BOOK REVIEW / Bold, broad insights: 'Post-Capitalist Society' - Peter F Drucker: Butterworth-Heinemann, 16.95 pounds
Wednesday 18 August 1993
Peter Drucker, who is in his eighties, has written his boldest book to date. It is also one of his shortest: 200 pages of large, widely spaced type. Yet the range is breathtaking: the end of the nation state; the emergent society; the unique character of organisations and his long-term theme, the importance of knowledge work.
Throughout his long writing career Drucker has moved from guides to management to much broader themes and books such as The Future of Industrial Man and The Landmarks of Tomorrow. The title of his latest suggests its range. Yet its scope is even broader. Part one deals with Society, part two with Polity - the old term for political society and system - and part three with Knowledge.
We cannot, he argues, predict the future, but we can describe the basic shifts that have already happened. The new society will be non-socialist because people no longer believe in salvation by society. It will be decentralised, in part because it will be a society of organisations.
In developing his main theme - that the primary resource of the post-capitalist society will be knowledge, not capital - Drucker argues that the manufacturing productivity revolution is over. Now it is the productivity of non-manual workers that matters. The various classes of the old capitalist society are being replaced by just two: knowledge workers and service workers.
A 'manager' has changed from a boss to someone who is responsible for the application and performance of knowledge. But the paradox, Drucker claims, is that 'knowledge workers cannot in effect be supervised'. Their value lies in knowing more than anybody else around.
The job of management, therefore, is to make everyone a contributor. For service workers this can most easily be done by outsourcing. Then the productivity of the service workers becomes the central concern of the organisation providing the service. However, the social challenge of sustaining the dignity of the service workers still remains.
The reader carried along by the sweep of the assertions may not stop to ask: how many organisations are examples of the new management? Numerous old-style managers still exist. There are still supervisors and the supervised; the former still appraise the latter, even if in some of the more progressive organisations reverse appraisal also takes place.
Nevertheless, he makes more interesting observations about organisations in one chapter than most books entirely devoted to the subject. He points out that in all developed countries society has become a society of organisations. Society, community, family may have leaders, but organisations alone are managed - although they may have leaders too. Joining an organisation is always a decision. Organisations therefore are in constant competition for their essential resource: 'qualified, knowledgeable, dedicated people'.
Polity is treated more briefly, but gives rise to even more ideas. 'From nation state to Megastate' includes a brief history of the nation state from the Roman empire to this century and argues that the nation state has mutated into the Megastate, which was best described by Kafka. 'Transnationalism, regionalism, tribalism', the next chapter, sums up counter changes. The last two chapters describe what he sees as desirable developments.
The main achievements have come from community organisations. Hence the chapter 'Citizenship through the social sector', which concludes: 'Historically community was fate. In the post-capitalistist society and polity community has to become commitment.'
Drucker's big dipper of generalisations is exhilarating but could evoke squeals of dismay, too. There will be many who object to this former management guru's ambitious intellectual imperialism. Others will dislike his post- capitalist, anti-statist tendencies. Still more may ask just where the hard supporting evidence can be found.
Those who allow themselves to be too irritated by the sweeping assertions will miss the pleasure of the different ideas that Drucker tosses out.
There is his account of three different types of team: the baseball team, which is ideal for repetitive tasks and for work with well-known rules; the soccer team (similar to the orchestra), which is like the hospital team coping with a cardiac arrest, and, third, the double tennis team (or the jazz combo), the team of four or five senior executives in the president's office of an American company. In the first two teams players have fixed positions, in the third they have a preferred position. The third team, which uses the strength of each member and mitigates their weaknesses, is the best.
It is in enjoying insights like these that you regret that there are not more bold old men - and women too - who are not afraid of trespassing outside their own domain.
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