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[techbooks] REVIEW: "The Human Equation", Jeffrey Pfeffer

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKHUMEQU.RVW 990530 The Human Equation , Jeffrey Pfeffer, 1998, 0-87584-841-9, U$24.95 %A Jeffrey Pfeffer %C 60 Harvard Way, Boston MA 02163 %D 1998
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 28, 1999
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      BKHUMEQU.RVW 990530

      "The Human Equation", Jeffrey Pfeffer, 1998, 0-87584-841-9, U$24.95
      %A Jeffrey Pfeffer
      %C 60 Harvard Way, Boston MA 02163
      %D 1998
      %G 0-87584-841-9
      %I Harvard Business School Press
      %O U$24.95 800-545-7685 fax 617-496-8866 http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu
      %P 345 p.
      %T "The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First"

      Management is hard. It involves balancing a bewildering variety of
      conflicting, or, at best, orthogonal factors. The tenets resist
      codification. It has to deal with the least tractable objects in the
      known universe: human beings. And, management is important. Good
      management can make a business with the most mundane and
      undifferentiated of products thrive: bad management can kill the most
      desperately needed service. With these two elements of consequence
      and challenge, then, it is almost axiomatic that there will be a
      market, and a large one, for books on management.

      Given demand, of course, a supply rushes in to take advantage of it.
      Therefore, we have a plethora of books on management, but, since
      management is hard; and writing is hard; most of these books have
      value only in the eyes of publicists and marketers.

      A few stand out. About forty years ago there was an article, rather
      than a book, that rocked the business establishment. It posited that
      the traditional "Brand X" style of "show 'em who's boss" management
      might be less effective than paying attention to your people. Twenty
      years later, a book tried to pursue the components of excellence, and
      zeroed in on the rather neglected aspect of paying attention to
      people. Now, Pfeffer asserts that we can best build the bottom line
      by paying attention to our people. It's often been said that we
      require much more reminding than we ever need teaching.

      This book will be a classic. Get it, read it, and implement it now,
      in order to take the greatest advantage over the longest time.

      With respect to those of us who do actual reviews, rather than merely
      reprinting recycled press releases, it is often felt that we somehow
      enjoy ripping a book (or other item) to shreds. The plain fact is
      that it is a lot easier to review a bad product than a good one.
      Identifying and pointing out flaws is fairly easy, and so a bad
      product gives you a lot more material to write about. But, while we
      can all spot a goof, how do you explain greatness? What do you say,
      beyond, "This is a good book. Buy it."

      Interestingly, Pfeffer writes something to this effect in chapter
      four, while pointing out some of the tragically flawed beliefs and
      practices of modern business. He notes that the formal evaluation
      process, so beloved of management, requires that experts explain their
      conclusions to non-experts. However, experts make decisions based on
      accumulated experience and an almost intuitive level of knowledge.
      This reasoning generally cannot be explained to novices, who can only
      rely on common knowledge. The explanation, therefore, must proceed at
      the novice level. As the old saw has it, if you can tell the
      difference between good advice and bad advice, you don't need any
      advice. If an institution has need of expert advice, then the
      organization obviously does not command the expertise to fully
      evaluate that advice. The requirement to have the expert explain
      conclusions means that easy, and therefore unimportant, decisions can
      be easily explained, while more complicated, and significant,
      resolutions will be much harder to explain, and thus have less chance
      of survival.

      Those, then, who have been kind enough to grant me "expert" status in
      this reviewing game will probably have already left for the bookstore,
      and I rather suspect that they will be the ones to benefit most from
      Pfeffer's book. For the audience now remaining, I will attempt to
      convince you, as well.

      The author's attitude to his own book is very interesting. While
      Pfeffer believes in what he is saying, he is well aware that what he
      writes is not going to make for actual organizational change, in most
      cases. Only half will believe in what he says; of the half that
      believe, only half will make more than a token effort at change; of
      the quarter who believe and try to make significant changes, only half
      will let the experiment run long enough to see results. (However, his
      admission of this reality doesn't appear until the end of chapter one,
      and a note that many managers may not be in a position even to try the
      program is almost the last point in the entire book.) Nevertheless,
      the author's mildly gloomy perception forms the structure of the book:
      part one outlines people-centred management, while part two examines
      all the barriers arrayed against those who would try it.

      Chapter one looks at the received business wisdom about "going
      global," becoming "lean and mean," and "re-inventing" the corporation-
      -and, through citation of extensive business studies, shows that the
      common body of knowledge is all wrong. (It's a bit like "Four Days
      with Dr. Deming" [cf. BKDEMING.RVW] with somewhat more authority.)
      The real heart of part one is probably the business case, supported by
      studies, for managing people properly, in chapter two. The outline
      for people-centred, high performance, or high commitment management is
      given in chapter three. While training, team organization, job
      security, and elimination of status distinctions all play a part in
      the practice, the material is more of a series of examples since
      people-orientation, almost by definition, resists definition. Chapter
      four notes that it is not good enough to talk the talk: you also have
      to walk the walk.

      Chapter five is almost chapter one in more detail, showing how modern
      (and particularly American) management training has concentrated on
      financial metrics to the detriment of overall regulation, and often to
      the disadvantage of business. The lack of job security is clearly
      shown, in chapter six, to be behind the loss of employee loyalty.
      Common mistakes in pay rate considerations are reviewed in chapter
      seven. Unions are not bashed in chapter eight. Perhaps the most
      startling material is that in chapter nine, noting a place for public
      policy. The final chapter is a summary.

      What differentiates Pfeffer's tome from a number of texts with similar
      theses is that he moves out of the rationalistic realm; analyzing why
      doing good should make you do well; and into the area of empirical
      facts. The work relies very heavily on great volumes of hard, cold
      business studies that show first, how traditional management practices
      fail, and then, how humane methods improve the bottom line. In most
      cases the studies are not merely cited for results; enough of the
      method is given for the intelligent reader to determine whether the
      study should be accepted as valid or not. Anecdotal examples are
      given as well, but they serve merely to illustrate points already well
      supported. Logical models are not abandoned, but they are used to
      explain already established facts, instead of attempting to prove

      Another aspect that makes a good book more difficult to review is that
      there is more to it, and therefore, it takes more time to read. There
      is a lot more "meat" to this work as compared to a great many
      management tomes--much greater conceptual and informational density.
      This is what a book should be. The fact that we are surprised at the
      richness and weight of Pfeffer's text is rather disturbing. We
      should, rather, be astonished at the fluff and lightness of so many of
      its rivals. (Although, truth to tell, it hasn't much competition.)

      This book is not about quick fixes: Pfeffer frequently points out that
      changing to a people-centred approach will not necessarily show
      results even within one or two years. This is not a management
      cookbook: the material keeps repeating that proper management is a
      hard task, and the benefit lies in your competition's unwillingness to
      do it. Decades of rapacious, short term, profit-taking mismanagement
      have sadly damaged not just individual companies, but an entire
      industrial and business base, with results as far reaching as the
      current mythical technology labour shortage. This volume is a
      blueprint for the long, hard job of rebuilding needed to get back on
      track--and an indication of the rewards for those willing to do the

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 1999 BKHUMEQU.RVW 990530

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