The skills to pay the bills. Business studies versus business books.

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By Grant Hall, Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

Regular readers of would know that I’m a big fan of lifelong learning and that I’m always studying something somewhere. I do this part-time, in dribs and drabs whenever my work and family life allow two or three months in which I can study with minimal interruptions. I’ve always followed the Steve Jobs approach and taken courses that interest me rather than those that lead to a particular qualification, but the sum of these parts have provided me with ornate pieces of paper on my wall declaring that I have a Masters of Management, a Graduate Certificate in Art History, a Diploma of Music Performance and I’m a good way through a Masters in International Business. More than a quarter of a century has gone into this slow-paced study and now I’m discussing PhD options with my university.

Just over two years ago I quit a seemingly sensible job at the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to start my business, League Cultural Diplomacy (LCD). It had been four years since I finished my Masters of Management and as I intended LCD to operate globally I decided to take some courses in international business to top-up my knowledge. I also undertook a wide range of one-day small business courses and began to build my business with the knowledge that I had accumulated.  As time moved on I became busier travelling for work which made it impractical to enrol in any ten-week university course, so to keep up my learning I started reading many of the latest business and management books.

I quickly discovered that not much of what I had learned through my classes in management and business was going to be useful to me because the courses and lecturers were completely out-of-date, with the curriculum and teacher knowledge baring little resemblance to current day business realities. Curriculum development lags far behind the rapid changes currently occurring in the business world and the lecturers tend to come from the ‘old-world’ of business, pre-2010, which may as well be 1910 for all intents and purposes.

Two entrepreneurial scientists and writers, Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil, endeavoured to solve this problem when they opened the Singularity University (SU) in California in 2008. As Diamandis explains in his foreword to Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it), the goal of SU “was to create a new kind of university, one whose curriculum was constantly being updated”. “SU was never accredited” he explains “not because we didn’t care, but because the curriculum was changing too fast”. I know from my own experience in developing curriculum how cumbersome the bureaucratic and legal processes are for education providers seeking to bring an accredited business course to market.

The authors of Exponential Organizations explain that “we are rapidly changing the filter through which we deal with the world from a physical, materially-based perspective to an information and knowledge-based one”.

The problem I encountered in my study was that the curriculum dealt exclusively with the physical, materially-based perspective. I was being taught how to develop brick and mortar businesses with buildings and staff that made stuff to sell, and so I naturally began to build my business upon these traditional ideas, the intention being to get an office, secure a few clients, hire some part-time on-site staff, move to a bigger office, hire some full-time staff and then open a second office abroad, employing sectional managers and so on.

I was aware that people were making money using new technologies, that kids were making millions of dollars programming apps in their bedrooms and I had some understanding of what was meant by scalability, but I couldn’t see how this applied to me or my business. To start with, I had no interest in making money from technology and only a rudimentary knowledge of how technology is created and brought to market. Also, my business is a service provider that manages arts, sport and cultural events and provides related consulting services – I just didn’t see how these ‘new-world’ technologies and approaches could benefit it.

Thankfully, because I couldn’t study at a university as I normally would, I started reading business books discussing new technologies and business approaches and how to apply them. The philosopher-entrepreneur Matshona Dhliwayo was right when he wrote that “books are kinder teachers than experience”, and reading is a relaxing way to learn. With my feet up at the end of the day, Timothy Ferriss’ acclaimed book The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich opened my eyes to how technology can improve efficiencies and, as I’ve written about previouslyCallum Laing’s Progressive Partnerships: The Future of Business taught me how to build great networks. I recently reviewed David Clive Price‘s Bamboo Strong: Cultural Intelligence Secrets to Succeed in the New Global Economy which helps it’s readers develop their cultural intelligence while Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie confirmed my thoughts that “you can earn money, achieve personal fulfillment, and make a positive impact on the world all at the same time”.

Seeking to speed up growth of my business, I read’s 5 Key Books Every Entrepreneur Should Read about the aforementioned Exponential Organisations and was convinced to buy it:

This book aims to provide readers with information on “why new organizations are ten times better, faster and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it).” It seems pretty much to the point, right? Well, it is. This book is so straightforward and so specific that those who want to can reinvent the practices in their business. The whole book comes down to a simple philosophy: In business, performance is key and when it comes to performance how you organize your efforts is the key to growth.

Early into reading the book I thought to myself, “this is all about tech and I don’t want to start a tech company”, but as I read on I started to contemplate how I could apply some of the approaches and techniques used by “exponential” companies such as Amazon, Google, Uber and Zappos to my own business.

The authors define an exponential organisation as

“one whose impact (or output) is disproportionally large – at least 10x larger – compared to its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies”

and after reading and re-reading this definition, I realised that the key word is “leverage”. Organisations seeking growth don’t need to be tech companies, but rather need to leverage the technologies in order to grow. As Diamandis and Steven Kotler write in Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World: 

“the goal here isn’t to become Rackspace (or Amazon or Microsoft), it’s to build your big idea atop their infrastructure”.

I was heartened to read about TED Talks as an example of an exponential organisation; here was a non-tech organisation that managed events – just like my business does.

Many business books cite the demise of Kodak as an example of how old style business thinking and approaches to management destroyed one of the most profitable businesses of the twentieth century. As my background is in music performance and arts management, I’ve often wondered about the role that the arts will have to play in the information age. To my mind, most arts organisations are stuck in the old world of business management thinking and are at risk of going the way of Kodak. This isn’t really surprising as the link between emerging technologies and how they can benefit the management of arts organisations isn’t immediately apparent. The key here again is leverage and there’s plenty of scope for the arts industry, or any industry, to leverage accelerating technologies to aid growth, with books like the ones that I’ve mentioned signposting the way forward.

Business and management schools must develop their curriculum more quickly to reflect what’s happening in the business world and hire lecturers who have experience working within the new global business environment and who understand how things really work in the current business world.

Here’s my closing advice; keeping up your reading of the latest and greatest business books will help you out a great deal, as will formal study, so long as the curriculum and lecturers are savvy to today’s business environment. In business though, as in life, the best way to learn something is through doing it and learning from your mistakes; the key philosophy of the Lean Startup movement being to “fail fast and fail often”. As the German poet Rilke once wrote to a young student “the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer”.

Want to read more? Click here for more posts about books and reading and here for posts about education.

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