In Business Selling Salvation

One of the most memorable encounters of my reporting life occurred some ten years ago when I went to the cosy college town of Claremont snuggling under the San Gabriel mountains to the east of greater Los Angeles.

I was there to listen to the management thinker and writer Professor Peter Drucker (he hated the word "guru").

Peter Drucker died in 2005, but his ideas live on ... indeed the 100th anniversary of his birth a month or two ago was commemorated by no less an offering than a special issue of the Harvard Business Review with the striking question on the cover: "What Would Peter Say?" in these turbulent times.

Arranging the encounter was itself a notable experience. Peter Drucker had no secretary and his wife (one year older than himself) had the year I met him just started a new business.

So the arrangements across many time zones were conducted by an exchange of personal and precise fax machine letters which I think I still have: the precise hotel to stay at in Claremont and how to get to his rather modest house, details he scribbled on the bottom of the letters we had sent to him and faxed back.

As thus directed we arrived, sat down, and started talking, in a much lived-in front room with shelves full of delicious old 33rpm discs of chamber music.

Knowledge

Peter Drucker was rather deaf so there were certain misunderstandings, but the conversation spanned the world, illuminated by dazzling detail.

His wife had been the first market researcher for Marks and Spencer in the 1930s, he said, and he knew the famous British store chain inside out.

He had been in at the start of Britain's welfare state; the architect of the National Health Service and much else, Sir William Beveridge had been a friend and they discussed his radical ideas in the 1940s as they were being mapped out.

We talked about knowledge organisations, Drucker's speciality (well, he invented the term knowledge worker) and about the ageing world which is now rushing upon us. "The last Italian will die in about 2050," he predicted with a wicked grin.

I mentioned an encounter I had had the previous year with another American icon, the architect of management consultancy Marvin Bower of McKinsey (it was his only broadcast interview, also in his late 80s, and he is now also dead).

When I asked Marvin Bower what his main regret was in 60 years of advising the top people in first American and then global business, he did not hesitate in his reply: "The prevalence of command and control," he said.

Poverty

When I put the same question to Peter Drucker, his answer was immediate: "I heartily agree with my friend Marvin Bower," he said. A one-line answer that addressed the abiding problem of most organisations then and now.

Over lunch in his favourite Italian restaurant, Professor Drucker talked about his abiding fascination in healthcare operations, and non profit organisations, and how they work. It was a special interest; he had had a lot of medical men in his family in Europe.

On quite another occasion, he wrote something which remains stuck in my mind. "The most effective organisation in America," said Peter Drucker,"is the Salvation Army."

Not the most effective NGO, or not-for- profit ... the most effective organisation or business, anywhere, full stop.

What, you ask, the Salvationists, with their uniforms and their bands, ringing their Christmas Appeal bells all along the Main Streets in the USA ? With their faith, and their old-fashioned attitudes and their street-level identification with poverty and deprivation in a secularizing world?

Peter Drucker's assessment was and is a striking one, and it suggests something else even larger.

If a 144-year-old faith-based organisation is really so effective at raising and using money from the public, might its unwavering commitment to get things done here on earth not have very big lessons for all the places and businesses where most people work, and do it seemingly far less effectively?

Listen to Selling Salvation (24/12/2009)

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Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

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Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

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For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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