McLuhan as business guru

Together, those questions form four quadrants — extension, reversal, retrieval and obsolescence — that managers can use to investigate innovations, processes, hiring and other issues…But the tetrad tool with its four quadrants can be quite useful and the book does provide a good explanation of McLuhan for interested managers.

The Globe and Mail
October 15, 2003

McLuhan as business guru
Harvey Schachter

McLuhan for Managers
By Mark Federman and Derrick de Kerckhove
Viking Canada, 208 pages, $37

Mention Marshall McLuhan and the words "impenetrable" or "global village" are more likely to come to mind than "management" or "business."

But the University of Toronto literature professor who became a pop culture sensation in the 1960s also consulted for various major corporations throughout his life. He foresaw the Internet, among other innovations, and even developed at one point an idea for a television program that would feature public participation in solving a dramatized business problem with a reward for the best solution.

"Business was a source of insights for McLuhan almost to the same extent as art. He looked upon businesses the way he looked at art forms, that is, as different arrays of constraints and possibilities that generated different, but highly discernable, patterns," Mark Federman and Derrick de Kerckhove write in McLuhan For Managers.

Mr. McLuhan's most famous utterance was "the medium is the message." The authors note that in Mr. McLuhan's world, a medium was anything that extends our mind, body or senses. It could be a technology or gadget, new process or creative work. Clothing is an extension or our skin, so it's a medium. A motorcycle is an extension of a bicycle, which itself extends our leg and foot. A corporation is a medium, because it extends our ability to work beyond the individual.

Mr. McLuhan set out four laws that reveal the nature of any medium and out of that the authors present a management tool, the "tetrad," that can help you in your decision making. Mr. McLuhan shaped his laws as questions that need to be asked about a medium:

  • What does this artifact enhance or intensify or make possible or accelerate?
  • What is pushed aside or made obsolescent as this new medium or situation emerges?
  • What older or previously obsolete medium or situation does the new form bring back?
  • When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will tend to reverse what were its original characteristics. Specifically, what will this new form reverse?

Together, those questions form four quadrants — extension, reversal, retrieval and obsolescence — that managers can use to investigate innovations, processes, hiring and other issues.

Take the photocopier. It extended the pen, the process of duplication, communication of written ideas, self-publishing and freedom of expression. Taken too far, it can become negative, reversing into plagiarism and copyright infringement, vanity publishing and propaganda. It helped for a time to bring back the underground and independent press. It made obsolescent older methods of copying such as carbon paper, editorial oversight and, to some extent, censorship.

Often the best insights will come from the obsolescence and retrieval quadrants. "There is a danger in ignoring what the obsolescence quadrant reveals if what is being obsolesced is fundamental to human nature or behaviour," the authors note. On-line grocery shopping, for example, was bound to struggle as it replaces going to the supermarket and the sensual natures of colour, touch and sight that we delight in while shopping.

Retrieval will often illuminate powerful emotional connections and thus provide clues for marketers, as it did for GroceryGateway.com, which used images of the return of the grocery deliveryman in the company's advertising. And beware of the reversal quadrant, because we often go too far and trigger those dangers with our new management enthusiasms.

The authors guide readers intelligently and as clearly as possible through such McLuhan issues as hot and cold, and figure and ground. But the reality is that these ideas are hard to assimilate. I still found the notions murky at points and was often not satisfied that using McLuhan was really telling me anything I couldn't have figured out easily through normal thought. But the tetrad tool with its four quadrants can be quite useful and the book does provide a good explanation of McLuhan for interested managers.

In Addition: Tim Hortons wasn't always an omnipresent feature of the Canadian landscape, and in Tales From The Rim (Goose Lane, 218 pages, $29.95), Ron Buist, who spent 24 years as marketing director, provides a serviceable corporate biography that recounts how this remarkable franchise got off the ground and then concentrates on marketing, telling about growth from the era when the company couldn't afford television commercials; to the creation of the classic Roll Up the Rim to Win contest; to the more recent True Stories series of ads. The book also answers the elemental question of whether the chain should be called Tim Horton, Tim Horton's or Tim Hortons — it has, at one time or another, been all three, but is now Tim Hortons.

Just In: Drawing on the wisdom of the 23rd Psalm, King David's psalm, Blaine McCormick and David Davenport show in Shepherd Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 149 pages, $33.95) how we can be vigilant without being adversarial, serve without being passive, and guide without commanding.

In The Power of Resilience (Contemporary Books, 320 pages, $32.95), Harvard Medical School professor Robert Brooks and University of Utah neuropsychologist Sam Goldstein explore how to achieve balance, confidence and personal strength in your life.

Truth is the ultimate sales tool, according to consultant Barry Maher, and in No Lie (McGraw-Hill, 181 pages, $23.95) he explains how to turn negatives about your product into positive selling points.

Gray Matters (John Wiley, 336 pages, $25.95) by Bob Rosner, Allan Halcrow and John Lavin mixes words and cartoons in presenting a survival guide for the modern workplace, covering issues such as the seven deadly workplace sins, thriving in a changing environment, and how to sell even if you aren't a salesperson.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which has become popular amongst strategists, is brought together in a handsome boxed set (Shambhala Publications, $29.95) that includes a paperback book and a set of cards with 50 passages from the work, along with commentary.

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