Book reviews

Recent and forthcoming titles for the communicator's bookshelf

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, Douglas Rushkoff, Portfolio/Penguin March 2016

The protest that gave this book its title arose from a conflict in which the author attributes no blame to the actors involved but instead to the economic system they live within. Professor Douglas Rushkoff of Queens College CUNY believes we are in a growth trap – where companies push for profit maximisation to appease their boards and investors with little consideration for the non-monetary costs of their operations.  Rushkoff argues this system causes damage our collective activity rather than individually. Google’s evil comes from being particularly successful at growth. But technology was supposed to reshape all our lives for the better. The author’s words drip with the disappointment he feels in the digital economy: ”Companies with new technologies are free to disrupt almost any industry they choose…so long as they don’t disrupt the financial operating system churning beneath it all.” He asks us to imagine a better world – a world that would see no reason for local residents in San Francisco to throw rocks at a bus shuttling Google employees to a company campus in protest of rising rent prices and gentrification. This world is built on a distributive model rather than an extractive, in which tech giants and disruptors are owned by those working for them, and Rushkoff provides a convincing argument as to why this transition should occur.

Public Affairs: A Global Perspective, Stuart Thomson, Urbane Publications April 2016

Public affairs, much like communications, has an image problem. The activities of lobbyists bring to mind questions of how exactly they come to influence political decisions. This collection, edited by Stuart Thomson, seeks to answer these questions. From the case studies outlined in this book, it is obvious that public affairs practitioners are able to have great influence on the political process. Therefore, it is beneficial to understand lobbying practice rather than turn our back on it. Crucially, Thomson has curated international contributions from practitioners with expertise in their respective nations.  After all, in a globalised world is there much point to providing national perspectives in isolation? While international similarities are apparent, institutional structures play a role in each case study, revealing the importance of understanding local norms for public affairs officers to succeed in working with decision makers outside of their own countries. The book also shows the advantages of an open approach to public affairs to improving public perception of the industry. For example, the strong regulatory environment in Canada has led to greater legitimacy for Canadian public affairs officers, whereas UK practitioners tackle regulation that can be seen as counterproductive to widespread benefit in some cases. An accessible guide to the state of public affairs across the world.

Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends, Martin Lindstrom, St. Martin’s Press 2016

Sometimes it’s the little things that count. Particularly when it comes to telling a fuller story than can be told by big data. That’s the claim of noted brand expert Martin Lindstrom, who has spent his career in and out of people’s homes, making notes of the tiny, seemingly insignificant clues we leave behind but which tell a much bigger story than most of us would guess. His latest book, Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends is full of these surprising deductions: from the way shoes are arranged in the hall way, the exact placing of food in a fridge, the extent of bookshelves in the living room, no clue is too tiny, no detail too banal, for the purposes of extrapolation.  Alongside these Sherlock Holmesian deductions are case studies from major brands that have finessed their products or services thanks to lessons learned from small data: LEGO (which the author worked for at the age of 12), P&G and Danone are some of the cases that prove, whereas big data looks at correlation, small data illuminates causation –  the why and not just the what. As would be expected, Lindstrom has a novelist’s eye for detail that is a pleasure to read. While there are inevitably some generalisations that will cause some to scratch their heads, the book reminds us – with our obsession with big data – that the minutiae of human behaviour is equally as rich a source of information.

The Disruption Dilemma, Joshua Gans, MIT Press, May 2016

Why have firms such as Fujifilm and Canon managed disruption, while others like Blockbuster or Encyclopedia Britannica have not? Almost 20 years since Clayton Christensen coined the term in the world of business innovation, Joshua Gans, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto, has set about to carefully examine Christensen’s model of disruption as a set of risks that established firms face. Gans identifies two types of disruption: demand-side, where companies are so focused on main customers they underestimate new competitors that target niche demands; and supply-side, where the task of developing existing competencies blinds companies from developing new ones. Gans describes the array of actions business leaders can take to handle each type of disruption, from independent internal units set up to “self-disrupt” too closely integrated product development. But a firm cannot practice both at once – therein lies the titular ‘dilemma’. What makes this book compulsive is the way models  of disruption are mapped onto various case studies – the introduction of the iPhone, Microsoft and the “browser wars”, the aforementioned Blockbuster – in a way that brings the theory alive and  arms the reader to face future disruptions.