This has been a good year for business books. When tides and markets change as much as they have in 1998, it's useful to have guidebooks to the emerging infrastructure, new rules, the path ahead. And the best business books also give us a kick in the pants, challenging our assumptions about how things really work ... or could work.
I've found the following five the best, most interesting, most useful books this year, to help understand what's going on. All qualify under the "challenging old assumptions" test, and none wander off into that la-la land of academic business-ese. I quibble with parts of all of them, and the quality of the writing is uneven. But they're all winners, and have earned their places in my Best Business Books Bundle for 1998.
As gifts or for yourself, they'll repay you many times for the time spent with them.
(Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Harvard Business School Press, 288 pages, $29.95). The book of the year for understanding the New Economy -- or rather, the New Economies. Shapiro and Varian,
business-school profs, show a remarkable understanding of real-world business, how economics on the street really work. If you buy just one book on this list, make this the one. Chew on it for a while, look at its notions in the context of what's happened in the market this year, then read it again. An instant classic.
(Patricia Seybold, Times Books, 320 pages, $27.50). Patty Seybold has been running a successful finger-in-the-wind consultancy for 20 years, helping corporations and vendors understand where Information Technology is headed. In Customers.com, she reports 16 case studies from the trenches in the frantically changing e-commerce business. Her customer-centric approach matches my own, so naturally I think she's right on the button. There are also checklists for getting started in e-commerce, but the heart of this book is Patty's consistently insightful reporting from within the e-commerce cyclone. Essential for developing your own checklist for evaluating "e-tailers" as investments.
The Weightless World: Managing the Internet Economy
(Diane Coyle, MIT Press, 272 pages, $25) Coyle, economics editor at
in England, lifts
wonderful phrase ... and makes sense of it. In a world where bits, not atoms (to borrow from Nick Negroponte), reign supreme, what will business structures look like? How will we find, define and serve customers? What will our careers be like? What about markets? What will be -- what should be -- the role of government in our increasingly virtual economies? This book is less an explanation than an exploration, and will challenge you with some of Coyle's projections about the future. Save it for a long weekend away from the tape and the computer, and spend a few hours thinking -- forgive the cliche, but it fits -- outside the box.
Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy
(Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis, Perseus Press, 265 pages, $25). Davis and Meyer preach the gospel of minimalism and flexibility in business. Their gods are Speed, Intangibles and Connectivity, and their conclusions -- about the scale, structure and processes of successful companies in Coyle's Weightless World -- are compelling. This makes a good follow-up read to Coyle, in fact; both dance near but never tumble into the abyss of Future Shlock. If you aren't yet a believer in the importance of momentum and turning on a dime both in running a business and in investing, this book will change your mind -- or make you so mad you'll throw it into the fireplace. But I doubt that many
subscribers will toss this one.
Unleashing the Killer App
(Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, Harvard Business School Press, 272 pages, $24.95). Creating New Economy dot-com businesses is all about creating "killer apps" -- and increasingly, "killer services." Downes and Mui describe the process of discovering, defining and marketing killer apps, broadly defined. They have the long view -- you'll read about longbows and compasses -- and will help you think about digital strategies. Even if you're not interested in finding killer apps you can launch, Unleashing will help you spot viable killer apps in target companies. A bit frothy, but worth the foam it leaves on your upper lip.
And for lighter moments -- or at least those times when you can't read another word about dot-coms, digital strategies and economies new or old, here are two wonderful, recent nonfiction books I think you'll love.
The Perfect Storm
(Sebastian Junger, Norton, 256 pages, $23.95). A brilliant, terrifying, true tale about six seamen lost when their fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, was trapped in 100-foot waves off the New England coast in 1991's "storm of the century." Set aside time to read it in one sitting; this is a story in which you want to remain immersed to the very end.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
(Dava Sobel, Walker, 194 pages, $19). The marine chronometer was at least as important an invention in the 18th century as the microprocessor is in our time. Sailors had long been able to find their latitude, but longitude was beyond them. English clockmaker John Harrison created the ultra-accurate chronometer that made precision navigation possible, though in the end, politics and pettiness kept him from winning the full 20,000-pound prize offered by the British government for the first workable solution. Brief, quirky, passionate, brilliant.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At the time of publication, Seymour held no positions in stocks mentioned in this column, though positions can change at any time. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback. TheStreet.com has a revenue-sharing relationship with Amazon.com under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon purchases by customers directed there from TheStreet.com.