Wrong, then right, then wrong again

The Essential Drucker
By Peter Drucker, 358 pages, $44.95, HarperBusiness

Peter Drucker, is widely regarded as being the father of management as an academic discipline. Now in his early 90s and still active as a professor at Claremont University in California, his work spans seven decades and includes dozens of books and hundreds of magazine and academic articles.

Drucker's works run the gamut from management theory to writings about managing change, the future and non-profit corporations. Among his many innovations are "management by objectives," and the terms "industrial man" and "economic man."

Drucker has been around so long, that much of what he has written has had time to be wrong, then right then wrong again. Wrong originally, because like many visionaries he was often so far ahead of his time, his ideas seemed unreal until events caught up. Now, decades later, many of these ideas are out of date, making them wrong again.

Hence the usefulness of a new book detailing which of Drucker's writings remain current. Fortunately, one of his editors has taken the time to plow through his entire body of work, and assemble the most useful pieces in work titled "The Essential Drucker," which groups his most important writings.

Management as a profession has taken a beating in recent times. Corporate hierarchies are increasingly being purged of middle managers. Nevertheless, the largest single U.S. labour-force category continues to be people the Bureau of the Census calls "managerial and professional."

That's because "many (managers) are like M. Jourdain, the character in Molière's Bourgeouis Gentilhomme, who did not know he spoke prose," writes Peter Drucker. "They barely realize that they practice --or mis-practice - management."

Businesses have changed since Drucker began studying them in the 1930s. At that time organizational charts emulated the military command structure that has been with us since Roman times. But as businesses have evolved, so has management.

Pyramid hierarchies-although by far the most common - are no longer considered the only way to organize. As businesses specialize more by contracting out non-core functions, manager's roles have both been reduced (due to less employees in smaller companies) and at the same time expanded. Once restricted to operations within the company, managers roles now often extend outside the organization, as they assume responsibility for sub-contractors.

At the same time, manager's tasks have gotten infinitely more complex. When Drucker began studying large manufacturing companies such as Alfred Sloan's General Motors, the employer-employee relationship was far stronger.

The vast majority of employees were unskilled workers almost totally at the mercy of their employers. Managers on the other hand - bound by restrictive union agreements - could not fire even the most incompetent workers. Tasks and structures were thus excruciatingly designed.

But in today's knowledge economy, the relationship is far more fragile. Employers can no longer provide job security, and thus have less to offer. Workers, with less incentive to stick around will change jobs for even marginally better conditions.

Re-reading Drucker's work, what quickly emerges is his broad understanding of both business, and the role it plays in society. For example one of his more interesting essays "A Century of Social transformation-Emergence of Knowledge Society," traces the rise and fall of the blue-collar worker. In it Drucker argues that social changes - running like ocean current deeply below the waves -- affect society far more than political changes.

One of those social changes -- the emergence of the knowledge worker, (a term Drucker claims to have invented) - has given rise to what he calls the greatest management challenge: making them productive. This is much harder than it sounds. Unskilled workers can be given specific definable tasks, and easily supervised. But how do you manage someone how knows more about his job than you do?

Assessing Drucker's writing is not easy. In range and depth it is unparalleled among popular management writers. In that respect anyone who wants to now something about the subject needs to read him. For that this book is as good as any.

However everyone is a child of his times. And Drucker's times were those of big businesses, industrial power and management as a bureaucracy. Even in his newer works the business cases he uses to make his points, are decades old, and give his writings a dated quality. One wishes for a younger and fresher management writer with Drucker's many qualities to come along. But none has.

 

 

Peter Diekmeyer is a Montreal-based business writer. He can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.c

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