This week: corporate self-help, schadenfreude, tech broccoli, and real eyeopeners: our 2021 best business books for your Christmas list.
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Futures Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
03:32 – 2021 business books review
Other stories we bring up
The books we spoke about
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Sandra So it's that time of the year again, when we're both kind of late buying Christmas presents, and we need to figure out what to do.
Kai So if you're like us, you are looking for something to gift, but also maybe something to do during the holidays. And since we're academics, we're always going to have a look at what are the kinds of books that we should be reading now?
Sandra Yeah, yeah, it's our best books episode.
Kai We did that last year, we're going to do it this year. So it's one year on and there's many new books, some good, some not so, and there's also importantly, lots and lots of lists of the best books of the year. And we're having a look.
Sandra But before we go down the deep, deep rabbit hole of lists of best business books and best management books and best leadership books.
Kai And technology books and all that rest of it.
Sandra Before we do that, we have to have a minute of silence because something very sad has happened.
Kai Yeah, good luck with that because, you know, Megan, I'm sure, will cut down that minute to three, two seconds, I'm sure.
Sandra Two seconds of silence because we can't go without saying that a crypto legend has died.
Kai And we're talking about the most successful trading hamster in the world.
Sandra Mr Goxx the cryptocurrency legend has died. As our listeners will be familiar, Mr Goxx was a very successful hamster who had his cage rigged so that he after, you know, exercising on the decision wheel, he would go over parts of his cage. And parts of it were rigged to sell crypto, and parts of it to buy crypto. It was linked to a wallet, and he will do automatic trades.
Kai And he was successful.
Sandra He was very successful. He outperformed Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett's company, he outperformed the Index. And he also outperformed, for a while, Bitcoin itself.
Kai We do not know what happens to Mr Goxx's wallet, we hope the key to his wallet is safe. We also do not know the cause of his demise. We can only speculate whether he had an accident with his toy Lamborghini, or whether he died at work of exhaustion and the treadmill of trading.
Sandra Let's not speculate, the poor hamster is, is now dead and Twitch has lost a streamer and all his followers who would lovingly watch him now have to turn their attention to what is likely the second-best trading hamster on the internet.
Kai While we're not familiar with the ranking of trading rodents we do hope that his tiny footsteps will be filled soon.
Sandra So let us join the hundreds of people around the world who have paid tribute to the crypto legend that was Mr Goxx.
Kai So before we go to books, two seconds of silence.
Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, an initiative that explores the future of business. And you're listening to The Future, This Week, where Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer sit down every week to rethink and unlearn trends in technology and business. They discuss the news of the week, question the obvious and explore the weird and the wonderful.
Sandra So last year, when we did the best books of 2020, we realised that pretty much everyone had come up with the list of books from The Economist to Forbes, The Times, McKinsey, the Financial Times, pretty much everyone had a list of best books. And we were trying to figure out how to do this last year, and we realised that all these books on all these lists actually fit into certain categories that pretty well describe kind of the conversation that was happening last year. And this year, they seem to pretty much fit that mould.
Kai With some changes that also point to how the conversation has evolved from last year. So we're going to reflect on the categories a bit, but we're also going to point out which are the books that make most of the list.
Sandra And we're of course going to give our own picks as well, things we're going to buy for other people, things we're going to read over the holidays. But we'll walk you through the categories everything from the good old self-help and Silicon Valley Kool-Aid to the tech broccolis.
Kai Which we might call tech kale this year, just for a bit of change the stuff that's good for you to read that give you some healthy balance in your book diet.
Sandra And we've also added a new category: pandemic makes everything different. So let's start with self-help, because this category is always the biggest and always kind of dominates all these business book lists.
Kai So these are the books that give important advice to all of us in business, workers, managers, leaders, the hard and fast rules by which we should live our lives to be more successful, have more purpose, be happier in our jobs.
Sandra And these books are always around like this one big idea, one thing that will change your life or this year your organisational life.
Kai Because there's a new entry subcategory, which is the corporate self-help. So the category has slightly evolved from last year.
