The future of business

A long view on the past yields wisdom on the future

  • Management Challenges For The 21st Century by Peter F. Drucker (HarperBusiness, 1999)

There are management gurus and there are management gurus, but Peter Drucker is in a class by himself. For one thing, he was born in 1909, so for most of this century he's been a keen observer of how management works and how it doesn't work. And he has made enough sense of it all to become a genuine management icon, whose insight over the years--and now in Management Challenges for the 21st Century--is the stuff of which benchmarks are made. And rightly so.

In this book--peppered with his firsthand observations about the century's leading management theorists and ideas--Drucker brings a rare context to thoughts about the future.

There's a carload of rich material here. Among the most practical advice he gives is his observation that it is "a central 21st-century challenge for management that its organization become a change leader." Drucker argues that for organizations to survive they must be ready to innovate, but there's a difference between innovation and novelty. "The test of an innovation," he writes, "is that it creates value. A novelty only creates amusement." He observes that "again and again, managements decide to innovate for no other reason than that they are bored doing the same thing or making the same product day in and day out." It's not enough to ask the question "Do we like it?" The question is, "Do customers want it, and will they pay for it?"

To accomplish innovative change, Drucker argues, organizations must institute a policy of "organized abandonment." On a regular schedule, "every product, every service, every process, every market, every distribution channel, every customer and end-use" is put "on trial for its life." Every organization that wants to be competitive in the 21st century must ask itself, "If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we now know, go into it?" And if the answer is no, the reaction should not be simply to conduct another study. The enterprise must be "committed to change" and "committed to action."

To achieve productivity, Drucker observes, management needs to treat knowledge workers as assets rather than as costs. "Costs," he writes, "need to be controlled and reduced. Assets need to be made to grow." Unlike manual laborers, knowledge workers "own the means of production. It is the knowledge between their ears. And it is totally portable and an enormous capital asset."

In the final chapter, "Managing Oneself," Drucker observes that for the "first time in human history, individuals can expect to outlive organizations." So the challenge for workers is to decide what to do with the second half of their lives. Thus, knowledge workers need to face drastically new demands by answering the questions "What is your task? What should it be? What should you be expected to contribute? What hampers you in doing your task and should be eliminated?" It's more than likely that bosses will no longer know more than the knowledge workers reporting to them. So those workers will have to manage themselves by defining their own tasks, expectations for contributions, and obstacles to be overcome so that they can succeed.

Drucker's take on how to manage into the future is smart, accessible, and, although difficult to execute, profoundly practical in today's organization.

All the young turks

  • The Young Entrepreneur's Edge by Jennifer Kushell (The Princeton Review/Random House, 1999)
  • The CDNow Story by Jason Olim, with Matthew Olim and Peter Kent (Top Floor Publishing, 1998)

So many of us crave the new, the young, the now, the wow. Well, here come books long on the young but somewhat lacking in the new and the wow.

By far the most integrated is Jennifer Kushell's The Young Entrepreneur's Edge: Using Your Ambition, Independence, and Youth to Launch a Successful Business. The book seems to benefit--and draw--from Kushell's experience in starting her own organization, the Young Entrepreneurs Network, while she was in college. (She loves the free labor of interns, for example, because her company "probably would not be alive today without them.") Still, she glosses over some areas that cry out for more detail or insight. One example: she introduces multilevel marketing as a hot business opportunity for young entrepreneurs without discussing the potential downside of this sometimes-exploitive industry.

Even though The CDnow Story: Rags to Riches on the Internet was authored by founder Jason Olim and his twin brother, Matthew, it fails to give much insight into this apparently phenomenally successful business. The book is pure hype for the company, complete with screen shots of various pages from its Web site.