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EVOLVE!

Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow

By Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Harvard Business School -- 352pp -- $27.50

In Evolve! Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, argues that companies seeking e-success must foster an "e-culture." Unfortunately, dot-com culture is now more often the subject of parody than praise. And those once employed by Net startups are more likely to be found nursing lattes while mourning worthless stock options in their local Starbucks than hanging out in the company kitchens that the author cites as emblems of dot-com community spirit. As a result, Evolve! often seems like a guide to succeeding yesterday rather than tomorrow.

Early on, Kanter sounds a note of caution about getting too caught up in the Net revolution--advice she herself might have taken more seriously. Still, after one gets used to the onslaught of dotty terms ("dotcombat," "dot-community," etc.) and over the shock of the goofy rap lyrics (Evolve!--The Song), there is plenty of engaging material, drawn from Kanter's survey of 785 organizations and in-depth examination of two dozen companies. In its strongest sections, the author describes how the "pacesetters" at Old Economy "wannadots"--such as groups within Williams-Sonoma Inc. (WSM) and Honeywell International Inc. (HON)--overcame internal resistance to the Net and figured out how to leverage their parents' strengths. By contrast, "laggard" barnes&noble.com Inc. spent too much time resisting change and obsessing over its chief rival, Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), instead of working to carve out its own niche.

When faced with demands for online integration, the wannadots' old-line divisions often balk at surrendering turf to the companies' Net operations. They worry about existing lines of business getting cannibalized, Kanter notes. For example, at Williams-Sonoma, the formerly independent catalog and retail units had to learn to cooperate, trusting that the Net operation would also drive their sales.

Kanter aptly compares adapting to the Net to "improvisational theater," where creativity is highly valued, the ending hasn't been written, and the players must have great confidence in one another's abilities. On this dynamic stage, nurturing partner networks is key to ensuring a long run. Accordingly, relationships in the Net age morph in unexpected ways. IBM (IBM) and Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) ("dot-com enablers"), onetime rivals who still partner with each other's competitors, have teamed up to concentrate on what they do best.

Still, Evolve! seems dated. Most companies rolled out their Net presence years ago and are long past the stage of "getting change rolling." The heyday of "knowledge nomads" who can name their own price and of inexperienced CEOs who "get free rein" is past. Factor in the book's density, frequent repetition, and endless lists, and the reader has to dig way too hard to find the persuasive arguments and compelling cases. By Karen Angel


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