Giving management its identity

Updated: Nov 16 2005, 05:30am hrs
Peter Drucker must have died a very satisfied man. Perhaps no contemporary writer has been quoted by more people on more occasions and in more countries of the world in his own lifetime. Through his writings spanning several decades, he dominated the world of management thinkers. By the time he died a few days ago he had become some sort of an intellectual celebrityalmost a legend.

This was due to the fact that in the long list of scholars who have contributed to the development of management as a discipline, most others were primarily affiliated with one particular branch of the social sciencessuch as sociology, psychology, economics and so on. Liberal borrowings from these disciplines provided the base on which rose the superstructure of what is known as management science today. And all those whose ideas resulted in this development are primarily identified not with management, but with the disciplines to which they belonged.

Drucker, in contrast, could not call any other discipline except management as his own. He came to the scene at a time when business education was still trying to find its feet and develop a sense of autonomy. He himself postulated no theory or concept to explain the working of the enterprise system or organise a business unit. His major contribution instead was to integrate various ideas and concepts that directly or indirectly impinge on management thought and practice, placing them against socio-economic influences that shape them. His writings, therefore, provided to the management field a certain measure of identity that it previously lacked.

Seen in this fashion, Drucker was more of an articulator of commonplace ideas and opinions about business and its various ramifications than an original thinker. In fact, none of his books and papers is based on empirical research; historical texts, generalised experiences are the primary source and inspiration behind the ideas and views that constitute his contribution. What made them so attractive to the common reader was not the originality of thought but the elegance of expression and style.

If this is so, how will the posterity remember Peter Drucker We cant be sure. But one thing is certain. In the corpus of literature on management thought, he would not have the same place as those whose prescriptions and conceptualisations are based on hardcore empirical research and intensive readings. Scholars and thinkers such as Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, McGregor, David Mcclelland and Amartya Sen, who have advanced the frontiers of our thinking and understanding through their writings and comments, would probably continue to have more enduring impact.

I doubt whether Drucker would ever be permitted into the portals of such a group. It will be, however, uncharitable to berate his contribution. Apart from providing a sense of identity to management as a distinct branch of knowledge, his writings, couched in the most readable style extricated business education and profession from the dreary and dull hands of ivory-tower educators. And if the world of managers now find it worthwhile to spend time with management literature, Druckers writings must be given the credit for providing the initial thrust.

This is no mean achievement. And it is far more agreeable to be grateful to an author for what he can give us than to criticise him for what cannot.

(As told to Tapash Talukdar)

Dwijendra Tripathi is a business historian and former dean of IIM, Ahmedabad