Book review: Exponential Organizations


Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it). Salim Ismail with M. Malone and Y. van Geest, Diversion books, New York, 2014.

(If you can not get the book, here is a slideshare presentation of it by one of the authors)

I have been reading about the social, political and economic impacts of exponential technologies since the early 2010s.  Throughout my readings, there was always the question in the back of my mind, on how these technologies will affect organizations, and by extension  international intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations. So running into this book was exciting. The book was not about the UN or similar organizations, but it seemed it may give me ideas or clues that I could apply to an international institution.

Unfortunately, I did not find the clues I was hoping to find and worse, reading the book became increasingly annoying for several reasons. First because the authors show hardly any interest in anyone other than the top management level of an organization even though what makes an organization is the people who populate it not the few at the top of its hierarchy.

Second, because the authors also show no concern for the potentially detrimental impacts of these technological changes on the people beyond Silicon Valley, say in places like Ethiopia or Malaysia.

Third, nowhere do they mention, even in passing, the social and economic context in which the exponential organizations are emerging: that is, the context of an increasingly unequal world.

Among the recommendations the authors make, for the CEO of a wanna-be exponential organization, is to exclusively use workers-on-demand because, well it is cheaper since on-demand workers get no extras like paid vacations or sick days. It seems the picture of today’s young people and future workers-on-demand not having sick days, paid vacations or pensions was not bothersome to the authors. But it bothers me.

I thought maybe they would show concern about these issues in the concluding chapter so I read that carefully. Nothing! Instead there is a dismissive sentence on some people’s fear of robots-taking-over-jobs. Their proof for how silly this fear is that historically people have always been fearful of new technology, that they did not know enough to appreciate the emerging technologies, and that everything eventually worked out. This is like telling people that they are too stupid to know what is good for them, and they are too stupid to appreciate the coming life of abundance!

The book has a prologue, written by the exponential technology master guru himself: Peter Diamandis. I have read Diamandis’ books and respect his intellect and his business savvy. The man has three degrees: two from MIT and one from Harvard. It is impressive. But some of his observations in the prologue seemed over-reaching.

Here is an example. Diamandis says “[with exponential technologies] Everyone of us with or without skills becomes a master designer and manufacturer, in much the same way that Microsoft word makes us all perfect spellers.”  I beg to differ: MS Word did not make us all “perfect spellers.” It actually eroded writing skills because people rely too much on the technology. Leaving spelling to software can create a mess if the writer’s spelling skills are not well developed to start with.

The book was disappointing and a bit annoying for its giddy excitement about exponential technologies and organizations. I am all for it if exponential technologies and organizations put people at the center of their design, make them stronger, more resilient and more dignified, not redundant or disposable. Luckily there are many CEOs, the target audience of this book, who are unlikely to support the book’s suggestions.

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About Zehra Aydin 14 Articles
Retired UN staff; expert in sustainable development, SDGs, UN system and international environmental negotiations; writing on climate change, inequality, technology and the UN; teaching sustainable development and corporate social responsibility

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