Will the elephants dance again?

By | October 3, 2014


**First published on LinkedIn**

David Amerland wrote a thought-provoking piece last week on the influence that 3 books have had on business during the 20th and 21st centuries (Forbes Brand Voice: “Huh? 3 Business books we just don’t understand”). Although the 3 are not business books but medieval treaties on war and feudal domination, many young buck sales execs and business leaders have sought to use the metaphors contained within them (like “flanking movements” or “frontal attacks”) to plan their sales campaigns.

As Amerland points out though, business is not war and overuse of such metaphors can be dangerous. These are books that were written in a different era and within different societal norms. But they are still relevant and he points out why.

His perspective inspired me to take a slightly different angle on the value of historical metaphors. My thinking looks at the books that have stood the test of time.

There are literally thousands of business books published each year, so labeling one as ‘seminal’ is pretty risky and of course a personal opinion. But taking that risk on the chin, here is one more modern tome which may well prove to be seminal and in my view will stand that test of time. The wisdom it imparts will transcend and will remain relevant long after the last paperback book has been purchased and digital is the only format available.

Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? By Louis Gerstner. IBM was at the brink of Chapter 11 and facing disaster in the early 1990s. The oldest and most iconic computer brand in the world at that time had failed to anticipate fully the rise of unix-based open systems and the shift from monolithic mainframes to lower cost mini computers and networked pc-based systems. Facing a gradual and slow death, they brought in Gerstner to manage its probable divestment into multiple parts.

Gerstner, an executive from outside the industry had other ideas. He actually presided over one of the most dramatic business transformations ever seen. The shift to a solutions and services based approach was revolutionary at such a scale. It was bloody, risky and painful for many, but it proved highly successful and IBM was saved from ignominy and went on to thrive.

So why is this story from the 1990s relevant today? Well the transformation that IBM went through was essentially the shift from what IDC calls the First Platform (Mainframes) to the Second Platform (Client/Server). IT companies like IBM had to adapt or die. Today we are experiencing the next significant transformation from that Second Platform to the Third Platform (Cloud, Social, Mobile, Data). Many established companies will need to transform – they will need to adapt or face an uncertain future. There will be several current elephants that may have to learn some new dance moves if they are going to survive and thrive.

Gerstner’s book can prove a guide to executives who fear taking the bold action needed to embrace this Third Platform.

What book transcends the test of time for you? What lesson did you apply?

Come back next week to read about my next book pick for the month.

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