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Brenden’s Booklist

April 27th, 2011 Comments off

Students don’t often have time to read a lot during the semester for obvious reasons.  As a result, I have had a number of people ask for me to make a list of the books I mention in class and that I find helpful/interesting so that they can reference the list at a later date (since course website access is blocked after the semester).  Here are some more books that I have found to be good reads of late (someone asked me how I read so much and I have to say that buying a Kindle has made me want to read so much more than when I bought regular books).  These are presented in no particular order other than as I remember them.

  1. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis.  This is perhaps the best book I’ve read in the last year on the economic meltdown.  It is great both in terms of readability and level of detail/understanding.  The author did a great job researching this book and presents it in a way that is easy to understand.  At focus here is how the incentives on Wall Street encouraged risk-taking behavior that ultimately collapsed when the housing market didn’t keep rising (many assumptions and models were based on housing prices never declining and some were based on prices never even leveling off for any period of time).
  2. Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki. I first heard about this book (and its author) on a Minnesota Public Radio program. Kawasaki proved to be as strong at authoring as he was on the radio and this was a truly enjoyable and interesting read.  If you are tasked with finding/keeping/serving customers or members you will get a lot out of this book.  In particular, I really enjoyed the sections devoted to using online social media tools such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  The use of these tools to actually engage customers rather than just to serve as an electronic brochure is something that will separate great companies from good ones in the near future and the use of these tools (and new ones that aren’t even around yet) is sure to grow.
  3. No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller by Harry Markopolos is another great read.  I didn’t like it as much as The Big Short because Markopolos comes off as a bit egotistical (even moreso in person — I saw him speack at the MNCPA MBAC conference last June).  Markopolos is the guy that busted Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme.  Actually, he tried for years to get the SEC to investigate Madoff with little success and only once Madoff admitted to his crimes did Markopolos gain notoriety.  Prior to that he lived a life of fear for some time (he felt his life and the lives of his family members were in danger, in fact).  I have friends that thought this book was way bettter than The Big Short so it may just appeal to a different sort of person.  It was still worth reading to me, but just didn’t flow like The Big Short did.
  4. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Dan Pink.  This was an eye-opening book to someone that works in a field that is decidedly left-brain-based.  Pink’s point is that the left-brain functions so common to a field like accounting can often be replaced by technology/computers and a lot of what is left can be easily outsourced to developing nations. Pink has a new book out on motivation and he did a great TED Talk on it as well.
  5. Thank God It’s Monday: How to Create a Workplace You and Your Customers Love by Roxanne Emmerich.  This book is by a local woman and I first became aware of it last fall when it was featured on KARE-11 News.  She later wrote a short article for the MNCPA Footnote newsletter.  Building a workplace that employees love will automatically translate into a workplace that customers love.  The Balanced Scorecard tells us that and we can all identifiy places we have done business where we dreaded shopping and those where we loved shopping, simply because we could tell whether or not the employees were happy.  Emmerich does a great job of explaining how to set up a culture that accomplishes the goal of a happy workplace and a great place to do business.
  6. All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Joe Nocera.  I’m reading this one right now.  I still think The Big Short is a more engaging story (better written) but the details in this book are well researched and it is interesting in its own right.  I did find it to be more interesting in the last half of the book so if you find it discouraging early on, you should find that things pick up after that.  If you have to choose to read one book about the financial crisis, though, my money is on The Big Short.
  7. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek.  We watched Sinek’s TED Talk on this same topic in class and the book is just as engaging while covering the same ground in more depth.  I have shared this book and video with others in my company and they have all provided great feedback and thanked me for doing so.  In hindsight, the ideas seem simple but they are obviously difficult to execute given how few companies have had success linking with their customers on the “why” of their products/services.
  8. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam.  Like A Whole New Mind, mentioned above, this book takes the approach that we need to appeal to the right-brain when making decisions and in marketing our ideas.  You’ve all heard the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and even those that think they can’t draw (like most accountants) can learn to use quick sketches to communicate and to make faster/better decisions.  Roam is a keynote speaker at the MNCPA Management & Business Advisors Conference in June. He has asked that audience members be provided whiteboards and markers to gain practice with the techniques he champions in his book (and a follow-up book) as he speaks.  It should be interesting. Note, that this book was TERRIBLE on the Kindle because the drawings were too small or jumbled up.  Get the paper edition if you buy this one.
  9. Dethroning the King: The Hostile Takeover of Anheuser-Busch, an American Icon by Julie MacIntosh. Is there any symbol of American marketing might bigger than Budweiser?  How is it that this company based in the heartland came to be swallowed up by InBev, a Belgian/Brazillan brewer? I loved this book and found it to be very engaging. Even with the outcome known, I found myself shaking my head at the missteps taken by the St. Louis-based brewer as globalization hit the industry.  The characters of the Busch family are exposed in great detail — they acted like Anheuser-Busch was a family company even though they had long ago become just minority shareholders incapable of stopping a takeover no matter how hard they tried.  In a story that is likely to be repeated in other industries the business world is changing and executives need to be aware of what happens outside company walls if they want to maintain power as other markets become as strong or even stronger than those dominated by American firms.
  10. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.  A LinkedIn contact recommended this book.  It was a great read and may well change how you shop for food and what you choose to consume.  I know that I am more conscious of what I put into my body after reading this.
  11. Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes. I didn’t realize how impacted the science of food had been by politics until I read this book.  Lots of things that were known to German scientists some 70+ years ago were discounted after World War II because of political reasons and an unwillingness to trust anything German rather than for outright scientific reasons.  Taubes offers specific advice about what to eat (protein and complex carbohydrates) and what not to each (sugar, refinef flours, carbohydrates) if the goal is to lose fat and reduce weight.  Much of this advice contradicts what Americans have been told for 50+ years, even while as a nation we get fatter and fatter. There are scientific footnotes in this text, but Taubes wrote this more for laypeople becuase an earlier book was criticized for reading like a scientific journal.
  12. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl details his life as a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II.  In that environment, life takes on a very basic form and it is this experience that sets the stage for the prism through with Frankl sees life as a psychotherapist after the war.  We get a glimpse into human behavior that likely only exists in scenarios such as those of the concentration camps and I learned a lot about life and was forced to realize that all my complaints are ridiculously minor in comparison. I stumbled on this book because I was involved in a conversation on LinkedIn about “the best book I’ve ever read.”  I didn’t even contribute to the topic because I find it difficult to elevate any one book to “the best” one ever, but someone posted this gem and I’m quite glad I read it.
  13. Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler. Somehow I got a free copy of this book on my Kindle last September before it was even released.  It’s like Amazon knew I’d find it interesting and that I’d share my experience with lots of people. It highlights this same phenomenon of information sharing and decentralized structures that the authors predict will be the wave of the future.  They argue that since customers are more empowered (consider the information consumers have now about nearly any product as compared to 20 years ago) that companies need to be as well.  For example, Best Buy is featured extensively in the book for their Twelpforce concept that has turned customer service into a proactive task and customer difficulty into an opportunity instead of a curse.  I loved reading this book but I’m guessing the challenge will be to get buy-in from the people that need to make the biggest changes: those entrenched in the IT department.  In my experience, IT policies can be terribly restrictive and I’m not sure how to get the ideas presented in Empowered into the hands of the people that need to change direction since, in a way, doing so is a threat to their existence.

