Everything a Manager Needs to Know?

By John A. Byrne


The Ultimate Resource

By Daniel Goleman et al.

Perseus -- 2,172pp -- $59.95

First, a confession: I'm not an encyclopedia kind of guy. Even in my high school days, I'd always prefer to dive into original research rather than rely on a synopsis of an event, a person's life, or an idea. Second, the easy accessibility of information on the Internet has made encyclopedias far less useful.

That said, Business: The Ultimate Resource really is the ultimate business encyclopedia--an eight-pound doorstop that attempts to simplify the harried manager's search for information and answers. In one big place, Business provides readers with nearly 140 "best-practice" essays that purportedly offer the latest thinking on everything from lean manufacturing to scenario planning. There are 116 "management checklists" that give answers to everyday business challenges, ranging from writing a report to collecting debts.

There's more, much more: summaries of the 70 most influential business books of all time, more than 100 biographical sketches of the leading business thinkers and pioneers, a dictionary of common business words and phrases, and an almanac with facts and figures on 150 countries, all 50 U.S. states, and 24 industries. Finally, the book lists 3,000 other sources if you need further information.

The volume's goal is to provide what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls "business literacy." In the introduction, he writes: "Business advantage is gained by harnessing smart ideas--not just amorphous data [or] the latest technology." That is one obvious contribution of Business: The Ultimate Resource. Ever hear a management concept in a meeting you didn't understand? Open this volume, and you'll get the essence of the idea within a few paragraphs.

This is no cheaply thrown together anthology. It is to the editors' credit that virtually everything here is original, including essays by many prominent business observers--among them best-selling authors Jim Collins, James Champy, and Noel M. Tichy. There are some gems in these. Collins smartly notes that too many organizations settle "for just being good." That's why we have "good schools" or "good government" that rarely, if ever, strive to be exceptional. "Too many companies miss the chance to be great simply because they sanction the attitude that `being good is good enough,"' Collins writes. How true, and how sad.

Most of the articles and how-to pieces are well-written and reasoned--even if the subjects can be boring. The publisher also has made a commitment to offer regular updates to the book at a Web site. Finally, it's amazing that this tome can be sold for less than $60--what you'd pay for two ordinary business books.

Yet the very breadth of Business: The Ultimate Resource creates a problem: Rather than serve as a useful filter for the profusion of business information, the book itself constitutes something of an overload, a quirky mix of the nonsensical and pragmatic. How many people, after all, are going to turn to an encyclopedia for the best-practice take on "Tuning Into the Harmonics of Management," in which the author makes a big deal out of the insight that employees can make valuable contributions when they go beyond their narrow job roles. And who would think to look here for a tutorial on "Producing a Corporate Brochure"? At the same time, if you're a marketer, a mere two pages on "Preparing a Marketing Plan" aren't going to cut it.

I'd also seriously question some of the judgments that went into this book. It's hard to believe anyone would name Blur, a pop business book by Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer, as one of the most influential business books of all time. It simply does not deserve to be in the company of such classics as Peter Drucker's The Practice of Management or Michael Porter's Competitive Strategy. Then there's British professor Reg Revans, a little-known advocate of "action learning," or the notion that you learn more when you are actively involved in a project than when you sit and try to absorb a lecture. I can't see how he merits being grouped with the likes of leadership guru Warren Bennis or quality maven W. Edwards Deming as one of the most important business thinkers. Such choices undermine the credibility of the project.

So what's the best reason to buy this book? Most people in business start in narrow disciplines for which specialized knowledge is important. But as they move higher in their organizations, they are increasingly required to perform tasks that fall outside their specialty--and they are likely to find themselves managing people. So for many execs moving up the ranks, this volume, largely because it is so comprehensive, is a worthwhile starter.

If you want to know how to create a cash-flow statement or read a balance sheet or calculate the cost of goods sold, you'll find succinct answers here. If you need a quick rundown on the most important players in retailing--by sales, growth, number of stores, employees, and market capitalization--you'll find that, too. And if you need a few pointers on how to run a sales meeting or plan a promotion, you'll pick up ideas you can quickly put to use.

I'm still no convert to the encyclopedia form. But this book's editors have done such a thorough job that Business: The Ultimate Resource is worth a spot on any manager's shelf.

Senior Writer Byrne covers management issues.

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