torstai 6. lokakuuta 2011

"TO READ OR NOT TO READ?" -Business books as a source of wisdom

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if business books were invented today? Would we read them? 

Now let´s think about it for a moment.

Nowadays everything is instant, interactive and online. We get the information we need tailored personally for us, we learn together and collaborate in various networks. Social media is everywhere, offering tempting opportunities to spend your time (even on hectic business trips like described in my previous blog post).  In the middle of this overwhelming internet and collaboration reality, imagine if the latest learning tool for busy professionals in 2012 was a management book in its traditional format? 

Specifications for this magnificent innovation:
  • It comes in very tempting printed paper format, only the hardcover jacket has some colors, otherwise it is almost always black and white
  • Content is only text with no pictures and the language itself is very seldom rich in nuances, not to mention entertaining
  • There is no high-tech involved (like you probably would be expecting from a learning innovation of the year 2012, right?)
And there are even more excellencies when it comes down to the user experience of this product:
  • It takes easily 10-15 hours to read it and note that it can be done only in a proper environment with no distractions 
  • In case you get some ideas while reading, you have to use separate tool to take notes and share them with your colleagues. 
  • And the real beauty of it: Once you have finally completed the book, you have already forgotten the vast majority of its content you have muddled through spending all your available late nights for the past two weeks.    
What do you think about those selling arguments? Would a management book be a smash hit if it was launched today?    

Well, it might or it might not, we will never know for sure. And of course there are plenty of other arguments in favor of traditional books. The picture is not that gloomy as provocatively presented before. But what we do know is that humans are quite inclined of repeating the habits we have. Dan Ariely calls this "self-hearding" in his excellent book "Predictably Irrational" (2009).
You know the situation when you look up a restaurant in a foreign city. You are walking past a restaurant a see people standing in line, waiting to get in. You think to yourself that this must be a good restaurant and you stand behind these people. You assume something is good (or bad) based on other people´s behaviors. That is called hearding. But as Ariely points out, there is also another kind of hearding, self-hearding. This happens when you believe something is good based on your own previous behavior. We begin to line up behind ourselves in different experiences.
Now does this have something to do with management books? Well I think the same logic applies also to learning methods in executive education to some extent. Books and lectures have been there for ages. I´m not arguing that reading books is useless, quite the opposite, I love reading good books. All I´m saying is that we quite easily accept the work load and learning mindset related to reading because we are used to of doing that. For example, allocating 20-30 hours into reading a book and writing a reflective essay is rather easy. But instead allocating 10 hours into collaborative learning in some digital platform is harder if you are not familiar with such a method.
Think about this in that imaginary world without books. We could have some challenges with reading if we were not used to of doing that. Finding several hours of undisturbed time in calm environment, just to read among ourselves would be an effort itself. We could have the perfect rational arguments for reading. Like David Rock puts it in his magnificent book on self management (Your Brain at Work 2009), saying no to distractions (both internal and external) in an essential skill for everybody. So in addition to the book´s content as such, even the reading experience itself could be worthwhile as an exercise. But I reckon it would be hard. But like Alf Rehn says, thinking way beyond your comfort zone is the source of game-changing ideas, both on personal and organizational level (Dangerous Ideas 2011).
Now where does this leave us with books, to read or not to read? Which one is better, instant internet-based information flow and online networks, or traditional book wisdom? My advice is to excel yourself on both fields. And as we know the perspectives are not even that opposite. The future of business book concept probably includes more social reading, sharing your learning points and reflections, collaborative communities around books, more sophisticated e-book technology and more. So it is not a case where one of the approaches is unquestionably better that the other, or the less bad and painful one like the character who inspired the title for this blog post pondered in his famous monologue.
Innovation, new ideas and experiments are always needed when it comes to developing yourself and your organization. And a good book is a strong learning tool; you can take my word for it.  So I wish you many reflective, critical and enjoyable moments with management books. In case you want to spot some reading tips, our executive education reading list was just updated. There you can find the books quoted in this blog post (all three absolutely amazing books by the way!) and many more. The list includes a lot of books in Finnish, but if you are on LinkedIn  you can also follow my reading list by Amazon there. In any case, let’s share reading experiences and good reading tips.

So what are you waiting for?  Welcome to the reading restaurant, in this place there is a line on the door, so it you know it serves good flavors...!

Pasi Aaltola
Director, MBA Education