Call It Evolve

Rosabeth Kanter Weaves Big Ideas Into a New Book

By JULIA WELLS

The book lecture was about to begin, and suddenly Rosabeth Moss Kanter, celebrated author and star of the event, spotted a friend in the front row. Against a backdrop of the grand Stanley Murphy murals in the Katharine Cornell Theatre, hugs were exchanged, lipstick smudged. "I had a big idea the other day - a very big idea - I'll tell you about it," Ms. Kanter said.

It was a classic Rosabeth moment.

Make no mistake, big ideas are her stock in trade. Longtime Harvard business school professor, yes. Author of 16 books, yes. Named one of the 50 most powerful women in the world by The Times of London - yes, yes. But big ideas are what Rosabeth Moss Kanter is really all about, and she deals in them the way stock brokers deal in blue chips and mutual funds.

Her latest big idea has been woven into a book titled Evolve! - a hip, catchy primer on the culture of the digital world. In fact it is so hip that Ms. Kanter, a middle-aged, self-described child of the sixties, has also made her own brief, if promotional, foray into the hip-hop world. The forward to the book is a rap song Ms. Kanter wrote herself.

No, really. Here's the chorus:

Get ready for the next step
Select the best step
It's a leap in evolution
From the Internet revolution
Just pick a direction
In this world of connection.
So many problems to solve -
You've got to evolve.

Ms. Kanter performed the rap song to a small but delighted audience during a recent talk on her book at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.

In an interview at her Vineyard home on the Edgartown Great Pond this week, she agreed that the book is both about youth and e-culture. "It was very rejuvenating," she said, adding:

"But youth wasn't the heart of the phenomenon; that was the spirit. I was enjoying this because there was something new to learn. I was enjoying the newness of it, and I was learning how to communicate in a language I did not really know."

When she was writing the book (most of it was written on the Vineyard) she taped near her computer a line from the song My Back Pages, written by Bob Dylan: I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.

In one chapter she wrote:

"For many youthful dotcoms in my e-culture project, the kitchen is the most important room, and food the most important part of bonding. Employees bring sleeping bags to work and take pride in pulling all-nighters that resemble communal living in the office. They are convinced that they will change the world and that no one over 30 can be trusted. They spend venture capitalists' money as though it were allowances from their parents. One senior staffer of a successful Web design firm enjoys gaining credibility with corporate clients despite his purple hair. . . . In some circles, hiring experienced professional managers for Internet startups is referred to as getting adult supervision."

The book is based on a landmark research project that included 300 on-site interviews and a global survey of 785 companies.

Ms. Kanter, who is known as an expert on managing change in the business world, argues that the real soul of the dot-com world is centered not in technology but on the ground, in networks of relationships.

Her favorite e-business stories include the stories of eBay, Williams-Sonoma, Reuters, Sun Microsystems and Razorfish.

But if you are looking for loads of numbers and statistics, you won't find them in Evolve!

"People remember stories better than they remember statistics," Ms. Kanter said.

In Evolve!, the stories are the book. Still, it is a serious academic exercise. Ms. Kanter unpacks the e-world in an unusual way, analyzing what she calls the "style versus substance" issue that she claims separates the successful companies from the unsuccessful ones. She compares dot-com management with improvisational theatre.

Unfortunately, while the book was at the printer the dot-com world unraveled - but Ms. Kanter is sanguine about the subject.

"Books I feel are for the ages, and I have decided there is a good reason everybody is reading history this summer," she said with a wry smile, adding: "I was looking for enduring traits, enduring lessons. So maybe now some people will read it as history, but really I think it is forward-looking."

She also said:

"I was very skeptical, and I was writing it before the crash. It's funny because my fear was that I would be seen as too skeptical and too negative about this new economy, and now I am seen as too positive. But Williams Sonoma is today one of the most profitable sites. . . . I feel good about the picks. The book is really about how the internet changes the culture for the rest of us. Technology is not a business in itself - it's a tool for the rest of us to get something done."

Over and over, Ms. Kanter uses community as the metaphor for the internet age.

"Internet communities are like real-life communities," she said. "So then how do you create a common vision and a common set of goals, how do you get lots of different groups of people moving in the same direction? On the internet people can talk about fishing, for example, and they can have all kinds of conversations about fishing, but it doesn't do anything to save the seas."

Two weeks ago at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the prestigious Academy of Management gave Ms. Kanter a career award for Scholarly Contributions to Management.

Evolve! also won an award in the offbeat Boston Magazine Best of Boston competition. The book was named Best Proof that Harvard Cares About the Inner City.

So what does the guru of managing change say about managing change on the Vineyard?

"It is the leadership problem of our age - and this is what Martha's Vineyard experiences, only it experiences it as an Island," she said. She continued:

"There is a need to get some consensus about what the problems are, and as I watch I can see these many groups forming: There is the affordable housing group, there is the presence of The Nature Conservancy with the power of its national organization behind it. This is a great model for leadership. But you have to find a way to mobilize everybody. We're not using the tools to build community."

About the Steamship Authority, Ms. Kanter said simply: "It's in chaos. It's a mess, and it's one of the few institutions that spans the Vineyard."

She also said: "We really need to have people involved in solving the problems rather than leaving it to a few people to create a plan that we will then complain about. A community needs to be about common goals, people need to feel part of it and feel responsible for it. Your people are your resources and you need to figure out what they have to offer.

"But things evolve, that's the whole point.

"I really wish I had a magic bullet but our problem in America is we all want a magic bullet. And sometimes it just isn't there."

In the book she concludes:

"No wonder everyone is searching for answers. But perhaps they are searching in the wrong place. . . . The answers lie not in cyberspace but on the ground, where real people make real choices."

Evolve! is on sale at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven and at Bickerton & Ripley in Edgartown.