30 March 2008

Book Review: Drucker and Gonzalez

Friedrich Nietzsche said that “the last Christian died on the cross.” On his deathbed, Karl Marx said, “I am not a Marxist.” Sigmund Freud obviously turns in his grave every time a Freudian denies that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud are three of only a handful of people that have totally changed human history. They share a common fate: their successors rarely quote them accurately.

Peter Drucker has to be included in that august company of history changers. Unlike them, however, he has lived to see how great minds are always misinterpreted. Although he invented management in his seminal book The Practice of Management (1954), it has become unfashionable to quote him in management schools, but when he is quoted, he is almost always quoted wrongly.

For example, Drucker describes management as an art, rather than a science, yet his followers insist that there is a science of management.

Drucker is uncomfortable with Management by Objectives as it is commonly understood, yet that technique is always attributed to him. In fact, in his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999), Drucker uses the word “results” rather than “objectives.”

Fortunately for him, management guru Robert Heller has outlined Drucker’s main ideas in the Business Masterminds book Peter Drucker (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2000). Heller does a fine job of putting into 112 pages the ideas expounded by Drucker in more than 30 books. In Heller’s book can be found capsule summaries of Drucker’s key terms, such as customer focus, decentralization, empowerment, knowledge worker, and theory of the business.

In addition, Heller makes his book not only a study of Drucker, but also a management handbook. Heller boils down Drucker’s insights into bullets that translate “ideas into action,” such as, “If the business is growing fast, question your assumptions all over again.”

On the local front, a case study of Drucker in action can be found in Andrew Gonzalez’s An Unfinished Symphony: 934 Days at DECS (Manila, 2002). Gonzalez does not cite Drucker, but it is obvious from the way he headed the Department of Education, Culture, and Sports (DECS) from July 1998 to January 2001 that Druckerian principles contributed to the efficient running of the country’s biggest organization (consisting of half a million people, with more than 15 million customers, i.e., students).

Gonzalez’s book does not only reveal how difficult (yet possible) it is to manage a bureaucratic and corrupt organization, but also provides horror stories about politicians interfering with management. It is hard enough trying to save the losing proposition that is the public educational system (which does not have enough capital nor human resources to serve its customers), but the task is made almost impossible when all the petty politicians sitting in Congress or in Malacañang think that they know better about education than educators themselves.

Clearly because he is afraid of libel suits, Gonzalez does not obviously point a finger at anyone identifiable, but experienced government watchers should be able to read between the lines. Alert and informed readers will even realize that, sad to say, some of the villains during Gonzalez’s time still lurk in the shadows of the education department.

The management problems Gonzalez faced in a government organization can doubtless be found also in private corporations. How he coped with these problems should help other managers through their own private or public hells.

If it is true, as Drucker says, that “it is vision and moral responsibility that, in the last analysis, define the manager,” Gonzalez was, at DECS, the model manager. Too bad morally irresponsible politicians won in the end.

By the way, Drucker and Gonzalez have something else in common, besides being management experts: they both have literary backgrounds. Drucker has written two novels, and Gonzalez took graduate studies in literature. Maybe this is why both see management as an art, rather than a science.

(First published in BizNews Asia, 3-17 March 2003.)

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