Nov

21

 A Class with Drucker: The Lost Lessons of the World's Greatest Management Teacher by William A. Cohen

I've read much of what the late Peter Drucker wrote, including his two novels (which I try to forget). There have also been some books about Drucker that I've also found to be good reads. (For those unaware of Drucker's work, I suggest reading five of his books, in order: Adventures of a Bystander, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Managing the Non Profit Organization, Concept of the Corporation and Management: Tasks, Principles, and Responsibilities; there are a bunch of other books, but they are essentially commentary on these five.) Cohen's book is the first to be written not as an interpretation of Drucker's writings but as a distillation of the experience of being in one of his courses. Cohen was privileged enough to have been taught by Drucker in the late 1970s. The book is abundantly readable. Cohen has an easy writing style, and at the end of each chapter is a summary of the salient points from that chapter. He talks at length about Drucker's teaching style, how Drucker conducted the class without notes, and that Drucker's instruction would continue into the dinner provided by the college while Drucker sat eating with his students. Within a week of the start of the class, Drucker had learned everyone's name, and by the third week, knew a bit about their families (and the students, his family). For Drucker, management was as much about people and how one interacts with one another as it was any prescriptive policies or approaches to the typical problems a manager encounters on a regular basis.

 This book has one limitation: Its focus is exclusively on management. You might wonder if I've lost my mind, considering that the book is about Drucker, considered to be one of the major management gurus of all time. However, Drucker's work as a management guru derived from his strength as a social anthropologist. Drucker viewed a business as a society. (This idea began with his "Concept of the Corporation" study of GM back in the 1940s.) That's the reason, I think, he was so concerned about the legitimacy of a company's management, the value accorded to the individual workers, and so on. I think that this is the reason Drucker picked up so quickly on the rise of the knowledge worker–that rise was a societal phenomenon moreso than a business one. Consider a baseball team–9 people playing 9 positions, and one manager. Each is a specialist in his field, each is a knowledge worker. Yet the team is a society as much as anything else. Its customers are the fans–not just those attending the games but also those listening on the radio/watching tv, etc. (All of which makes one wonder about the rising stars of the game who sign baseballs only for a fee and who never seem to be available for clinics or any other interaction with kids–the future ticket-buying customers. Maybe that's what made Cal Ripken so special–he was always available, and I can't tell you how many baseballs I saw him sign for free–even for two hours in the pouring rain. But I digress.) Ditto for an orchestra. Similarly, if one looks at governments, their customers are voters. Throughout our society, we have these groups of people with a common aim to be undertaken and completed in a coordinated way. Those are businesses, sure, but they are also societies in and of themselves.This may seem a trivial difference, whether one looks at a business as an organization or as a society. But in looking at a business as a society, one can begin to apply all the understandings we have about societies in general to businesses, which is what Drucker did.

There are lots of other insights that Drucker imparted during his career–and they derive, for the most part–from his observations about businesses as societies. That's the reason, I think, he saw himself as a bystander, much as any social anthropologist would. Further, by looking at a business as a society, he provided the means by which his teachings could resonate long after his death, rather than that influence be dependent on his presence. It's "catch a fish for a man, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him for life."

All in all, a good read. Not one I'd suggest for the holidays, but on a quiet warm beach in February, it will fill the void nicely.


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