Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Business lessons from The Dead

Practitioners of the art of management have often found inspiration in the most unlikely places.
Sport and the military have, quite unsurprisingly, been major sources of inspiration for management best practices. For instance, some time last year IMD hosted Usain Bolt the Jamaican sprinter who won a gold at the Beijing Olympics. During the discussion, Bolt offered his b-school audience thoughts on success, motivation and standards.
Equally interesting is that India's film industry has provided food for thought to managers and business thinkers. Almost a decade ago, the Hindi film Lagaan created a buzz, not just for its entertainment value but also for the management lessons it offered. In fact, Totus Consulting — a company based in Chennai, India — did some qualitative research on the management lessons the film had to offer.
And now the news that there are business lessons to be learnt from the band the Grateful Dead. According to a piece in The Atlantic magazine, the Grateful Dead Archive is scheduled to open soon at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
While the archive is expected to be a treasure trove for academics of all hues, the biggest beneficiaries may perhaps be business scholars and management theorists, the article states. This is because management thinkers are finding that The Dead were business visionaries who focused on things like creating customer value, promoting social networking and strategic business planning long before the corporate world warmed-up to these practices.
The Dead, for instance, focused very intensely on its most loyal fans or ‘customers’. “It established a telephone hotline to alert them to its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement, reserved for them some of the best seats in the house, and capped the price of tickets, which the band distributed through its own mail-order house,” the piece in The Atlantic points out.
Similarly, The Dead also had a Board of Directors, with the CEO’s position rotating, and set up a profitable merchandising division. The band even allowed fans to tape shows for free, based on the “assessment that tape sharing would widen their audience, a ban would be unenforceable and anyone inclined to tape a show would probably spend money elsewhere, such as on merchandise or tickets,” the article adds. A forerunner of the ‘give it all away free’ Internet business model, perhaps?
It appears, in fact, that John Perry Barlow, The Dead’s lyricist, had it all figured out over a decade-and-a-half ago. In a piece in Wired in 1994, he suggested that in the information economy “the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away."
So do sport, music, art and literature have lessons for management? Perhaps; just as management may have lessons for sport, music, literature and art!
PS: I also suspect that business thinkers and managers will soon look to the Hindi film Three Idiots for nuggets on the art and science of management!

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