Sandra The biggest book in self-help this year, we'll probably have to say was Work Won't Love You Back. And that's a book by Sarah Jaffe, Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone.
Kai The premise of the book is the observation that we've been told for decades to dedicate ourselves to the cause of the company to work to sacrifice our spare time to really throw our full selves into our work. But Sarah points out that corporations rarely ever hold up their end of the bargain.
Sandra The idea here is that Gen Zs and millennials have always been raised to be happy at work and to find fulfilment in work to find it the calling, meaningful and so on. But for people like Jaffe, this whole idea is a con is a scam that blinds us to the fact that what we're really fighting for is control over the time we spend at work and over work itself and over our lives.
Kai And so people have experienced in recent times, job security to evaporate, working conditions to deteriorate. More and more companies transition to casual employment gig economy style contracting. So the passion that people put into their jobs is rarely ever reciprocated by the HR departments in large organisations.
Sandra Her idea is that basically capitalism cannot love and the way we've set up the world of work can never live up to our expectations. So if you want to explore this idea between what we expect at work, and what work can actually deliver to us, Work Won't Love You Back is a good option.
Kai And it's not the only book that explores this topic, there's also The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality by Erin Cech, which made the Best Books of the Year 2021 list by the Financial Times.
Sandra And this has a slightly different take on the same topic, saying that basically this idea of following your dream is a luxury that very few people can afford in life. And this idea that work must at all costs, provide self-expression and provide fulfilment is actually a setup for what is in the end work inequality. Both books were on a number of lists, including, as you've mentioned, the trouble with passion on the best books of the Financial Times, and Work Won't Love You Back on The Times list and on the Amazon Books and on the Fortune list.
Kai But there's more than self-help. Again, a one idea book is A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload by Cal Newport. And it's exactly that what it says on the cover.
Sandra And another book on the strategy+business list out of PwC was, Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism by Tom Peters.
Kai It's a real gem this book, full of wisdom.
Sandra Neither of us have read this yet. So just quoting here from the PwC review, "it's a book about leaders that need to focus on people".
Kai The needs of people, yeah.
Sandra On the needs of people, yeah.
Sandra And I quote, "Small is preferred to large, and action to inertia. Get your hands dirty". "Treasure your frontline managers, and treat your part-timers right, too. For heaven’s sake, get out and talk to customers, and listen to people. Apologize when you need to, and do so like you mean it." So...
Kai In other words, another book, and we had some last year about, you know, be human at work. If you're a leader, treat other people like they're human too.
Sandra And don't forget about women. And again, I'm quoting from the book review on Best Business Books 2021 "there is the earthshaking and long overdue rise of women throughout society and especially in business. This phenomenon is not lost on Peters, who insists that women are better managers than men, and who opens the book by dedicating it to 11 women".
Kai "Aim for excellence day in and day out, not as a grand aspiration, but as a way of life."
Sandra Reminds me of Mr Goxx. There's more self-help if you're in that category, Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being by Rob Cross.
Kai Also on the strategy+business list, I had a quick look at that while A World without Email, refers to, you know, not doing as much email. This book could be summarised as 'shut your office door and get some focused work time.' So, another good piece of advice.
Sandra Shame we don't have offices anymore, so.
Kai Find a quiet space.
Sandra Really just close your bedroom door. New category this year in self-help, there's been a lot of corporate self-help. A lot of corporates have been struggling during the pandemic as we went through 2020. So now in 2021, a lot of books helping these corporates struggle through the ongoing pandemic. And here we've had books like Toxic: A Guide to Rebuilding Respect and Tolerance in a Hostile Workplace by Clive Lewis. That's been on a few of the book lists, including The Times list.
Kai And this tackles an important topic, the presence of people who are un-collegiate, unkind, abusive, it ties in with the #MeToo movement, but it also looks into bullying, and simply bad management and what to do with that how employees can stop that by voting with their feet essentially, looking for different employers, and it certainly ties in with the conversation around the great resignation or the willingness of people to shop around for better workplaces after the pandemic.
