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Entering the Knowledge Society : POST-CAPITALIST SOCIETY, By Peter Drucker (HarperBusiness: $25; 232 pp.)

July 25, 1993|Margaret Langstaff | Langstaff is a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly writing on business books; she was for six years vice president of marketing and sales for Ingram Book Company

Peter F. Drucker's first book, "The End of Economic Man," appeared in 1939, if one can believe it, and since then he has been hectoring and lecturing American business at regular intervals for over 50 years. His chief concerns have been management and organization, but he has also taken an occasional swipe at larger sociopolitical issues, as in "The New Society" (1949), "The Age of Discontinuity" (1969) and "The New Realities" (1989). He has become such a part of the landscape of American business thinking that it is hard to imagine not having "a new Drucker" to read, or read about, or worry about not having read.

His own career has spanned not only the working lifetime of today's older business leaders, but the entire lifetime of those youngish-middle-aged executives now taking over the reins in most companies. It's doubtful that anyone has been such a consistent force in American business theory and practice.

Drucker is a hard man to argue with. One may disagree with him intuitively, or empirically-anecdotally based on personal experience, but the scope of his works and the tremendous cross-disciplinary learning he brings to bear on the subject at hand lift his books out of the ordinary classification of "business" and into the realm of economic and political philosophy. Were it not for his insistent emphasis on the practical implementation of his ideas in the business world, Drucker's books might well have been relegated to academia--and his influence, not to mention his book sales, might have been far less. The respect he commands with academics, however, is not lessened by his popularity, as it is in so many cases when a serious author achieves bestseller status. It is interesting to observe, in fact, how business school mavens scramble to heap accolades on his new titles as they appear. Just to be a blurb on a Drucker book jacket is an achievement in such circles, it would seem.

This year's "new Drucker," "Post-Capitalist Society," is on a par with his previous works in terms of wide-ranging analysis. It brings history, philosophy, science, sociology--in fact, very nearly every branch of learning on the tree of knowledge--to bear on the subject: What does tomorrow hold for us, and what should we be doing about it today? It differs from many of his previous works mainly in length, for its 232 pages are in essence an extended essay, which makes this obligatory reading much faster to dispatch than the Drucker norm.

And it is indeed obligatory, not just for think-tankers and corporate strategic planners, but for any of us interested in preparing for and helping to shape the not-too-distant future. The gist of his argument is that we are entering a "knowledge" society (as opposed to one based on capital, land and labor), and that this will have a profound effect on the way business is conducted, how and where people work, what role education has to play, and the new kinds of organizations that will be required to make it all run smoothly. Knowledge, for Drucker, is wissenschaft --professional knowledge--and information.

Rather than offer generic futurology, the book takes aim at the present: at the underlying forces that are incubating the future. The argument is arranged according to issues relative to society, polity and knowledge; this is, according to Drucker, "in order of predictability" rather than importance. "With respect to the knowledge challenges," he says, "we can only ask questions--and hope that they are the right questions."

If all of this sounds too conceptual to sink one's teeth into, rest assured, it is easy to translate into human terms. For the essential component in the "knowledge society" is the individual--the real repository of knowledge and therefore the vessel of the new economic resource--and the individual's relationship to the highly specialized organizations of the new era. Throughout, Drucker stresses how his ideas affect the individual worker's life and work regimen, whatever his or her responsibilities within an organization.

Management's challenge in this scenario is to determine how existing knowledge can best be applied to produce results and systematic innovation. This involves continuous improvement, exploitation and creativity with knowledge-based resources, a process radically different from previous business endeavors because it does not rely primarily on "making and moving" things. As Drucker says, "From now on, what matters is the productivity of non-manual workers. And that requires applying knowledge to knowledge."

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