A recent article by Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic Monthly lamented the fate of common knowledge. In a technologically advanced society, he muses that we trade a broad understanding of arts, history and civics for a detailed understanding of the minutiae of obscure languages used to program Web sites. Instead of memorizing Rudyard Kipling's "If," students now commit to memory the URLs of encyclopedia Web sites where they can pull up poetry at a moment's notice. Murphy isn't sure the search-engine future is a great place to be; it's a world where everyone is a specialist and no generalists can be found.
Knowing a little bit about a lot is prime territory for most of those in business. That's why Murphy's lament hits home to those who rely on a small amount of knowledge in lots of areas to help solve business problems. Don't know how to build a Web site? You can always find someone who does. Need help hiring? Here's a book on human resource trends. Despite Murphy's fears, liberal arts majors and generalists as businesspeople are still relevant. Someone has to put together the specialists to solve problems.
So what's your problem? This month we look at books by specialists who can help generalists solve their problems. Despite Murphy's fears, the collective wisdom of the ages has always been found in books. The generalists just know how to put all that knowledge to work.
Site savvy Prime examples of specialization are books on Web pages and e-commerce. Web sites seem like territory for all those nerds from high school who now drive Ferraris and Porsches. Web Pages the Smart Way: A Painless Guide to Creating and Posting Your Own Website by Joseph T. Sinclair is a simple step-by-step guide to building a Web page for personal or business use. This textbook offers clear and concise explanations on how to make a Web page and post it, how to make it look better than you thought it could, and how to add pictures and links to other Web sites. (Yes, a reason to use that expensive digital camera at home and work.) Large chapter headings, an easy to use contents section and easy-on-the-eye text make this a user-friendly guide to the kind of computer use many of us never dreamed we could master.
I followed Sinclair's chapter by chapter approach over the course of several weeks, reading and experimenting whenever I had a few moments. Et voila! I am (almost) a Web expert. It was simple. Even if my Web site isn't as pretty or useful as it could be, at the very least I can now converse cogently with a Web designer or other co-worker about specific company needs when it comes time to develop a site. And that's key, understanding a specialist's language.
Workin' on the chain Supply chain management is similar territory. Developing a sense of supply chain issues is a necessary part of a business education whether you are a product manager, an engineer or a corporate attorney. When a vast array of businesses outsource components of manufacturing, specific language and models develop to describe the best practices for supply chain management. Which of these models is best? How do they compare? Unfortunately, even daily reading of The Wall Street Journal won't impart a full education on the subject, but a new book can and will bring you up to speed. The Purchasing Machine: How the Top Ten Companies Use Best Practices to Manage Their Supply Chains by Dave Nelson, Patricia E. Moody and Jonathan Stegner is written by three experts in the field of supply chain management. Interwoven with stories of supply chain successes, the vocabulary and important advances in the field are expertly described. Starting with an overview of supply chain development, The Purchasing Machine underlines the traits "best practice" companies share.
While The Purchasing Machine was written for supply chain professionals, its modular structure and clear explanations make it a convincing choice as an educational tool for managers in other business areas. The non-supply chain professional will gain an overview but will also find that this book helps generate ideas for instituting supply practices in non-supply environments.
Web mastering Along with supply chain and Web development, e-policy is a highly specialized area of business management these days. While many of us don't develop e-mail, Internet and software policies, we will, at some time or another, encounter a problem or disaster that relates to the use of these modern business tools. In The ePolicy Handbook: Designing and Implementing Effective eMail, Internet, and Software Policies Nancy Flynn, managing director of the e-Policy Institute, discusses risk management aspects of e-use. This is an eye-opening book that reminds everyone about the slippery slope of illegal software use, Internet harassment issues and even outside invasion in the form of costly computer viruses. The only way to effectively communicate these issues to colleagues or employees is to understand the issues yourself. The ePolicy Handbook is a primary tool in the effort to make your work environment virus-free as well as a legal place to enjoy Internet and computer use. The risks and rewards of developing good e-policy are many; having a basic understanding of complex e-issues is a businessperson's best friend.
The E-Commerce Book: Building the E-Empire, Second Edition by Steffano Korper and Juanita Ellis is another new book that brings the complexity of e-commerce to the generalist. The authors tie together all the reasons even the seemingly best and brightest ideas in e-commerce have failed. Korper and Ellis evaluate and compare components of e-business models from major American Internet companies. From infrastructure to marketing to customer service to payment options and fulfillment channels, The E-Commerce Book is an overview of the many options available to developing Internet retailers. From a generalist's point of view, this is an excellent book for understanding the differences between mainline retailing and Internet selling or marketing. Why does a corporate attorney or a supply-chain guy need to know a little about these Internet issues? Because traditional retailing and e-commerce have different shipping, payment and even legal consequences for your business. Generalists will be called on to solve these integration problems.
Spreading the word As a generalist, you are often asked to be the communicator for your division. Mary E. Boone's Managing Interactively: Executing Business Strategy, Improving Communication, and Creating a Knowledge-Sharing Culture includes a section especially for you: "Engage People Who Don't Report to You Crossing Organizational Boundaries." How do marketing pros communicate their needs and desires effectively to the communication department's Web designers? How does a company like Cisco Systems connect customers, suppliers and employees in a vast web of information and do it effectively? This chapter gives you suggestions, culled from successful practices at multinational organizations, to effectively team-build across divisional lines.
Boone argues that the act of communication is as important as the technologies we use to connect with each other. And that's the generalist's job forging effective communication by understanding the bigger picture, the overall strategy and knowing a little about a lot.
Sharon Secor is a Nashville-based business writer.