notes in his preface, there are "drawbacks, prejudices and deficiencies" in any selection and for that reason the book concludes with an appendix of another 50 books that did not make the final list.

There is one problem. The stated intention is to whet readers' appetites and to encourage them to seek out the original books. What is more likely is that readers will stop with The Ultimate Business Library.

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