In what has become a classic among books on management, Peter F Drucker proved himself to be both ahead of his time and all-too-firmly entrenched in it, says Trevor Merriden.
In 1974, the working world was very different. Managers, resplendent in brown suits and kipper ties, grappled with the doubtful pleasures of restrictive practices, three-day weeks, stagflation and oil crises. Embattled bosses needed a friend to help them through the day. And Peter F Drucker was a friend indeed.
When Drucker wrote Management: Tasks, Responsibilities and Practice in that year, he signalled the death of the amateur manager. The book's purpose was to bring true professionalism into the managerial sphere. The days of the 'intuitive' manager were numbered, he declared. The old mantra that you can't teach management in a textbook still has some truth, and yet in this prescriptive tome he tried his hardest to do just that.
Then 65, Drucker used his years of experience as journalist, economist, consultant and, finally, academic, to lay down a comprehensive set of basic principles of good management for beleaguered bosses to digest.
At the centre of these principles lay the belief that the essence of management is disciplined performance.
The book took its rightful place among the classics. Managers everywhere read it, liked it and put it up on the bookshelf with half a dozen other management must-reads ... and then forgot all about it. And if we take the book down from the shelf and dust it off, what do we find? Some remarkably forward-thinking insights, that's what. Drucker, now well into his 80s, has, of course, gone on to establish himself as the doyen of management gurus, ahead of the game in almost any aspect of management thinking you care to name, from knowledge management to 'knitting' (ie sticking to what you're good at), and back at the time of Management: Tasks, Responsibilities and Practice, he was already writing at length on the former. He noted the changing role of the middle manager: 'Traditionally, middle management jobs have been designed narrowly ... In the knowledge organisation we will instead have to ask, "What is the greatest possible contribution this job can make?" The focus will have to shift from concern about authority to stress on responsibility.' It was a radical view for the time. In the 1970s, well-run companies were seen as those which were operating well within their capabilities. Today, individuals within organisations who stretch, in the way Drucker describes, to the very limits of their capabilities are applauded.
Drucker also demonstrated remarkable foresight in other ways. He anticipated the growing necessity for the Lord Simons of the business world to become increasingly intertwined with the political scene - 'There are going to be more and more joint tasks in which government and business will have to work as a team, with leadership taken by one or the other as the situation demands' - and fretted over the developing era of 'fat cats', noting the dangers of perceived income inequality between top-level managers and ordinary employees. 'It corrodes. It destroys mutual trust,' he wrote.
Even so, the book has dated badly in several respects. The chief gaffe is Drucker's celebration of the survival of many middle managers in the face of the arrival of IT. Computers first arrived in business in the 1950s and the middle manager had been predicted to simply disappear. Drucker confidently noted instead the tremendous growth of middle management in all developed countries over the following two decades. Such relief proved premature as the savage period of downsizing of middle management in the 1990s showed. The IT sector has created countless jobs globally in this decade - but not for middle managers. Just ask Bob Allen's 30,000 re-engineering victims at AT&T.
In his pages, Drucker also listed six common mistakes in designing managerial jobs. Among them is his desire, wherever possible, for managers' jobs to be self-contained, without the need for continuous meetings, continuous 'cooperation' and 'coordination'. Not for the 1970s Drucker, then, the team working and compulsory cross-fertilisation made famous by the likes of 3M.
It seems that at that time, Drucker also somewhat overestimated the continuing importance of the company as a social status symbol for the individual and underestimated the ability of public service institutions to sharpen up their act.
Finally, Drucker had precious little time for then embryonic 'touchy-feely' managers. 'There is tremendous stress these days on liking people, helping people, getting on with people ... (but) ... in every successful organisation, there are bosses who do not like people, who do not help them, and who do not get along with them. Cold, unpleasant, demanding, they often teach and develop more people than anyone else ... The manager who lacks these qualities of character ... is a menace who is unfit to be a manager.' So there, all you softies.
Drucker's misreadings, made obvious over time, are forgivable. We all make mistakes, but this sort of stern prescriptive approach, the attempt to apply a universal theory of management, sits ill at ease in the 'whatever works' tolerance leading the way in the 1990s. Drucker's book has stood the test of time better than most, but the book must rank as a classic of its time, rather than as a timeless classic.