Book Review

In the natural world, species evolve . . . or they die. The same genetic imperative operates in business.

This observation opens Charles H. Fine’s Clockspeed: Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage, which combines a metaphoric analysis of changing business climates with suggestions for survival. “Clockspeed” is Fine’s term for the rate of industrial evolution. “Clockspeed is to business genetics what life cycles are to human genetics,” he explains.

Fine, professor of management and director of the Technology Supply Chain Research Project at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, found inspiration for his book in that genetics-lab hero, the fruit fly. Because many fruit fly generations pass in a short time span, it has been our master teacher in the field of genetics. If we could just identify industrial equivalents to the fruit fly, Fine thought, we could gain comparable insights into the ‘genetic’ changes in business – that is, what would happen over ‘generations’.

Fine’s metaphor – the dynamics of genetics and evolution hold true in business as they do in biology – works on many levels. Supply chains, for example, he likens to the protein chains of DNA. “By examining the ‘molecular’ structure of companies – their capability chains – business genetics helps us understand their mutation, evolution and eventual survival or demise,” he writes. For example, Chrysler Corp. undertook an in-depth study of its own value chain in the early 1990s. Beginning with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, it stepped up the chain, evaluating the source of the Jeep’s engine, its roller-lifter valve, the valve’s precision-machined metal castings and the casting clay used in the foundry. Chrysler was shocked to find that the supplier of this last crucial element was about to quit manufacturing casting clay and start making kitty litter instead! This evaluation of ‘molecular structure’ revealed what lay in Chrysler’s future, much the way genetic testing can inform a person of a potential health threat.

Fine’s book offers a useful framework for thinking about corporate success from an evolutionary standpoint. In doing so, it is at once entertaining, informative and thoughtful. – Sandy Kendall