Open-Source Textbooks? Part II

August 1st, 2010 1 comment

Courtesy of greenasian on Flickr

Over a year ago, I wrote about open source e-textbooks and I mentioned that I had trouble envisioning e-textbooks replacing paper-based books in a course like management accounting.  During that time I’ve read many things about the future of textbooks and I’m now of the opinion that limiting the thinking to things that exist today (like paper books and e-readers such as the Kindle) is probably dangerous.  I have a feeling that as states like California, some universities, and leaders with backgrounds in other industries (see below) push into open-source textbooks that can be modified to suit the needs of instructors everywhere that we’ll end up with something that looks/feels a lot like Wikipedia that will serve as the textbook of the future.

We won’t call it an “open-source textbook,” in my opinion.  Instead, the course material will be integrated into what we now see as learning management systems (such as D2L) and will be accessible through all kinds of devices including PCs, mobile phones, dedicated internet tablets, etc.  It just seems natural to me that learning will evolve in this direction as people that have grown up with technology think in different ways and use technology differently than those that have gone before them.

An interesting post (at this link: In School Systems, Slow Progress for Open-Source Textbooks via NYTimes.com) continues the discussion of where textbooks are heading.  This time, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems is behind an effort to do for learning what open-source software has done for computing.

Mr. McNealy, the fiery co-founder and former chief executive of Sun Microsystems, shuns basic math textbooks as bloated monstrosities: their price keeps rising while the core information inside of them stays the same.

“Ten plus 10 has been 20 for a long time,” Mr. McNealy says.

Early this year, Oracle, the database software maker, acquired Sun for $7.4 billion, leaving Mr. McNealy without a job. He has since decided to aim his energy and some money at Curriki, an online hub for free textbooks and other course material that he spearheaded six years ago.

I suppose we are years away from seeing things change at the university level, but it sure would be interesting to me if I had the ability to edit/add/clarify things in a textbook for my students.  I don’t know what kind of economic model would produce these works (one can’t expect experts to spend time writing for free…or can they?) but that is something that will get ironed out along the way when/if open-source products take off.

E-Readers Go Mainstream As Pricing Model Changes

July 30th, 2010 Comments off

One of the most interesting pricing events we have playing out before our eyes right now is in the market of e-readers.  Several weeks ago, Barnes and Noble kicked of a mini-price war by dropping the price of their 3G Nook from $259 to $199 while pricing their wifi-only version at $149.  Within hours, Amazon had responded by undercutting the 3G Nook by selling their 3G Kindle for $189:

Barnes & Noble, the national bookseller, announced Monday that it was dropping the price of its six-month-old Nook e-reader to $199 from $259 and introducing a new version of the device, which connects to the Internet only over Wi-Fi networks, for $149.

Responding rapidly, Amazon.com then cut the price of its popular Kindle e-reader below the Nook, to $189 from $259.

