Business

Gladwell's collection of essays enlightens

"What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures" by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co., 410 pages)

Does best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell write business books?

It's a friendly argument I've had for years with another Miami Herald book reviewer. But I define "business" broadly and believe lessons are learned from diverse places; commerce, after all it is one of the oldest human activities.

Unlikely sources often provide examples and metaphors for successful business practices and concepts — or things to avoid.

But Gladwell is another matter. His reporting, observations and meditations on systems and practices unfailingly offer insights that have keen relevance for business. He's clearly fascinated by commerce, too, and its practitioners.

This new one from Gladwell is not new at all, actually. It's a compilation of articles written for the New Yorker, all of which can still be found online with very little effort, and I read a big chunk of this collection that way.

This collection, purportedly of his favorites, has plenty of bona fide business content, including a fantastic and touching portrait of infomercial innovator and inventor Ron Popeil that ought to be optioned for film director Ron Howard.

Popeil is someone to study. The process he went though to conceive and create his ubiquitous Showtime Rotisserie, for example, would surely be beneficial and constructive for any preternatural tinkerer or product development manager. Plus, pathos and drama abound in his life story.

Still in the kitchen, Gladwell's exploration of why there are many varieties of mustard but few of ketchup provides useful insights into brand extension, marketing and umami, among other things. Two pieces, "The New Boy Network" and "Most Likely To Succeed," deal in human resource issues: the inherent inadequacies of interviewing potential employees and the inability to forecast future success based on the evaluation and extrapolation of present skills.

"Blowing Up" looks at investment strategies and how the best efforts to rationalize the irrational are inevitably futile. "Open Secrets" takes a decidedly contrarian view of the Enron swindle and, not incidentally, the charges that sank CEO Jeffrey Skilling and his posse. "True Colors" is an untold tale of marketing, creativity, feminism and other issues centered on the two women who separately wrote the advertising copy used to market Lady Clairol and L'Oreal hair dyes.

Also dealing with marketing — plus science, religion and politics — is a thoughtful and surprising study of oral contraceptive inventor John Rock and how he failed to convince his Catholic Church of the canonical validity of his birth control pill as something that would restore natural biological functions rather than prevent them.

With articles about such varied subjects as tying in the limitations of mammography with the search for weapons in Iraq and looking at the differences between prodigies and late bloomers, the book is full of compelling ideas.

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