organizational life in popular nonfiction

One of  my reading habits that changed significantly after leaving grad school was that I started reading more popular nonfiction. In grad school my reading time was completely soaked with accumulating a knowledge of the Literature. If I ever wanted a break, I’d pick up a novel and have a few moments of respite before diving into the next treatise on decoupling and organizational routines. But recently I’ve started reading more popular nonfiction. I still like escapist reading, and good nonfiction can be as absorbing as any novel. I’m also constantly on the search for good observational details about organizational life that I can pull into the classroom. Students in my undergrad classes at BYU got pretty sick of every organizational example I’d use being about church or school. Second hand stories from a friend of a friend who works at an investment bank don’t carry the same punch. But there are plenty of great examples of organizational intrigue in compelling nonfiction. MBA students also thrive on real life illustrations. Another reason is that good nonfiction writing often comes with its own ethnographic analysis that can be readily adapted to the concept or idea we’re trying to explain in class. There are some obvious examples that often get picked up (e.g., Liar’s Poker; Moneyball; Team of Rivals), but here are some books that you might not have thought of as having good organizational analysis in them.  I’ve used (or will use) all of them in class.

  • Our Band Could be Your Life by Michael Azerrad. The chapters of the book are a series of vignettes about indie rock bands formed in the 80s and 90s and their attempts to build a fan base with very little organizational infrastructure or label support.  Azerrad captures a number of dynamics in the music industry – collective identity and genre creation, entrepreneurship, anti-corporate movements, team building – that would make great fodder for class discussions.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. This was a popular press book that launched Bourdain’s career as the Travel Channel’s official tour guide to the world. People familiar with the show will recognize his schtick, but what will surprise you are all of the gritty details Bourdain reveals about life in the kitchens of New York. It’s a great case study of how a partially underground labor market works, the dynamics around organizational loyalty and commitment, and a solid memoir of work.
  • These Guys Have All the Fun by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. I’m still finishing this one, but I can already tell you that it’s a rich source of details about the power and politics inside a well-functioning organization, the cable sports network ESPN. I read a review of the book that said there were too many details in this book about the mundane details of business and not enough about the personalities behind the show. I think that’s exactly the reason I love the book! Miller and Shales, by collecting a bunch of oral histories of current and past employees of ESPN, tell a super engaging story about how a small business gets started and becomes a dominant player in the television industry.  Much of the focus of the book is about the behind-the-scenes interactions of people creating an entirely new industry and about the business acumen and political savvy needed to survive that kind of launch.
  • King of the Club by Charles Gasparino. This book follows the rise and fall of Richard Grasso, the former chair of the NYSE who was notoriously ousted from his position after the public discovered he was due a compensation worth over $100 million. The details about the eventual compensation scandal were intriguing, of course, but what makes this book great is its demonstration of how Grasso climbed the corporate ladder, starting off on the lowest rung on the totem pole and ending up the most powerful man on Wall Street.  I use this book in my MBA class to talk about the importance of the “rules of the game.” Grasso was adept early on at learning and mastering those rules, but at some point he become detached from the broader cultural expectations of equity and fairness, which led him to make some poor political calculations.
  • The Beatles by Bob Spitz. Yep, this is the greatest book about teamwork and the deterioration of a team that I’ve ever read. One of my favorite parts of the book is the telling of them learning how to be the Beatles during their time in Hamburg.

Written by brayden king

September 27, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Posted in books, brayden

7 Responses

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  1. […] organizational life in popular nonfiction – […]


  2. Thanks, great resources.

    Perhaps another option. Yesterday on NPR there was an interview of Peter Van Buren, Iraq reconstruction official who wrote the book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”

    I was aghast and laughing out loud (well, should cry really) about some things he discussed. The book sounded like Catch-22 (the classic) brought to life. Here’s the interview if anyone is interested –



    September 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm

  3. Thank you! These kinds of works are teaching goldmines — in both the sense of their high value and in the sense of their difficulty in locating (for me at least). Several years out of grad school, I’m still reading nowhere near as much non-academic work as I would like. Any additional suggestions are greatly appreciated!



    September 27, 2011 at 7:45 pm

  4. Hey Prof. King, this is Andrew Lee, the Asian student you met at Las Vegas ASA meeting who was all gaga over meeting some of his favorite bloggers haha.

    But you’re right on the mark with “Kitchen Confidential.” When I first got into the book I thought that Bourdain would be talking a lot more about food or the process of making food – and he certainly gives a lot of space to that. But he also spent A LOT of time talking about workplace dynamics and things like “leadership” and organizational culture and politics.

    Just so much loving detail in the book about what it takes to run a “good kitchen”



    September 28, 2011 at 7:59 am

  5. I’ve read a few of these but will need to check out the others – thanks!

    I recently read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand – it was an incredible story of Louie Zamperini – an Olympic athlete, WWII Army Air Corps bombadier, and POW in Japan during WWII. If it weren’t all documented I’d say there was no way it was true! There are a few chapters about Louie’s time as a bombadier that talk about how the group of men work together, how they learn about “their” plane, and what impact change has on the group that I thought was really interesting from an OT/OB perspective. Plus it’s a good read – I’d recommend it.

    From a social change perspective, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder is a quite interesting story of Paul Farmer, who launched Partners In Health and has done a lot of work in Haiti. I liked the background in some of the stories on how he got started, how things were organized (or not!) as his foundation grew – and struggled.

    And I’ll add my voice to the chorus about “Kitchen Confidential” – my brother is a chef and reading this provided me more insight into my brother than I’d ever had!


    Sara Soderstrom

    September 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm

  6. Cool, thanks for the additional reading recommendations. And I’m glad there’s so much consensus about Kitchen Confidential being a great book about organizations.


    brayden king

    September 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm

  7. I think David Simon’s (he of “The Wire”) “Homicide: a year on the killing streets” is an outstanding organizational ethnography, showing how the internal structure of the police department (with Homicide as an elite unit) and mundane technologies (such as the whiteboard cases are put on, allowing an at-a-glance assessment of which team/team member is clearing the most cases/carrying their fair share) shape the day to day work of homicide detectives.

    Throw in an intense culture with its own language, huge personalities and a great writing style and you have a fanatastic read.


    Adam Hedgecoe

    September 30, 2011 at 11:55 am

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