PS Drucker Essay I Wrote Later in the Week


BURLINGAME, Calif. — I do not as a rule go in for the grandiose claims of business or technology, let alone combinations of the two. In Peter Drucker’s case, I’ll make an exception.

Drucker, who died in 2005 at age 95, was of course the great writer on business and management. He was also that rarest of things, a deeply learned, compassionate and long-range thinker (something lost among most of his readers, who in fairness are just trying to solve the problems piling up on their desks.) Therefore it is worth revisiting some of his last writings for what they say about the world we are entering.

In “The New Realities,” published in 2003, Drucker wrote that, with the development of the first computers in 1946, humankind had entered “a new basic civilization.” The mechanical world of the past was characterized by analytic thinking; our new civilization, based on information, is characterized instead by perception. In this world, management–which must deal with people’s values, growth and development in order to foster joint cooperation–is a chief branch of the humanities.

Those of us who have attended business school may recall little emphasis on the pursuit of a humanistic calling toward soul craft. Probably there was more talk about ways to promote self-interest, stick your buddy or bundle bad mortgages. And what Drucker conceived of as the typical agent of the Information Age, the “knowledge worker,” is a type now thought of as a drone in a cubicle, or perhaps a lone coder in his basement. Our fault, not Drucker’s, on both fronts, for what he was talking about in his culture of perception seems to me the very thing managers need to think about as life moves increasingly online.

The Information Age, Drucker wrote, requires that we perceive not just the parts of a situation, but the overall ecology in which a part or an individual operates. Motivation of people cannot rest solely in money, but in rewards around challenge, mission, learning and awareness of the outcomes. They must perceive who they are, what their group is doing, and how it contributes to their sense of self. Establishing strategic goals for a group begins with defining what the group is, and the ways in which it is appropriate to the task (not too large nor too small, and not necessarily long-lived.) People will need to improve their ability to perceive overall situations, and that long-derided capability, intuition.

Spooky, right? Did someone just say, “flake?”

Then consider just a few of the ways in which we see those principles acted out in our highly networked world:

Ecologies matter? Several years ago, Intel ( INTC – news – people ) research established that the typical Intel worker had at least three very different identities during the day, from, say, designing a chip with a group in Malaysia to helping prepare Congressional testimony. Our roles and identities differ in each task, as does the definition of success.

Motivation has more to do with renown and challenge? Look at any open source project, where people sweat bullets for free, hoping to aid the group. Look at social networks like Digg, which found that people worked harder if they could see the impact they were having, than they did if you just gave them money.

Perception of the self and the group matter? Any social network is based on this.

Definition matters? In a world of blogs and social networks, all companies are in effect media companies, in constant communication with customers, partners, even competitors. They have to communicate in dense, consistent ways and grow their story almost organically, if only so the attention-deficit world can follow them.

Develop intuition? Ask Google ( GOOG – news – people ) why its hiring process is so long and arduous, and they’ll tell you that they are after a certain mindset, a way of seeing and cooperating that they call “Googly.” Likewise, non-obvious investments they make, like novel forms of geothermal heat extraction, are done because they are Googly. Ask for a definition of what that means, exactly, and they’ll shrug. They just … know.

Obviously, Drucker did not have all the answers. His understanding of the world we are still striving to understand even as we build it was remarkable, however. And the fact that he saw this world’s hurly-burly of data, desire and bandwidth as a coherent and human place is strangely comforting.

Now, if only someone else could pick up where he left off.

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