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Year One, A.D.

Drucker called the computer a "moron," but IT will miss him.

by / January 2, 2006
Welcome to year one, A.D. -- After Drucker.

Peter F. Drucker is credited as the father of modern management, and as having an unfaltering dedication to making the complex simple -- in organizations and in speech. His death at age 95 in late 2005 leaves an intellectual legacy from which public-sector IT has borrowed liberally -- even if not with attribution -- and still has much to teach us.

The four corners of the campaign for government modernization can be captured in Drucker's famous formulations:

  • "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all."
  • "In knowledge work, the first question is, 'What should you be doing?' Not how."
  • "Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things."
  • "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

    Drucker specifically diagnosed "the sickness of government" as alienating citizenry through an inability or unwillingness to respond to (or anticipate) public needs and expectations with new service offerings. Among the symptoms is an understandable but wrong-headed tendency to act like an incumbent -- propping up "yesterday's successes" instead of recognizing the need to sunset programs when they have outlived their usefulness, what Drucker called "planned abandonment."

    Simply put, Drucker faulted the way we think.

    "Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable," he said. "But that still implies that change is like death and taxes. It should be postponed as long as possible, and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm."

    Despite calling the computer a "moron," Drucker advocated technology that put organizations closer to information they could act on -- so much so that Drucker is sometimes mistakenly credited with a quote from his contemporary, W. Edwards Deming -- "In God we trust, all others bring data."

    It wasn't Drucker's quote, but it could have been.

    The current caricatured debate around economic worldview that pits The World Is Flat's Thomas Friedman against CNN's Lou Dobbs was foreshadowed a half century ago with Drucker in one corner and a Keynesian economist in the other.

    While Drucker began building his reputation as an arch-guru of capitalism in the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith was famously advocating restraint of unfettered capitalism after big businesses' pre-Depression era excesses. Instead, Galbraith, whose progressive economics found favor with the administrations of presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson (all of which he served), anticipated management by a triumvirate of industry, organized labor and an activist government.

    Contrast that with the worldview of an intellectual descendent of Drucker. Entrepreneurship evangelist Carl Schramm recently told The Economist, "What we are engaged in is nothing less than a U-turn in economic history" -- moving from bureaucratic capitalism to entrepreneurial capitalism.

    Controversial for his ideas and management decisions at the foundation he heads, Schramm contends that start-ups are now doing the innovative work once done by big businesses, unions are being replaced by universities in marshalling human and intellectual capital, and government is, well, in the way.

    There is common ground among competing interests, of course. Drucker and Galbraith both demonstrated a knack for memorable turns of phrase, and shared a low view of the timid and the incompetent.

    Drucker had this take on analysis paralysis: "People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year."

    For his part, Galbraith anticipated the fame that came to those former public servants who confronted a career-defining moment: "If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error."

    The tension between these worldviews endures 50 years later, with the pendulum shifting based on the public's sense of its own interests and -- importantly -- the persuasive strength of the respective point people.

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    Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

    Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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