Sandra And in another one-word title, which we'll get to today because there's many of these one-word titles this year seems to be a thing, Toxic. We've got The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations by Robert Livingstone, this has been on many, many of the lists, including the CEO Magazine's list, the Best Books out of strategy+business and the Financial Times list. And the idea here is continuing from toxic workplaces, addressing racism within the organisation is a tool that leaders have that they can actually work at. And this book gives some guidance on how to get started,
Kai And there was a lot in that category. One more that we want to mention is Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life, by Gillian Tett, and this one made it to The Times list. And it argues for basically hiring anthropologists, which isn't entirely a new idea, companies have done so for quite a while to understanding the life of consumers. For example, Intel, decades ago, hired Genevieve Bell, who shaped product strategy at Intel and has become an influential voice in thinking about technology from a human-societal point of view. And so this book makes that case as a strategy to basically improve a business's vision, the ability to "see what is around the corner" and "spot what is hidden in plain sight", as the book says.
Sandra And Genevieve's story of how she started work at Intel a couple of decades ago is a ripping yarn, really worth listening to how an anthropologist from Australia basically ran innovation at Intel, and how she brought on hundreds of social scientists, and how Intel started looking at how people use technologies in their homes and in their lives. It's a really good story. We'll put links in the shownotes. But enough of self-help, it's always the biggest category. A category that was pretty much missing this year was one of last year's really big ones, which was 'generalising from unicorns'. Every year we have all these books that you know, take experiences at Amazon or at Facebook, or at Twitter.
Kai IBM, or, you know any one successful company and tries to generalise for the rest of us.
Sandra We've had one kind of this year, Amazon on bound the Jeff Bezos and the invention of a global empire by Brad stone. And this was on a couple of lists including The Times list, but it was more of a corporate biography rather than really generalising from unicorns book, because it does seem that this year things have turned a bit sour for the unicorns. So we've renamed this category for the year, 'something toxic.'
Kai Not Goxxic, toxic, because the conversation around big tech and corporate power has changed. And so the first entry in this category is an ugly truth inside Facebook's battle for domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, which also made The Times list. So while last year in the learning from unicorns category, we had lots of books that would take companies like Facebook and derive potentially valuable insights for businesses for how to you know, bring forward their own business. This year, we're looking at the dark side of companies such as Facebook.
Sandra There's also Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America's Social Justice Scam by Vivek Ramaswamy. That's also made a couple of the lists. And probably the biggest entry into 'something toxic', was Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe and that's made The Times list, the CEO list.
Kai And this is probably the one book that we saw across most of the lists. Empire of Pain is a really important book, it looks at the OxyContin crisis in the US. And it is a story of corporate greed, of corruption, of a company that has exploited public health's for its own game. And it is right in line with other such stories around asbestos or tobacco, where corporate greed, the dark side of capitalism takes over with really dark effects for society at large and many people suffering from the side effects of these medication and addiction.
Sandra It is a very serious book about the serious crisis. But it's also very much a business book. Much like we had tobacco and much like we have big tech now, the crises are general societal crisis, but the books are business books that explain the mechanisms and the incentive schemes behind it. And speaking of incentives, we've always had this category of books about failure, a category we lovingly term...
Kai Schadenfreude, books about failure. And last year, we had Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork and guess what?
Sandra This year we have The Cult of We: WeWork and the Great Start-Up Delusion by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell, which is again about WeWork.
Kai The gift that keeps on giving literally every Christmas.
Sandra Literally. It's been on The Times list, it's been on the CEO Magazines list, it's been on the Financial Times lists, a couple of them. The Cult of We, WeWork seems to be the one thing that keeps on giving.
Kai Pretty sure next year we'll see another entry in this category around Theranos, where with Bad Blood, we previously had a really good book and with the ongoing court hearings, it shapes up to be a sequel for you know, next year's Christmas.
Sandra But for something light-hearted, maybe something from our next category, lovingly titled, Silicon Valley Kool-Aid.
Kai These are the kinds of books that go to the heart of techno-optimists, Silicon Valley narratives.
Sandra Sometimes over-hyped, sometimes over-promised, but always buzzworthy.