In Price War, E-Readers Go Below $200. By Brad Stone. New York Times. June 21, 2010

As mentioned in the article above, some analysts chalked the price cuts up to the increased threat of the Apple iPad gaining a foothold as an e-book reader while Amazon, in particular, has downplayed that idea.

This week, though, things escalated a bit more.  Amazon announced the next generation of their hardware to be released August 27th.  They are keeping the 3G model at $189 but announced a new wifi-only model for $139; $10 less than the comparable Nook.

Amazon offers $139 wireless Kindle for mass appeal. By Alexandria Sage. Reuters.com. July 29, 2010 7:07pm EDT

Kindle to Go ‘Mass Market’ — Amazon Digs in Heels by Introducing New, Cheaper Version of E-Book Reader. Geoffrey A. Fowler. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jul 29, 2010. pg. B.6

While all of this has played out, an important shift has happened.  According to the NY Times article linked above, until recently Amazon and Barnes and Noble have sold e-books at a loss while making minimal profits on the hardware.  That has changed now, to where a WSJ piece speculates that the hardware is now selling at a loss with the idea being to make up the shortfall in volume by selling the e-books.  This is more like how printer and cellphones are sold with the “consumables” (ink or minutes, as the case may be) being the profitable item.

Amazon’s price-cutting won’t be cheap. The company said last year that its Kindle manufacturing costs were “significantly higher” than an estimate from iSuppli of $185.49. Costs likely have come down since then, and not offering cell-network access reduces costs as well. Still, it is a good bet the company is losing money at $139 a unit.

The High Cost of a Cheap Kindle. Martin Peers. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jul 30, 2010. pg. C.12

I’m guessing things will continue to evolve as we head to into the holiday season and some articles I’ve read predict a sub $100 e-reader by then.

I’ve finally made the plunge myself and opted for the $189 Kindle coming out on August 27th but I’m hopeful that even while I have it preordered the price may drop.  Looking at what has happened in the past 5 weeks makes it seem reasonable to expect some price cuts in the next 4, doesn’t it?  Stay tuned…

Barnes & Noble Plots Strategy to Survive

May 21st, 2010 Comments off

A very timely, front-page article in today’s Wall Street Journal looks at one of the biggest challenges facing an American retailer today: the threat of e-books on the largest brick-and-mortar bookseller in the country, Barnes & Noble.  Having spent years building large stores filled with thousands of titles, Barnes & Noble must now act quickly to turn those assets into a competitive advantage that is not shared by their new competitors.

For 40 years, Barnes & Noble has dominated bookstore retailing. In the 1970s it revolutionized publishing by championing discount hardcover best sellers. In the 1990s, it helped pioneer book superstores with selections so vast that they put many independent bookstores out of business.

Today it boasts 1,362 stores, including 719 superstores with 18.8 million square feet of retail space—the equivalent of 13 Yankee Stadiums.

In the post I made earlier this week about Nintendo, the threat was advancement by competitors in the same market-space.  In the case of Barnes & Noble the forces seem to be more revolutionary as e-books are projected to grab a chunk of market share accelerated by Amazon’s Kindle and, most recently, the Apple iPad.

“By the end of 2012, digital books will be 20% to 25% of unit sales, and that’s on the conservative side,” predicts Mike Shatzkin, chief executive of the Idea Logical Co., publishing consultants. “Add in another 25% of units sold online, and roughly half of all unit sales will be on the Internet.”

Nowhere is the e-book tidal wave hitting harder than at bricks-and-mortar book retailers. The competitive advantage Barnes & Noble spent decades amassing—offering an enormous selection of more than 150,000 books under one roof—was already under pressure from online booksellers.

It evaporated with the recent advent of e-bookstores, where readers can access millions of titles for e-reader devices.

Sometimes in these cases just getting management to acknowledge the threat is half the battle.  It seems Barnes & Noble has at least done that so it will be interesting to see how they position themselves to compete in this new environment.  Like Circuit City (failed) and Blockbuster (on life-support) before them, the very survival of the company hangs in the balance.

E-Books Rewrite Bookselling. Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: May 21, 2010. pg. A.1

Amazon to Launch Kindle for Textbooks

May 5th, 2009 Comments off

Amazon appears to be trying to become for books what Apple is for music.  In seeking to be a one-stop-shop for book buyers, Amazon is expanding their Kindle line to include a larger version that is made for textbooks.
Both the Wall Street Journal and Reuters (piggy-backing on the WSJ story) are reporting that the official announcement will come Wednesday.  It will be interesting to see how supportive students and other stakeholders (like college bookstores and textbook publishers) will be of this venture, but I imagine that at some point electronic books are going to be the norm.  It appears that time might come sooner than I would have predicted just a few months ago.

Amazon Set to Offer Kindle for Textbooks. Geoffrey A. Fowler, Ben Worthen. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: May 5, 2009. pg. B.5

Bigger Kindle e-reader may not be a newspaper fix.  Reuters.  May 4, 2009.

Amazon’s Kindle is Off to College.  BusinessWeek.  May 4, 2009.