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Alan Robinson, Author and Academic

Alan Robinson
Robinson: "One of my teenage daughters has set a goal to read the great classics. I wish I'd done that at her age."

One book: Good to Great by Jim Collins -- perhaps the greatest study of business success ever written.
One newspaper: The New York Times. I like its serious international coverage.
One Web site: I check it at least five or six times a day.
One gadget: My Vonage Internet phone. The consistently poor and indifferent service I've gotten from the major phone companies makes me want to support a fresh technology that's shaking up the business.
One plane ticket: New Zealand. I have never seen such a beautiful country.

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(CNN) -- Global Office talks to the co-authors of "Ideas of Free." For Dean Schroeder, click here.

GO: What are you reading?

Alan Robinson: "Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future" by Peter Senge, et al. I've long admired Senge as one of the deepest thinkers about management. Presence -- an even better book than Senge's "The Fifth Discipline" -- is a fresh and gutsy attempt to help readers figure out how to improve their interaction with the world in order to enhance their ability to create innovation and positive change. I was captivated with the book from the opening page and hope it gets the attention it deserves.

GO: Who's been your biggest influence?

AR: Shigeo Shingo, the co-developer of the Toyota Production System -- the pioneering "just-in-time" production system -- and the inspiration for my own interest in continuous improvement and employee ideas. Shingo had the most relentless attitude towards improvement of anyone I know, including complete contempt for any manager who wasn't constantly looking for better ways to do things and pushing his or her employees to do the same. Rightly or wrongly, this attitude has rubbed off on me and heavily influenced my research and writing, along with the way I deal with managers in the companies I work with.

GO: What's your biggest mistake?

AR: I've got two of them. On her own, one of my teenage daughters set a goal to read the great classics. She's enjoying it immensely, having learned a lot about language, writing, history, and people. I wish I had done that at her age. The other mistake was not to learn Japanese and Russian when I had the opportunity to spend considerable time in both countries. In a speech at the University of Massachusetts, the president of the European Commission told our students that anyone who doesn't speak at least three languages will be at a severe disadvantage in the coming years. I couldn't agree more.

GO: Is management an art or a science?

AR: If management were a pure science, it wouldn't be so "guru-driven" -- with every guru offering a different recipe for success -- nor would business parables be on the bestseller lists. However, the fact that management has an element of art to it shouldn't detract from its respect as a skilled profession, which can and should be seriously studied. Pushing management to be overly "scientific" -- as Frederick Taylor did with the original "Scientific Management" -- merely causes a lot of variables to be swept under the carpet.

GO: What do you reach for on your desk when the fire alarm goes off?

AR: My computer -- or, specifically, the checklist I keep on it. I went to a talk last year by James Murphy, a former fighter pilot and author of Business Is Combat. He spoke of how fighter pilots are trained to deal with "task saturation" -- when, in the heat of combat, problems are created faster than the pilot can solve them. The solution? A checklist with prioritization. I type in all the things I'm supposed to deal with, then pick the ones I need to do that day -- starting with the one I'm least looking forward to. When I'm finished with that task, I pick the next most unattractive task and so on. It's amazing how much my productivity and responsiveness increases with just this small amount of self-discipline.

Curriculum Vitae

  • Co-author of "Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations" with Dean Schroeder and "Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen" with Sam Stern.
  • Studied mathematics at Cambridge University in Great Britain before earning a PhD in industrial engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Has advised some 120 organizations in 11 countries on how to manage creativity and ideas, including UBS, Bose, Volkswagen, Medtronics, Heineken, and the Applied Physics Laboratory.
  • Has also worked on a number of projects for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and served on the Board of Examiners of the U.S. Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
  • Has been a featured speaker at business conferences around the world.

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