Well-Worn Ideas

The Agenda What Every Business Must Do to Dominate the Decade

By Michael Hammer

-- Crown Business -- 269pp -- $27.50

Michael Hammer is one of those celebrated big thinkers of the business world. Reengineering the Corporation, his 1993 best-seller co-authored with James Champy, prompted managers to overhaul their business structures in pursuit of dramatic improvements. Some succeeded, but by the end of the decade, the term had also become synonymous with layoffs and plant closures. Meanwhile, Hammer seemed bogged down by his very success. Subsequent books, The Reengineering Revolution and Beyond Reengineering, left some wondering if the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained consultant could ever move on to a new buzzword.

Well, he has and he hasn't. Hammer has finally produced a book that doesn't have "reengineering" in its title. But his new work, The Agenda, reads more like a digest of others' well-worn ideas than a guidebook for the 21st century.

Hammer insists that no one big idea can turn a company around. Instead, he offers nine notions to fuel success in what he calls the customer economy. Most are based on the premise that the customer is king and deserves a hassle-free, value-added experience. Others stress the need for teamwork, discipline, measurement, and what General Electric Co. ex-chief John F. Welch has long called the boundaryless corporation. Hammer's most interesting idea--the need to bring order to the "chaotic" world of selling products--is also one of the few controversial ones, as it views improvisation and reliance on charismatic leaders as signs of dysfunction.

At its core, The Agenda is another book about how the days of selling to eager, captive customers are over. (No revelation there.) Instead, Hammer writes, "customers now have the upper hand and, to them, you are the necessary evil." Some might question this idea: If anything, technology is giving corporations the upper hand to slice and dice the customer base so that the top tier gets exquisite service and all others get less attention than ever. But even those who quibble with Hammer's analysis of customer power would agree that a customer focus is important.

What can readers glean from The Agenda? If they have been keeping up with current business wisdom, the answer is: probably not much. Hammer offers up suggestions that are familiar, albeit hard to execute. First is the notion of becoming easy to do business with, through such things as anticipating what customers will want. Then there's the idea of adding value: "Think of yourself as a provider of solutions, rather than of products or services," Hammer writes. Of course, that was the mantra at Xerox Corp. (XRX ) before it lost its luster.

The discussion perks up when Hammer talks about the need to "create order where chaos reigns." Chaos is how he describes the free thinkers, entrepreneurial spirits, and other types who flout company rules. They need discipline and structure for the organization to succeed. At least Hammer has some passion for this subject, comparing such chaos to herding cats and to food fights.

All the same, one gets the sense that Hammer wrote The Agenda largely because he felt pressure to produce something new. He certainly can turn out a bright, breezy text. But chances are, his ideas are already on The Agenda of smart managers.

By Diane Brady

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