“Working is the activity of the worker; it is a human being’s activity and an essential part of humanity. It does not have a logic. It has dynamics and dimensions… The human being is not a machine and does not work like a machine.”
Peter Drucker wrote these words in the 1970s, in his book 'Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices'. Drucker’s career was a whopper - spanning from the 1930s to his death in 2005. He has been variously described as a genius, a guru and, even, by a US President as “the world’s foremost pioneer of management theory.” (This was the same President who said that "Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” - so perhaps not the best endorsement.)
Drucker’s work is eminently inspirational and accessible. He also had a great sense of humour and humility. As he quipped, people use “the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.” If you get a chance, get hold of a copy of his “greatest hits” - 1977’s People and Performance. You can flick randomly to any page and find a nugget that will inspire you to be a better manager or a more productive employee:
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
It’s all there - 60 years of brilliant work that created the foundation of the knowledge economy. But, in our quest for the ‘new’, we often forget the debt we owe to the past.
The thing is, you see, we can kid ourselves that we have great new ideas, that we can own issues, that we are at the ‘bleeding-edge’ of communications thinking. But, most of the time, we aren’t. Drucker dedicated his life to understanding the importance of people, leadership and management on business, economic and social success. He coined the phrase “knowledge worker” in the 1950s; he analysed the dynamics of innovation and productivity; he assessed the impact of future technology and data on our working lives in 1967, ten years before before Microsoft’s vision of a computer on every desk in every home.
We can’t “own” these topics because Drucker created them; we stand on his gigantic shoulders and should be bloody grateful.
Of course, Drucker doesn’t always have everything his own way. One of the central tenets of management theory is the tension between people and process. Drucker’s assertion that “the human being is not a machine and does not work like a machine.” has to be balanced with the need to structures, systems and reporting lines. Just being human doesn't lead to the creation of multinationals or the invention of the wheel. Alfred P Sloan* - the founder of the modern corporation and the man who build General Motors into the world’s largest company in the 1930s and 40s - fundamentally disagreed with Drucker’s analysis of GM’s business practices. For Sloan, the process came first - and he was very good at making that work when he had control. But, after his retirement, the process fell apart and GM fell into decline. Drucker believed that GM would inevitable fail because it didn’t celebrate and empower the individual to be self-sufficient and proactive. And he was right, in the long run.
But, Drucker vs Sloan is a bit of a red herring. There is a symbiosis to be had between understanding the motivation and behaviours of people, and the way those people are empowered and encouraged to work. If Sloan is the bones, tissue and muscle of the workplace, Drucker is the beating heart.
Effective businesses need passion, knowledge, empowerment and the means to effect change. If you put the right tools and systems into the hands of the right people - that’s where the magic happens. Here’s Drucker on the computer - the ultimate empowerment tool of the knowledge worker:
“We are beginning to realize that the computer makes no decisions; it only carries out orders. It’s a total moron, and therein lies its strength. It forces us to think, to set the criteria. The stupider the tool, the brighter the master has to be—and this is the dumbest tool we have ever had. All it can do is say either zero or one, but it can do that awfully fast.”
Computers, software and applications do not make us better people. They are dumb. If you put rubbish in , you get rubbish out. But, harnessed properly, computers are quick. They make us more productive - whatever that means. Technology allows us to work in the way we want to work and focus on utilising our knowledge most effectively. It saves time - and that is the most precious commodity of all..
“One cannot buy, rent or hire more time. The supply of time is totally inelastic. No matter how high the demand, the supply will not go up. There is no price for it. Time is totally perishable and cannot be stored. Yesterday’s time is gone forever, and will never come back.”
Drucker here sums up the real issues of effective work. We have limited time. What we fill it with, however, defines success. Time must be spent looking forward - grasping opportunities. Carpe Diem. That doesn’t matter whether we are at home, in the office or on the road.
Call it collaboration, work-life balance, gamification or the consumerisation of the enterprise - its all about using your time well.
I urge you to use yours by reading some Drucker.
*Thanks to my old editor Andy Sawers for reminding me about the Sloan/Drucker debate