Monday, June 6, 2011

The Essential Drucker

Thumb in the Eye Reactions to The Essential Drucker by Peter F. Drucker

Don't think I could do a rapid review of this one, but I wanted to record some of the things that stuck me in the eye as I read it. The problem with trying to summarize it for a more normal review is that his perspective is pretty unusual in a way that is hard to capture. The ridiculously short summary is that a lot of what he says here is valid, but some parts are dated, and there are pieces that don't pass my smell test. The last group is what struck me hardest as I read the book, and those are things I can quickly record.

Digesting the rest of this book is going to take a while, especially his sideways perspective on profit. He tried to argue for justified and necessary profits, but without directly addressing the question of losses. It seemed that his argument was sort of that you needed to have profits sufficient to cover your failures, and that was quite justified, but he didn't say what you were supposed to do when there were fewer failures than you planned for. The implication was that those profits would somehow become excess or unjustified, but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be his intention.

Anyway, here's a linear presentation. I'm not sure why the frequency of 'clumsy thumbs' seemed to be increasing as I read. It might reflect the chronology of when the sections were written, since the book was compiled from many older sources. Alternatively, I may have been becoming more sensitized to things that didn't fit with my developing interpretation of his ideas...

On page 66 he claimed that income equality was improving in the US, but that trend had been reversed long before this book was compiled. The kindest resolution is that this section was originally written sometime before 1980 and the editors somehow overlooked it.

On page 89 he argued that there was an increasingly fair form of parity between a pharmaceutical company and professors at a university. I can't even remember a time when that perception could have seemed justified or even plausible as a projection into the future.

Page 183 includes one of his digs against Ralph Nader, who he clearly dislikes rather intensely. This dig was especially weak, since he was making a blanket claim about customers being intelligent while lumping Nader with the advertising agencies.

His treatment of corporations was inconsistent as regards biological metaphors, and I think that was related to confusion about the purpose of companies. On page 199 he is arguing that the organization is not like an animal and survival is not the goal, but elsewhere, as on page 210, he is argument that the organization is like a human body, based on a comparison of results to calories in a nutritious diet. On that same page he argues that the organization is "a means of overcoming the limitations mortality sets", which seems to be a strong defense of my own position, that a business is mostly in business to stay in business (though of course too many sustained losses will kill it).

On page 260 was an especially annoying incorrect citation confusing two of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The mystery that was solved by the dog that didn't bark was NOT "The Hound of the Baskervilles", and this quotation is clearly a fabrication. I'd already caught him in an earlier mistake, where he claimed that a confederate general had said "Hit them where they ain't." My research convinces me that this was a distortion of a famous baseball player's quote. Perhaps Drucker misled himself with his more accurate but nameless earlier citation of a confederate general for the "Get there fustest with the mostest", though there is some doubt that the general in question ever said it quite that way--but rather less doubt that the general became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, which explains why the name got left out.

On page 288 he had a kind of diatribe that included "radical feminists", but the entire thing was pretty hard to follow and mostly convinced me that he didn't like the idea of liberal education because he didn't understand it very well. He actually seems to be arguing for a kind of education that I can only describe as liberal, but with a more pragmatic focus. This was actually related to a confusing and rather racist section from pages 306 to 309. He starts by saying knowledge work is accepted as a good thing "(except in the black community)" before he speculates whether Europe might follow "the American black" in what he implies is a negative and anti-intellectual course. Then he argues education must be the "center of the knowledge society", apparently ignoring the trends against public education in America over the last 25 years (before this book was assembled). On page 309 he had this sentence, that really hit my poor eyeball: "Thomas Jefferson's society of independent small farmers, each being the owner of his own family farm and farming it without any help except for that of his wife and his children, was never much more than fantasy." Of course the thing that strikes me is that there were slaves involved, too--and it struck me harder when he mentioned slaves and serfs later in the same paragraph... However, he came back to education near the end of the book, as on page 318 in an unclear but negative context, on page 330 when he talks about public schools "going downhill" and in a confusing paragraph on page 345, where says "every American college" is following the lead of a school in Vermont. Though it isn't fully clear what he means, it is clear enough that I'm sure it was never the case... On page 312, he claims the first pyramid built in Egypt is still standing, which is another exceedingly unlikely claim. On page 315 he has a kind of silly passage about government's failure to cure the ills of society, though the most obvious response seemed to conclude that things could be much worse if government wasn't trying to mitigate the problems... Perhaps that's because I felt he never adequately dealt with the roles of government as referee and provider of infrastructure? I guess this paragraph of my comments mostly shows the risks of getting outside of your own domain of expertise, which is actually a theme he mentions in several places.

Still, I want to reiterate that there were many places where he left an impression of wisdom. For example, on page 341 he has a very thoughtful paragraph that meshes with many of my feelings about size and specialization: "It would surely be counterproductive for the cockroach to be big, and equally counterproductive for the elephant to be small. As biologists are fond of saying, The [sic] rate knows everything it needs to be successful as a rat. Whether the rat is more intelligent than the human being is a stupid question; in what it takes to be successful as a rat, the rat is way ahead of any other animal, including the human being. In an information-based society, bigness becomes a 'function' and a dependent, rather than an independent, variable. In fact, the characteristics of information imply that the smallest effective size will be best. 'Bigger' will be 'better' only if the task cannot be done otherwise."

An interesting book, and thought-provoking, too, but right now I feel like the years were unkind to it and the editors should have been more careful. I'm pretty sure that the author was basically in a detached supervisory role that close to his death.

As an interesting coincidence, I should note that this week they just released a Japanese movie, called "Moshi" or "Moshi Dora" that is supposed to be based on Drucker's management philosophy. Those are actually short forms of the real title, which is ridiculously long. In translation the title talks about the manager of a girl's baseball team who reads one of Drucker's books.