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