Thirty years ago Peter Drucker predicted the information era in The Age of Discontinuity. No one paid much attention then. Now it's the height of corporate fashion, says Stuart Crainer.
Most business and management books report on what already exists. They examine and prod the same corporate superstars from similar angles. Few deal convincingly with the future. Instead, the future is left to 'futurists', the business equivalent of science-fiction writers rather than serious novelists.
The trouble with predicting the future is that it means going out on a limb. And, while most academics and consultants have clung to the safety of the tree, Peter Drucker has been dancing at the furthermost limbs for decades. He has gazed into the future and been proved right - though like anyone so prolific, he has also got it wrong and changed his mind along the way.
Birth of the knowledge worker
The high point of Drucker's future-gazing was The Age of Discontinuity. Published in 1969, the book effectively mapped out the demise of the age of mass, labour-based production and the advent of the knowledge-based, information age. Somewhat inevitably, no one paid much attention - Drucker's influence has not always been matched by huge book sales.
In The Age of Discontinuity, Drucker coined the term 'knowledge worker'. This, in theory, was a new breed of thoughtful, intelligent executive. The knowledge worker was a highly trained, intelligent, managerial professional who realised his or her own worth and contribution to the organisation. In effect, Drucker bade farewell to the concept of the manager as mere supervisor or paper shuffler. The manager was reincarnated as a responsible individual (though, in those pre-PC days, not yet as a woman). 'Though the knowledge worker is not a labourer, and certainly not proletarian, he is not a subordinate in the sense that he can be told what to do; he is paid, on the contrary, for applying his knowledge, exercising his judgement, and taking responsible leadership,' Drucker wrote. As a pithy summary of the role of the manager, this is as applicable now as it was 30 years ago.
Of course, knowledge management, intellectual capital and the like are now the height of corporate fashion. Our modern perspective on the knowledge worker is of a creature of the technological age, the mobile executive, the hot-desker. Knowledge is easily equated with IT power and the size of corporate databases. Drucker provided a characteristically broader perspective. He placed the rise of the knowledge worker in the evolution of management into a respectable and influential discipline.
'The knowledge worker sees himself just as another professional, no different from the lawyer, the teacher, the preacher, the doctor or the government servant of yesterday,' Drucker wrote. 'He has the same education. He has more income, he has probably greater opportunities as well. He may well realise that he depends on the organisation for access to income and opportunity, and that without the investment the organisation has made - and a high investment at that - there would be no job for him, but he also realises, and rightly so, that the organisation equally depends on him.' Drucker effectively wrote the obituary for obedient, grey-suited, loyal, corporate man. The only trouble was it took corporate man another 20 years to die.
Drucker pointed to the social ramifications of this new breed of corporate executive. If knowledge, rather than labour, is the new measure of economic society, then the fabric of capitalist society must change: 'The knowledge worker is both the true capitalist in the knowledge society and dependent on his job. Collectively, the knowledge workers own the means of production through pension funds, investment trusts, and so on.' Drucker recognised that knowledge was not only power, it was also ownership.
Drucker has since developed his thinking on the role of knowledge - most notably in his 1992 book, Managing for the Future in which he observed: 'From now on, the key is knowledge. The world is becoming not labour intensive, not materials intensive, not energy intensive, but knowledge intensive.'
The Age of Discontinuity was startlingly correct in its predictions. Much of it would fit easily into the business books of today. 'Businessmen will have to learn to build and manage innovative organisations,' predicted Drucker, echoing today's familiar refrain from a score of thinkers.
Business schools take a battering
The book was also notable for Drucker's criticisms of business schools - another theme that he has since developed. 'The business schools in the US, set up less than a century ago, have been preparing well-trained clerks,' he wrote. More significantly, Drucker introduced the idea of privatisation - though he labelled it reprivatisation. This was seized upon by politicians in the 1980s, though their interpretation of privatisation went far beyond that envisaged by Drucker.
In The Age of Discontinuity, Drucker uncovered fundamental trends that no one else had even noticed. The book provides a far-reaching insight into the business world, which largely now exists. In his 1990 book, Managing on the Edge, Richard Pascale simply accepted the accuracy of Drucker's insights, commenting: 'Peter Drucker's book The Age of Discontinuity describes the commercial era in which we live.' Drucker was proved right sooner than even he probably expected. Discontinuity - in the shape of the oil crisis - was just around the corner.