Association Executive Book Shelf

Books reviewed by Raphael Badagliacca

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google
by Scott Calloway (Published 2017, Penguin Random House)

There are so many insights in this book that it's hard to know where to begin. They are delivered in a conversational style by an author who quickly wins our trust by the quality of his observations. Isn't that what all authors do, or try to do, you might ask. Not really. Not when the writer's chosen mission is to evaluate the consequences of the "advances" in technology through which we are living. Many just stoke the hype. This book even-handedly analyzes the four giants in the subtitle, how they became who they are and what it all means to us. Leaders of organizations of any kind will find here a new understanding of the familiar landscape in which their constituents live.

This is a data story. The author deftly contrasts newspapers with Google. Both have customers. But Google, of course, knows much more about its customers than newspapers that gather little more than name and address and possibly a change of address. Media revenue is important, but knowing the detailed habits of media consumers is more important. Consider how much Facebook knows about the people who use it. Most products humans have known through history become less valuable as they are used - they get used up - but not data products. Data products become more valuable the more they are used - dynamically, automatically.

At heart, we remain hunters and gatherers. Efficiency in hunting and gathering appeals to our evolutionary selves. It's what makes Amazon the earth's largest store. Does Amazon mean the death of the store? Not so fast. It may mean the death of old retail ways, but there are certain products that people want to touch and see close up. Amazon has begun to invest in brick and mortar. The author observes that when a brand creates its own store that structure becomes a temple for worshipers. Voila, the Apple stores deliberately built out of see-through materials so that passersby can gaze at the worshipers attended by a priestly class of tech experts. Products are displayed under glass, reinforcing the age-old identification of Apple with luxury product lines that express style. Apple may be the only supplier of technology that crosses generational divides.

Amazon's core competence is storytelling. By painting a picture of the future, it has been able to upend traditional notions of what it means to be a business success. These are stories that individual investors have found compelling, despite traditional measures. So has all of Wall Street. Continued storytelling and a heavy investment in robotics spell Amazon's future.

Why did Google succeed so famously over other search engines? The notion that search results were unaffected by advertising, in other words, that an all-knowing Google would tell you the objective truth. Searches are like prayers to a God that always gives answers.

This is a valuable read for any organizational leader.

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really AreEverybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are
by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (Published 2017, HarperCollins)

Follow the data. That’s what this nearly 400-page book is telling us to do. And it will take you places it never has before. “Google searches,” the author states, “are the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche.” There is a crossover point where big data becomes new data and this is where the author’s interest lies. That was a playful un-pun on the title. The author’s conviction is that while people say one thing they reveal their true interests by what they search for. In other words, while their words may lie, their searches do not. He calls this the digital truth serum.

New data then is what big data can reveal today. The author, who calls himself a data journalist, writes, “I have come to believe that the new data available in our digital age will radically expand our understanding of humankind.” If it can do that, just imagine what it will tell and Executive Director or a Membership Director about your current membership and those you are trying to reach.

At different points, the author will move from the mild “data plays an important role in all of our lives” to the radical “everything is data.” He assures you that “You are a data scientist” and that you have been one from your earliest days. He shows how data analysis can answer questions like “Are Freudian slips real?” By doing big data analysis on words, he’ll interpret how men and women use words differently, and what signals on a first date whether the parties involved want there to be a second date. He’ll reveal political trends by telling us what big data reveals about geographical areas with statistics on seemingly unrelated searches that their populations tend to make.

Sometimes it’s easier to be more truthful to a stranger than someone with whom you have history. Internet users regularly reveal the truth about themselves without inhibition by the questions they put in the search bar, the ultimate anonymous stranger.

Big data in the author’s final analysis has finally turned social science into a real science. Why not put this science to work for you?