Review: The Company of the Future

0109 Book Review

The Company of The Future: How the Communications Revolution is Changing Management
by Frances Cairncross
Harvard Business School Press, 2002 272 pages, $27.50

To be a successful company of tomorrow, it’s important to first figure out how to prepare for today. That’s the premise of the latest book from Frances Cairncross, management editor of The Economist, who lays out 10 rules companies should follow to be successful in the years ahead.

While most of the rules on the list will sound familiar to IT managers who have kept up with management theory, what is surprising is Cairncross’ belief that IT needs to be at the center of each one. True, the notion that IT is critical to knowledge management, communication and collaboration is fairly well accepted, but the idea that it needs to be at the heart of everything from marketing to managing talent will raise the eyebrows of more than one business executive.

It shouldn’t, Cairncross contends, citing reasons that pertain to both the internal and external aspects of an organization. Internally, she says, “almost every business process involves information in some form: an instruction, plan, advertisement, blueprint or set of accounts.” Externally, four factors are making it easier to move the IT department, as the primary caretaker of that technology, to center stage: New technologies are driving down cost and increasing speed; it is now remarkably inexpensive to move information around the world; the innumerable applications of the Internet make wholesale operational changes pervasive; and the ease with which information can be shared should make corporations run more efficiently.

At the heart of Cairncross’ argument is her call for the IT department to be more forceful in shaping its company’s agenda. “The benefits of Internet technologies depend not on their wizardry alone, which in the coming years will seem remarkably ordinary and natural, just as the telephone does now; companies will reap the full benefits only if they have appropriate structures and cultures.” Cairncross recommends blowing up the last vestiges of what management consultants are fond of referring to as “silos.” (The reference is to organization systems in which functions like IT are self-contained and movement up the corporate ladder is contained to your particular function.)

In making wholesale changes like this, one size certainly does not fit all. While she argues her case strongly, Cairncross does not offer any specific suggestions for how companies can change. She does offer some helpful general advice (see below), however, and the book functions well as a rallying cry for both IT managers and the people to whom they report. It will be interesting to see which managers answer the call.

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