About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, October 9, 2009

#103 - Management Challenges for the 21st Century

Doesn't that title just sound like a page turner? There's a story behind it, of course, albeit not a very exciting one: I keep stumbling across Peter Drucker's name in the various tangentially-related-to-business-and-management stuff I read now and again, and thought I ought to just read something of his, in the interest of informing myself about his work. Having been less than inspired by some of the classics of various non-fiction genres which haven't aged well, I took a different approach to selecting exactly what to read: I picked the newest of his books the public library had on the shelf.

The result was, of course, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, by Peter Drucker (HarperBusiness, 1999). In the end, it had some novel, interesting observations that made it worth my time, though there were some style and formatting issues that made it tough to get there without undue distraction. Drucker's purpose is to identify and discuss the "hot" issues and challenges which (he expects) will confront tomorrow's managers, challenges which "[i]n most cases ... are at odds and incompatible with what is accepted and successful today."

He begins with a chapter on "Management's New Paradigms," which frankly, I found a bit wordy and confusing. It doesn't help that the approach -- setting out 7 basic assumptions about what he calls the discipline and practice of management, explaining why each is wrong, and replacing them with new paradigms -- relies on strawman arguments. For example, the first assumption is "Management is Business Management," as opposed to nonprofit management and so on. I don't know that anyone really thought that's all there was to management even in 1999. Nor do I think the paradigm which replaces said assumption -- "Management is the specific and distinguishing organ of any and all organizations" -- is especially useful or informative. To be fair, though, the discussion in between the two does make a valid point:
"There are, of course, differences in management between different organizations -- Mission defines Strategy, after all, and Strategy defines Structure. There surely are differences between managing a chain of retail stores and managing a Catholic diocese (though amazingly fewer than either chain stores or bishops believe); between managing an air base, a hospital and a software company. But the greatest differences are the terms individual organizations use. Otherwise the differences are mainly in application rather than in principles. There are not even tremendous differences in tasks and challenges. The executives of all these organizations spend, for instance, about the same amount of their time on people problems -- and the people problems are almost always the same. Ninety percent or so of what each of these organizations is concerned with is generic. ... In every organization -- business or nonbusiness alike -- only the last 10 percent of management has to be fitted to the organization's specific mission, its specific culture, its specific history, and its specific vocabulary."
That seems to be Drucker in a nutshell: brilliant observations, but often well-padded in terms of verbiage. (Yeah, I guess if you're 90 and have written 30 books over the course of your 65-year career, you're allowed to ramble a little.)

It's in the strategy chapter where the book overcomes the worst of the rambling, and really nails down the author's key points in words even a mere layperson like me can understand. Here, he outlines 5 key political and social "phenomena that can be considered certainties" which management strategists will need to grapple with: the collapsing birth rate in the developed world (and, equally important, the increased percentage of older people in the age distribution); the concentration of growth in economic sectors -- government, health care, education, and leisure -- which don't behave according to typical free market/ supply and demand rules; evolving definitions of "performance" (shareholder return? commitment from knowledge workers?); the need for all industries to be globally competitive (in Drucker's words, "'Protection' no longer protects, no matter how high the custom duties or how low the import quotas"); and the growing incongruity between economic and political realities.

I also particularly enjoyed (OK, maybe "enjoyed" isn't quite the right word here -- would you believe "found valuable"?) the "Change Leader" and "Information Challenges" chapters. Similar in format to those which precede it, both offer a handful of deceptively simple maxims. The former starts off discussing when and how products, services, markets, etc. should rightfully be abandoned -- something I know my own late employer could stand to look at more closely, but I digress. There's also a valuable section on how to create and support change, but also, how and what not to change: specifically, pursuing "an innovation opportunity that is not in tune with the strategic realities," "[confusing] 'novelty' with 'innovation,' and "confusing motion with action." The latter veers off a bit too far into the historical, but nonetheless offers solid points about how to approach communications, and on what Drucker sees as an emerging shift in information technology:
"[F]or fifty years, Information Technology has centered on DATA -- their collection, storage, transmission, presentation. It has focused on the 'T' in 'IT.' The new information revolutions focus on the 'I.' They ask, 'What is the MEANING of information and its PURPOSE?' And this is leading rapidly to redefining the tasks to be done with the help of information and, with it, to redefining the institutions that do these tasks."
Subsequent chapters talk about how to think about productivity with reference to knowledge (vs. manual) workers, and managing oneself. The above quote, though, illustrates my chief quibble with the book: the editing and formatting are distracting. Lots of words CAPITALIZED for EMPHASIS; lots of indented paragraphs that look like they should be quotes or citations but aren't. I can forgive the occasionally muddied writing because the content itself is pretty darned good, but the weird formatting really seemed out of place. I found myself wondering if Drucker had become such a venerated figure in his field that others shied away from editing his work, or if he just plain forbade it. His right, I guess, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

A decent introduction to Drucker? Probably, though I'm not enough of a management scholar to say for sure. Good ideas applicable in pretty much any line of work or organization, even if the writing seemed technically uneven.

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