Back to basics in business

Making sense of business is a new book detailing how to run your enterprise more efficiently and profitably. E&T reviews Alison Branagan's important self-help business book.

In his foreword to Alison Branagan's new book 'Making Sense of Business', Sir James Dyson says that as a designer and inventor he had "no choice" but to learn how to cope and flourish in the world of commerce. He modifies Shakespeare's famous line to rather grandly explain that while "some are born business people, others have business thrust upon them". We can all agree that, despite the assumption that "designers are hopeless at business" Dyson has been a roaring success.

While we can't all be the next Sir James, we can all challenge this assumption. There's no reason why a designer, engineer or technologist shouldn't be a perfectly competent business person, manager or entrepreneur. And it's this idea that forms the basis of 'Making Sense of Business', a how-to manual for those who - despite not knowing where to start - have already started. Such people may include the inexperienced university graduate, the middle-aged start-up trying to put a redundancy lump-sum to work, or, as is often the case in the SET sector, an 'accidental manager' - an individual who has been promoted from the technical coal-face and is taking the first tentative steps in middle management.

Common-sense approach

In writing a book such as 'Making Sense of Business' common sense is a wonderful thing and Branagan has lots of it. Her thinking is neat and organised and you can't help feeling that anyone who has let their business start to run them rather than the other way around will benefit simply from the experience of reading Branagan's book. The advice itself is all tried and true, and there are no over-hyped secrets or promises here that will lead you up the garden path. There's no jargon, and so sustaining a book that could have been written by your sensible big sister over more than 180 pages qualifies Branagan for some sort of endurance award.

There is a refreshing creativity in her approach to marshalling the plot. In her first chapter 'What is Enterprise?' - after a few dictionary definitions - Branagan essentially takes the line that it's nothing without a reliable business skills set. Character, élan, chutzpah - whatever you want to call it - might lead to the invention of a few neat products, might lead to a few breakthrough contracts, but it won't sustain a business, because for that you need a business plan.

There's a duality here: Steven Spielberg may well have been an opportunist with a propensity to take risks and engineer his own opportunities, but for engineers, risk assessment and the ability to calculate when to be innovative is a more secure strategy. This is all explained crisply, while the boxes, diagrams and panels are relevant, simple, and logical.

'Making Sense of Business' unashamedly covers a lot of well-trodden ground. In a few brief hours you can become reacquainted with the basics of networking (of the social kind), getting to know your customer, how to sell to them, how to manage your time wisely, negotiation, creative thinking and planning.

Every one of these topics is of absolute vital importance to the business person wishing to brush up on the fundamentals. In fact I'd go one stage further and say that there simply isn't a manager or entrepreneur out there who won't gain something of value from this book, and walk away inspired and refreshed. It's of course tempting to say 'well we know all that', but previous knowledge of the ideas is not the issue - it's the positive reinforcement that leads to putting them into action that counts.

Following Branagan's logical thought trails and pondering her 'mind maps' lead the reader to the same sort of conclusion: what are you doing in these areas?

How can you improve your performance or even instigate a policy in this area? In fact, the mind maps are the main catalyst for learning in 'Making Sense of Business'. Essentially flow-charts with illustrative icons, they promote lateral thinking and get the brain into problem solving and other creative modes. In his foreword, Dyson says: "At Dyson we use simple sketches to share ideas. Alison's book mirrors this approach by using drawings to explain concepts and processes in a digestible way."

Ethics and business with a conscience

Whenever I receive a new business book I always eagerly turn to the section on ethics. This is because I'm interested in more than the blunt instrument of sales tactics converting into financial success.

Although the topic is flagged up in the contents page, ethics is the one area where there is simply not enough data in Branagan's book. In fact, the concept of running a business with a conscience is buried in a chapter about running a legally compliant company.

The sad truth is that legal compliance is the veil of respectability that the unscrupulous and unethical manager routinely hides behind, or uses to justify unethical behaviour. The idea of the 'employee-client-supplier' community being exactly that is simply not covered in this book, as it seems to be all about 'maintaining a competitive edge in the current climate'.

While I agree that it's crucial to master skills such as selling, presenting and negotiating during a recession, it is also vital that as many of us as possible emerge from it in one piece. Winning at all costs, at the expense of wider community issues, isn't the way future business will be transacted, and we need to discuss concepts like this at grass roots level now.

Of course, Branagan is right to say that when it comes to concerns such as fair trade, ecology and global warming we should behave ethically in order to boost trust in our business and to avoid prosecution.

But the problem is that she doesn't tell us what she considers to be ethical, and merely suggests it is a feather in your cap, along with, say, good negotiation skills (in other words ethical rather than legal compliance).

But there is so much more to this argument: For example, we know that in the 21st century in the UK 50 per cent of graduates will make their choice of employee based partially on their sustainability profile. It's not just a question of looking green to stay out of court - it is the necessity of being green in order to attract the best people to your enterprise, to retain clients and to make a positive contribution to the wider community.

Nowhere does she mention that Corporate Social Responsibility is part of the mix of making sense of modern business. Even if, as hard-nosed business people, we find the idea of being environmentally responsible for its own sake only one stage removed from wearing tie-dye smocks and flowers in our hair, the fact remains that there are extraordinarily good reasons for having an environment policy, a sustainability action plan, ethical investments, responsible citizenship and a CSR programme.

We know that corporations integrating these concepts into their corporate DNA create better relationships with their employees, customers, suppliers and service providers. The reason for this is that these are the factors that set the tone for your business and Branagan, who is so good on other aspects of business development, might well have profited from turning her analytical intelligence to such matters.

To be fair to Branagan, this might be slightly above where she's pitched her book, especially as there are times when she appears to have an uncharitably low opinion of the intelligence of her readership. Under a section head called 'The Perils of Alcohol' she mentions that in your attempts to blend enterprise with entertainment some faith groups may not wish to drink alcohol at all, while "certain types of club, such as lap dancing venues, can make female members of the group uncomfortable" (I'll try to remember this one - ed).

 Elsewhere in her introduction, in the section where she explains how to get the best from her book she exhorts her readers to "read each chapter and take a break before reading the next". And while this might seem like the sort of advice you'd give to a child, perhaps Branagan is correct to offer the same advice to budding business executives. After all most business mistakes are child-like in their simplicity.

The real problem though is not so much that managers make mistakes - we all do, and always will - it's more that the people who read books like this are those who least need to. Sadly there are those that don't and never will, and they are the people who prove that history never tires of repeating itself.

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