Kai Scary Smart: The Future of Artificial Intelligence and How You Can Save Our World by Mo Gawdat, the former Chief Business Officer at Google X, the tech giants' research lab. Basically, the book makes the point that AI will by 2049 be a billion times cleverer than the most intelligent human. Methinks no.
Sandra So then maybe Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It by Azeem Azhar.
Kai And I'm a bit conflicted about this book, it comes across with this typical Silicon Valley exuberance around exponential and how everything is becoming faster, and how tech is changing everything in a kind of steamroll our narrative, but it does make some good points. So maybe it's sort of on the verge.
Sandra It does try to address this idea of how is society and economics and politics being changed by the technological revolution. But it does also veer into the kind of buzzwordy, Kool-Aidy bit in kind of what to do about it. So it's really on that verge between Silicon Valley Kool-Aid and our tech broccoli category.
Kai Which we might call tech kale this year, just for a bit of a healthy green change. But this is a category that is dear to our heart, because these are books that make really good balanced important points about technology in business.
Sandra And their books that are not always like really surprising, but that make kind of solid arguments that need to be made about tech.
Kai And the first one on our list is Atlas of AI, Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence by Kate Crawford.
Sandra It's been a Financial Times best book. But we've also had Kate Crawford here at the University of Sydney giving a seminar a couple of months ago. Again, we'll include links in the shownotes, but it's a really good all-encompassing book around what AI is as a technology. And so what about AI? Because Kate does really go into not only the technology itself, but its societal and political and even environmental implications.
Kai So it's probably the most comprehensive look under the hood of AI going as far as looking into the impact of mining of minerals, the electricity cost and taking a real holistic picture of the cost of artificial intelligence
Sandra And there's quite a few this year on artificial intelligence. The Alignment Problem is another one, Machine Learning and Human Values by Brian Christian and this was on Satya Nadella books' list, Microsoft CEO.
Kai Another book is Your Computer Is on Fire, a book that is actually a collection of academic essays edited by Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, Kavita Philip.
Sandra And this is true tech broccoli, right, a number of essays trying to kind of counter the techno-utopian narratives that are coming out of Silicon Valley, and trying to go to what's behind the terms that we hear quite often things like virtual reality, the cloud, human error, autonomous and so on and trying to understand, really, what does this all mean?
Kai What do these technologies mean for being human? What are the impacts on inequality, marginalisation of certain groups in society, and how biases become woven into our tech systems.
Sandra And for more kind of end of the world tech broccoli, This Is How They Tell Me the World Will End: The Cyber Weapons Arms Race by Nicole Perlroth.
Kai She's a New York Times writer, and this book made a few lists. And it is really one of those books that might be overlooked as a business book. But it is an important book that opens our eyes for cyber warfare, for the cybersecurity risks that government, society, and many businesses face in this increasingly digitised world with always-on connections, Internet of Things, devices that have entered our workplaces and homes. So it's a really sobering read about the exposure that all of us have to the digital world.
Sandra It's a real eye-opener. Speaking of which, let's talk about real eye-openers, because we've always had this as a category, the true eye-opening books, the books that reveal things that might be really in front of us, but we haven't really grasped or picked up and that articulates significant difficult ideas that have a real impact in how our world is changing.
Kai The first one on our list is Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy by Adam Tooze.
Sandra And this really is not only an important book, but a book that very clearly articulates some of the really big challenges ahead of us. And it does come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it does ask questions about the interplay between the health and the economic crisis that we've been faced with over the last couple of years. And it does warn us that we are very ill-prepared for the next pandemic, but even for really answering the questions around how should we spend money in the economy, where we should spend money in the economy, where we should invest and how to handle the big crisis that we're faced with. And his implications in his book are quite stark, in that he warns that even with the way we've handled the COVID-19 pandemic, and before that the financial crisis, and he has written extensively about these big moments in history, like the global financial crisis, or like the crisis that was brought on by the First and the Second World War, he does warn that the West really has no systematic ability to effectively manage or to prevent large scale crisis. And it's really this interplay between the health system, the economic system, our political systems, and our cultural conversations that, for Tooze, are based on outdated economic principles. So a really, really good book.
