A Conversation With Peter Drucker

In 1997, author and professor Tom Davenport spoke with management icon Peter F. Drucker about the state of reengineering, information management, the psychology of managers and the role of technology in business.

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Around the '50s, a great medical clinician was in Boston, and his name was Kiefer. He's the man who introduced antibiotics. And I still remember Kiefer saying in a meeting after President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had been dead five or six years, "If Roosevelt's doctor had had other patients, Roosevelt would still be alive." Roosevelt was a very sick man, and he had a brilliant Naval internist who had only one patient. And you learn by having 25. You may have noticed that I have a bad knee. Eventually, if I live long enough, I will need a knee replacement. [When I do], I'm going to go to somebody who does at least 60 a year and not to somebody who has looked at two.

Davenport: Do you think that we have benefited from the great pace of technology introduction in our society? I personally feel that our ability to use the stuff advances far more slowly than our ability to create it.

Drucker: There is a lot of room for new technology in the world. But I very much doubt we need more speed. We don't use the speed we have. A young pianist was brought to [Johannes] Brahms, who was very impressed with his talents. So Brahms sent him to his patron in Vienna. The patron turned the young pianist down, telling Brahms, "I have no interest in someone who plays the minute waltz in 56 seconds." In terms of technology, we have people trying to play it in 56 seconds when it shouldn't be played at all. Very little of our computing capacity is well used. We need instruments that are simple and cheap. Even most laptops are much more capable than what people need.

Davenport: Do you believe that American companies, maybe American society in general, is too technology-oriented?

Drucker: The time has come for us to shift from the "T" in IT to the "I." It's time to learn the balance if there's to be information focus. Don't get me wrong. I'm interested in the technology. I consider myself knowledgeable about it, but compared to my 16-year-old grandson, I am a moron. You know, his generation is very different from the CEOs you have now because they didn't grow up with making the machinery work.

The Writings of Tom Davenport

Davenport has had a few worthy things to say as well.

Process Innovation: Reengineering Work Through Information Technology (Harvard Business School Press, 1993)

Considered the first book on reengineering, it is more conservative than its primary competitors on the difficulty of reengineering and how much time and money it requires. Despite its subtitle, this book is as much about people and organizational issues as it is about technology. It includes two chapters on technology and one on information.

Reengineering the Organization (with Richard Nolan, Sirkka Jarvenpaa and Donna Stoddard) (Harvard Business School Press, 1996)

This collection of Harvard Business School cases and research notes on reengineering is a good guide to how reengineering has actually been performed in organizations.

Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environments (Oxford University Press, 1997)

Based on research on more than 50 companies, this tome maintains that the technology-oriented approach to information management has been a failure. Davenport argues for a broad new approach involving not only technology but also such human-oriented domains as information culture and behavior, information politics and information staff.

Working Knowledge: Managing What Your Organization Knows (with Laurence Prusak) (Harvard Business School Press, forthcoming)

Scheduled to be published in November 1997, this book addresses the pragmatic issues associated with managing knowledge, including codification strategies, knowledge management roles and responsibilities, knowledge technologies and managing knowledge projects. It also features detailed examples of companies that were early adopters of the knowledge management concept.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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