Review: The Agenda

The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do to Dominate the Decade
By Michael Hammer
Crown Business, 2001
288 pages, $27.50

Michael Hammer, the controversial coauthor of the influential Re-engineering the Corporation, is back with a significant new work, The Agenda. The quintessential 1990s business thinker is now a forceful advocate for the back-to-basics approach typical of the less-cocksure 2000s. Hammer now acknowledges that re-engineering from the ground up, which triggered thousands of layoffs in the early and mid-1990s, became too pat an answer to every corporate problem. “I no longer see myself as a radical person; instead, I have become a process person,” he writes.

What Hammer means is that becoming a dominant company does not mean throwing out every tradition and embracing every new buzzword. Rather, it means providing service to customers in ways that your competitors do not, by combining old-fashioned values such as integrity and responsibility with efficient processes for product development and quality assurance. To that end, he outlines nine to-do items for creating and managing a dominant company in the first decade of the 2000s. Some items are obvious and widely accepted: Give customers what they want, and develop better metrics to track customer satisfaction and service quality. Others are less so: Create order by precisely defining work and managing the creative process but, at the same time, manage without structure by eliminating business units and defining managers in terms of the markets, products or processes they oversee.

On the surface, not much in The Agenda is startling or new. What makes the book worthwhile is the thoughtful synthesis of Hammer’s past thinking on re-engineering with a nuts-and-bolts approach to process and customers. He argues for using the Web to deliver basic services that improve the customer experience rather than creating grandiose business models that rarely work. Hammer criticizes for inadvertently spreading the idea that disintermediation will work for every industry. “Amazon’s singular business model does not travel well or far,” he writes. The company, he continues, is “indirectly responsible for widespread confusion, mass hysteria and more than a few disasters brought about by established companies reacting to their fear of ‘being Amazoned.'”

Hammer lauds an approach taken by a far more obscure company, Trane, which makes and sells commercial and residential air-conditioning units. Trane’s Web site provides its contractors with a wide range of services, including up-to-date product information, training modules, purchase orders and warranty claim forms. The result: Trane’s distribution channel does “a better job of meeting the final customer’s needs while improving its own financial performance.” This is the key concept of Hammer’s book: using technology and the Internet to enhance customer satisfaction.

In the interests of making a point, however, Hammer sometimes fails to give us the whole story. One of his agenda items is to integrate virtually rather than vertically. He presents Ford Motor Co. as an exemplar of virtual integration for outsourcing, but never mentions the Bridgestone/Firestone tire fiasco or how Ford’s model may have contributed to it.

Nonetheless, The Agenda is a convincing entry that shows how Hammer has re-engineered his own ideas for the 21st century.

Karen Southwick is executive editor of Forbes ASAP and the author of three business technology books: Silicon Gold Rush, High Noon and the just-released Kingmakers, all from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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