Management Guru still going strong at 90
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Management Challenges for the 21st Century
By Peter F. Drucker
Harper Business, 207 pp., $40.00

Frustrated at quality of the management books we were assigned to read as part my undergraduate studies, an erudite acquaintance suggested I study Peter Drucker. "Although he is old and well past retirement age," I was told "his ideas may still be of some relevance."

Well 20 years and hundreds of articles, several books and edited collections later, in the year of his 90th birthday, Drucker gives us Management Challenges of the 21st Century. The book is a collection of six essays in which he contextualizes the risks and opportunities facing managers today.

The credentials Drucker brings to the table are broad and impressive. A doctorate in public and international law, university professor, 30-odd books and consultant to the whose-who of American big business, he is widely credited as the father of management as an academic discipline distinct from economics.

Drucker arrived circuitously into the field of management. At a time when his writing was gaining increasing recognition from academia in the field of political science, a request came from General Motors to conduct the first in-depth structural review of a private corporation.

His analysis, done from a sociological perspective evolved into The Concept of the Corporation, a book widely credited with introducing decentralization as an organizing principal of the modern corporation.

Among his many contributions to the field of management are the terms "knowledge worker," "post-modern," "management by objectives," "privatization" and "knowledge society." So deeply have his ideas taken root many just assume they are common sense and have always existed.

Drucker begins his latest book by questioning some of the basic assumptions governing the discipline and practice of management since the turn of the century when such thinkers as Henri Fayol and Walter Rathenau first began examining the organization.

Where there was once thought to be only one right way to manage people and one ideal management structure, companies now need to be flexible depending on the specific task to be accomplished and the strengths of each individual involved.

Drucker asserts that successful organizations must look beyond trying to manage change and instead try to see leading change as an organizational responsibility by welcoming it as an opportunity.

In many cases this means instituting a policy of organized abandonment. When evaluating their product lines businesses must constantly ask themselves the question: "If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we know now, go into it."

He does not mince words: "There is nothing as difficult and as expensive, but also nothing as futile, as to try to keep a corpse from stinking."

Spending the bulk of his formative years in academia and later consulting for America's larger corporations has left more than a trace of the bureaucrat on Drucker. Consequently he defines his subject broadly to encompass not just business management but all management done in organizations including public-sector units and volunteer groups.

This does not stop him from including a chapter on self-management, a task that in the era of quasi-lifetime job security needed only be undertaken by the most entrepreneurial of spirits. Today with the precarious nature of all employment even those of modest endowment will have to learn how to manage themselves.

Drucker's strength is the broad historical and sociological perspective he brings to his subject matter. By comparing many of today's great changes with others from past, he puts them in context giving the reader a framework to better understand the current business environment.

For example while discussing management's greatest challenge for the next century: knowledge-worker productivity, he sets the stage by briefly describing the fifty-fold improvement in manual-labor productivity since 1900, an achievement to which he credits all economic and social gains of the 20th century.

To do this he sacrifices a bit in other areas. His ideas tend to be geared to larger businesses in spite of their declining importance as a proportion of the economy.

In addition he manages to get through an entire book about management challenges in the 21st century without discussing the impact of the Internet in any significant way. This does not lesson the book's usefulness since he rightly concludes it is no longer the quantity of information available to managers that is at issue but its quality, structure and relevance.

Drucker's contribution is not so much in the utility of his ideas as in the rigorous activity of mind by which they are formulated. He affirms what is at stake and occasionally points in the right direction but leaves it to the reader to reach his own conclusions.

To give some sense of the span of Drucker's career, it is sixty years since Sir Winston Churchill favorably reviewed his first book The End of Economic Man. Management Challenges for the 21st Century proves that time has not diminished the usefulness of his writings. Suitably, when asked which of his books is the best he always replies: "The next."

Peter Diekmeyer is a freelance business writer based in Montreal. He can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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