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July’s top business books

Friday, 8 July 2011 | By Alan Hargreaves

Business books

Getting started in Small Business IT

(Wiley Publishing, Australia, 2011, RRP$19.95)

 

Thank the lord for the Dummies series. You might be embarrassed to be seen buying one in a bookshop, but you’ll know what you are buying and why. 

 

Dummies are one of the strongest brands in publishing. They’re the McDonalds of “How to”.

 

I’m not a huge fan of McDonalds but when you have a carload of hungry kids, it’s the easiest decision. You know what the product will be like, how much it will cost and how quickly you’ll get it.

 

It’ll be easy to park and there’ll be a playground. You even know what the staff will say when you approach the counter. If you’re in an even bigger hurry, there’s the window to go.

 

Ditto for Dummies. You know your most basic questions will be answered and it will be easy to find.

 

What you need to know has become multidimensional. There is just too much new stuff around and you are unlikely to have covered it all in your education, even if you’ve got a couple of degrees.

 

That’s why a few Dummies volumes sit on my library shelf – for when people ask me things I am supposed to know like how do trademarks work or how do you register your business in another state, and must you? I don’t want to trawl through pages of website. I just want the answer.

 

The Dummies in my reference library save me some embarrassment.

 

We all have holes in our knowledge, especially in IT. So often, it’s because we are self-taught. I made PowerPoint presentations for years before someone showed me the fast way to use cut and paste in the graphics package.

 

My informant had found out in PowerPoint for Dummies.  Ditto for my spreadsheet work, which is now dramatically more efficient thanks to another volume.

 

So it is with Getting Started in Small Business IT. This is very basic stuff. You probably know a lot of it. I do. But I didn’t know how to shorten my URL to optimise character usage in a tweet.

 

Yes, I know a lot of you probably do. And there are also a lot of readers who probably say, who cares? But if that sort of information will save you either time or embarrassment, it’s in this book.

 

So are all the other basic bits of knowledge you will need if you are starting up a business in today’s environment.

 

That includes useful hints on selecting an IT or digital design partner. Sometimes it seems like web designers are the new tradies. I know a great carpenter. He has great skills working with wood. But now he’s a builder. Now he needs management skills and he hasn’t got them.

 

There are a lot of web designers and IT advisers out there who are similar to tradies. They know their stuff but they tend to over-promise and under-deliver, not to mention turning up on time. They can get you out there in social media, but getting online traction is another matter altogether.

 

If you’re starting at ground zero in IT, try going back to scratch with this book.

 

4 out of 5 stars.

 

Choke: Using the secrets of your brain to succeed when it matters most

Sian Beilock, Melbourne University Press, 2011

 

What a boon the MRI has been to psycho-social research. Neuroscience has grabbed brain imaging by the throat over the last two decades. The result has been a plethora of books explaining why we do what we do.

 

Choke is such a book. Like others in the genre, it is pretty much a corroborative exercise. A lot of research simply states the obvious like, for example, we can freeze under stress.

 

What Choke does is give us the science about why we freeze. It provides a platform for formulating ideas for behavior modification.

 

There is also a bit of myth-busting along the way. Various studies carried out by Beilock and her colleagues show that the smartest people in the room don’t always come up with the best solutions, nor excel at the more complicated tests.

 

The reason for this is their propensity to tackle the problem using the most complicated route.

 

Working memory (the amount of brain power we have available to manage lots of information) gets taxed by the requirements of the more complicated process. That leaves it with too little horsepower to notice other, often more efficient, ways of addressing the problem.

 

The good news here is for those of us who are more easily distracted. Working memory manages our inhibition so that extraneous information isn’t allowed in when the brain is highly focused on a complex problem.

 

But if you are easily distracted, you are more likely to see the other answers that are out there. Often, distracted people are quicker and more practical in spotting solutions.

 

Various outcomes of research in this area show that smart people often get better results when they collaborate with dumber people. Often, it’s the dumber party that sparks the better idea. That’s something we could all remember when working in teams.

 

High achievers also tend to go for a “no excuses” view of themselves if they get it wrong. They are harder on themselves.

 

This only leads to more stress, which leaves even less mental horsepower to handle the task at hand. This is one reason, says Beilock, why the smartest people often “choke”.

 

There’s plenty more in this book, but you will know a lot of it intuitively – like practicing in high stress conditions will help. Still, there are useful reminders of how to handle common situations.

 

If you already have a process down pat, don’t dwell on it at the time. Golfers will recognise this. Don’t start thinking about your stroke. Distract your mind with something else and take the shot. Stay fluid and avoid over-thinking. If you are presenting and worried about your lines, don’t memorise the whole thing, just put together an easily memorised list of the five key points.

 

This is not the best book to emerge out of the latest neuro-scientific research. It occasionally seems to lapse into polemics in areas like race and gender.

 

Several chapters make statements with anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, and you are unlikely to come away from reading it choke-free.

 

You will, however, understand how it happens and you’ll have a few strategies up your sleeve to handle it. As long as you’re working memory doesn’t freeze up on you first.

 

3.5 stars out of 5.

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