On his list of the best business books of 2014, leadership expert/author James O’Toole names a novel as one of the best books about organizational culture for the year. The novel is The Circle by Dave Eggers, author of several best selling novels and memoirs. It is rare that a work of fiction is cited as a leading business book — with the notable exception of The Goal by the late Eliyahu Goldratt, required reading at Fuqua and many other top MBA programs.
My initial reading of Eggers’ The Circle was disappointing. The characters were superficially drawn and did not connect to me as a reader. The dialog seemed stiff and some of the content was repetitive. Yet the book was a quick read for 500 pages and made thoughtful points about social media, connectedness and privacy.
Two weeks later, I reviewed Invisibles by David Zweig, who describes the work culture of the people that he calls the “Invisibles” as the complete opposite of the work culture that Eggers creates in The Circle. Zweig’s Invisibles are highly skilled professionals who work anonymously, deriving meaning from the craft itself and excellence in its performance. By contrast, the characters who work in The Circle receive instant numeric feedback after each task and are driven to relentless self-promotion to improve their metrics.
I went back to The Circle and my second reading gave it more stars. In Eggers’ novel, the Circle is the name of the company that replaces Google, Facebook, Twitter with one unified corporation that offers a single account for email, banking, social media and all other identity needs. The goal of the company is to improve the world, through utility, efficiency and transparency.
The Circle pushes their employees to share their experiences through social media and in company sponsored events. Since people improve their behavior when all is visible, the Circle intensifies the habit of sharing into constant surveillance called “transparency.” Individuals are conscious of everything they do and filter everything they say. Communication sounds forced. Relationships become superficial. Life grows less spontaneous, less genuine. Perhaps Eggers’ superficial characters and unnatural dialogue were purposeful choices by an exceptional author.
Or not. Either way The Circle provokes ideas about workplace culture, and about our changing attitudes around sharing and privacy. I recommend The Circle to anyone interested in the culture of organizations as well as those concerned about the changes in society arising from use of the internet.
© Meg Trauner & Ford Library – Fuqua School of Business.
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