Kai Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Danny Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein, and I think you have something to say about this.
Sandra Yeah, another one of those eye-opening books. So eye-opening that we've had Danny Kahneman recently for an event here at Sydney Business Insights. And again, we'll put the link in the shownotes where we do discuss, among other things, Noise. And upcoming also an interview with another one of the authors, Cass Sunstein, who's also co-written the final Nudge with Richard Thaler, and his own book Sludge, which has also come up this year.
Kai So Noise, Nudge and Sludge, three really good eye-opening books, but we would be remiss if we didn't also mention another, and our final entry on that list, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism by Mariana Mazzucato. And this is a really fresh take on the innovation narrative, how the world innovates.
Sandra Another book by another economist, Mariana Mazzucato, who is a professor at the University College London, but who has been so, so influential over the last few years talking to governments, CEOs around the world, and advising people on how to use economic principles to rethink what we value in society. And really the backbone of a lot of her efforts to rethink how we run our economies has been around this idea of re-imagining capitalism by investing in a very strong state-backed public sector. And although she does argue for big government investments, she's certainly been embraced on both sides of the aisle with kind of free market, fiscally conservative people embracing her ideas as well.
Kai And she made the Financial Times list after all. And before we come to our own picks for the holidays, there's some good news on this year's list. Last year, we had the environmental omissions because no climate books made the list last year, that has fortunately changed. There's a number of books, one notable, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet by Michael Mann, which made the 10 best books list by CEO Magazine.
Sandra And also books like Unravelled: The Life and Death of a Garment by Maxine Bedat, which follows a pair of jeans around the world that's made a lot of the book lists and takes a different lens to the idea of sustainability and environmental impact. But the new category this year has really been the 'pandemic makes everything different' category.
Kai Of course, there had to be books about remote work. Remote, Inc. by Robert C Pozen and Alexandra Samuel, or Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere. By: Tsedal Neeley, which made the CEO Magazine list.
Sandra Okay, so the moment we've been...
Kai Working towards.
Sandra What are you going to read, and what are you going to buy people?
Kai Okay, so I think I have on my gift list Shutdown by Adam Tooze, as we said, a really good grand narrative that is relevant now learning from the pandemic, that will be on the list of books that I'm going to gift.
Sandra And can I just say, you've probably picked a winner there because it does seem this year you need a book that's got like a one-word title. Reflecting back on what we have, like Toxic, Conversation, Anthro-vision, Exponential, Shutdown, Noise, Unravelled. But then there was also Liftoff and Chatter and Land and Work.
Kai Framers, there's a whole bunch of one-word title books.
Sandra Yes. So you got a one word one.
Kai Shutdown, yeah, that's going to be on my list. What's one on yours?
Sandra I've got to Tooze's book on my list too and bought a couple of copies to give as presents as well. But I also have Mission Economy: a Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism. I've read Mariana's previous books, so very much looking forward to going through this one.
Kai Yeah. And two books that I'm going to read and maybe also gift, on the boundary between business and tech this year is Your Computer Is on Fire, that collection of essays. I'm going to have a look at that, that sounds really interesting. And also from our broccoli list, This is How They Tell Me the World Ends. It's about cyber warfare and cybersecurity. That sounds like a really relevant book.
Sandra I've already got a whole bunch of copies of Noise and Nudge after talking to Richard Thaler and Danny Kahneman. So I'll definitely be gifting those as well.
Kai So we better get onto it then. Lots to read, lots to shop.
Kai But that's all we have time for today.
Kai Thanks for listening and happy shopping.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Flipboard and subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sandra Mr Goxx.
Kai Two seconds of silence.
Megan You don't have to ACTUALLY do two seconds of silence.
Kai No, no, we're respectful. We did.
Sandra We did two seconds of silence for Mr Goxx.
Kai No, oh. Megan says she puts the two seconds of silence in. No, no. We observe the two seconds of silence. We owe this to our listeners.