The world according to Peter Drucker

'Anybody who tells you that he understands the American economy ought to be sent to teach modern dance," exclaims Peter Drucker with a wry smile during a recent visit to Bennington College, a small liberal arts school tucked between the hills in southwestern Vermont.

Productivity is a subject he has thought and written much about, but don't expect him to dwell with awe on the recent fast rise in American workers' output. The United States has largely left behind the manufacturing economy that such productivity figures are based on, he says.

While the numbers are being crunched, Mr. Drucker has been busy thinking ahead in his characteristic way. His latest book, "Management Challenges for the 21st Century" (HarperBusiness) is his 15th on the subject for which he has long been dubbed a guru. (And, not one to be unproductive himself, the longtime consultant has written two novels, an autobiography, and 13 books on politics, society, and economics.)

For Drucker, today's challenge continues to be one he identified years before most people could envision the current Information Age. It is to measure and increase the productivity of "knowledge workers" - those who bring to jobs their own intellectual capital.

In manufacturing-based economies, the constant refrain is "How should we be doing things?" But now, he says, "we need to ask, 'What should you be doing?' " It took 100 years to learn to effectively measure manufacturing productivity, he says, but with this new task, "we don't understand what we are measuring."

In the meantime, Drucker assesses the productivity of knowledge workers as "abysmally low." For instance, the ability of professors to focus on intellectual endeavors has shrunk tremendously since his teaching career (including a stint at Bennington in the 1940s) began nearly 60 years ago. "Those days, we had no meetings," he says, and small colleges had to fill out only one annual government form. Drucker currently teaches upper and middle managers at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

He offers the example of nurses as well. Their training in patient care is excellent, but too many end up spending 70 percent of their time filling out forms. His solution: Hire people who have just gotten MBAs to do the paperwork, and let the nurses get back to providing the essential bedside care only they are qualified to give.

Drucker has also been a leader in examining the increasingly important role of nonprofit organizations. "Business can learn an enormous amount from community organizations," he says. "They've learned how to attract, train, and hold volunteers. The satisfaction has to be greater because they are not getting a paycheck."

Managing a business must include a constant communication of the mission, because knowledge workers, like volunteers, seek a higher level of satisfaction than monetary compensation alone.

"Very few businesses have learned it yet, but partnerships [between businesses and community organizations] are increasing," he says. He cites a woman whose nonprofit organization deals with solving family problems. She approached local manufacturing companies and said, "You mishandle the family problems of your employees. We know how to do it." The result: a contract with some of the companies to help them better handle their "social and employee responsibilities."

"[Businesses] are not used to that mind-set, but they know it's got to be done," Drucker adds.

Nonprofit organizations have also learned from the business world. "There has been an increasing emphasis on performance and results.... For 50 years I have been saying that good intentions are not enough," he says.

Just as in business, though, the challenge is to define performance and results. For instance, he asks, "How do you measure results at a museum? The number of visitors? But 60 percent of them are school children taken there because 'it's good for them.' " In his work with megachurches (which he calls "the most significant social phenomenon in the last 20 years,") he has found that "different pastors have different answers." The task is to challenge old methods. "Quality is what matters," he says, but that's difficult to measure.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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