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Current Commentary on AI and Positive Change

Peter Drucker’s Advice for Us on the New Ai Project:
Business as an Agent of World Benefit (More about BAWB)

By David Cooperrider
Case Western Reserve University
March 23, 2003


No single person has influenced the course of business in the 20th century as much as Peter Drucker. Indeed Drucker invented management—not as a practice, but as a field of study, elevating it from an ignored, even despised, profession into a potentially noble profession in our “society of organizations”.

It’s safe to say that no theorist in his field has a longer track record: He turned 93 years old in November. It was he who first asked managers to decentralize their operations and treat their employees like humans—in the 1940s. The concept of “knowledge work” is his coinage, from the 1950s. He virtually created the discipline of corporate social responsibility, in the late 1960s, and asked business leaders to acknowledge the power of high purpose in human systems when he argued that the next lessons for business managers would come from the nonprofit organization—this was in the 1970s. He has remained consistently fresh and ahead of the times ever since.

His recent 2002 book The Next Society, shows Drucker’s amazing staying power, in a field where fads and fashions are common. Drucker’s writing career spans eight decades and the years have only served to sharpen his insight and perspective in a way that makes most other management texts seem derivative. When Winston Churchill publicly hailed “The End of Economic Man” in 1939 Drucker’s writing immediately reached best seller status; and this was just the first of his more than 30 books on management science. In a leading journal like the Harvard Business Review the number one and number two all time articles (as measured by reprint requests) were both by this prolific thinker and writer. And attesting to the pragmatic power of his ideas, Drucker’s list of consulting relationships reads like a Who’s Who of executives, corporations, and heads of state.

Drucker was never a disengaged ivory tower scholar or a neutral bystander. His writings, all of them, saw management—the capacity to enable an alignment of human strengths for joint performance of all kinds-- as the key to generous societies infused with freedom versus tyranny. For Drucker there was never any doubt: our organizations exist not for themselves but as organs of the post-capitalist society—something that defies simplistic definition.

I met Peter Drucker for our appreciative inquiry interview on March 13, 2003. He was almost apologetic when he told me, right at the outset, that just a few months ago he completed his formal teaching career at Claremont University Peter F. Drucker School of Management, one of many institutions bearing his name. Our interview was conducted in his single-story home in Claremont, California. It was a simple home filled with books, Japanese art, beautiful flower gardens outside, and records of music by Bach. We had nearly a half day together. His intellect was sharp and challenging, and his smile was infectious.

Immediately, the next day following the interview, I sent Peter Drucker a heartfelt note of thanks. Here is the last paragraph:

Let me express the gratitude I feel for your work and for the opportunity to meet with you. I left inspired by your example of living a life filled with meaning, purpose, and value, as well as impact for the ages. I left also convinced that your legacy is in the area of “a society of organizations” where there is no inherent contradiction but a necessary marriage between good business and the task of bettering society. Management, in this view, is not just a profession, but a noble profession like medicine, or law, or the arts. Indeed you spoke about it as a liberal art, as a profession for “the universally educated person” where “managers, all of us, must become citizens of the world in vision, in horizon, in information.”

The timing and context of our conversation is worth mention. Exactly one week after the interview, the United States marched to war against Iraq in response to many things, including unconfirmed links to the September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers. And about three weeks before our interview there was another attack in the news headlines, one that resulted in a strong response published in Newsweek by the President of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab who said: “In today’s trust-starved climate, our market-driven system is under attack…large parts of the population feel that business has become detached from society—that business interests are no longer aligned with societal interests” (February 24, 2003 p. 10).

Obviously this was quite a statement from the head of the Davos group, the most prestigious and high powered conference of business leaders in the world. His conclusion: “The only way to stop this new wave of anti-business sentiment is for business to take the lead and to reposition itself clearly and convincingly as part of society.”

These two seemingly disconnected events—from war in Baghdad to protests at Davos-- formed the dramatic backdrop to the interview with Peter Drucker. It is no exaggeration to say that people everywhere, at the moment of our interview, were dazed, divided, and disorientated. With scenes of oil fields in flames right next to images of candle-light vigils, everyone could feel the magnitude of the moment. And hard questions were and are still emerging. Was it accident or was it symbolic, for example, that the terrorist attack actually happened in the world’s largest financial center and that the targeted buildings were named “World” and “Trade”? Could it be, as Klaus Schwab argued, “that the time has come to articulate and practice a more enlightened society-oriented businesses philosophy”?

It is an easy translation to replace the words “world” and “trade” with those of “business” and “society”. Once we do, the stage is set for yet another perhaps even more important question: could it be that the major axis of conflict in the world today is not between superpowers of the cold war, nor between different religions or ethnic groupings or nation-states but, far more decisive than all of these, is a growing fragmentation across cultures of our views and visions of the relationship of business and society? How many business theorists (like Milton Friedman or Michael Porter) or everyday working people actually believe that today’s business management has the time, or the values, or the capability to think and act with the betterment of society in mind? Is there a CEO anywhere who can stand up today and articulate a moral vision of business and society in ways that could consistently inspire people across cultures and civilizations in our complex and interdependent world? If not, if there is no vision and philosophy that elevates or holds widespread support , then what does this mean in a world-business matrix where, of the world’s largest 100 economies, 49 are multinational firms?

When stakes are high people need wisdom--the kind that can only come from our elders. When I asked Peter Drucker for an interview I was thrilled, therefore, when he called and left the message: “this is Peter Drucker, and yes I would be very happy to do an interview with you about this exciting and important appreciative inquiry project on Business as an Agent of World Benefit”. When I asked, right at the outset, if he felt the project was too idealistic he said: “no, the aims are not too idealistic: your project, if it can succeed, is exactly the kind of conversation the world needs to have.”

Here, in summary overview, is how I described the world inquiry:

Business as an Agent of World Benefit is a vehicle for people and organizations across societies to collaborate in a new kind of world dialogue focused on creating prosperous, inspired, and sustainable societies that work for all.

Convened by Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management and a growing network of world-class partners, an experiment is unfolding which is enacting new ways for people to share exceptional business and society stories, connect and conference with each other, experience each other’s talents, and articulate anew, across cultures, a 21st century vision of business as an agent of world benefit.

BAWB’s vision is to tap the positive potential of appreciative inquiry as a way of mobilizing millions of face-to-face interviews with business leaders, visionaries, students, and scholars and to link these to the original potential of the internet as a medium that inspires creativity, collaboration, and worldwide education.

The BAWB world inquiry is based on one overriding conviction: we know that the future of human society is intimately linked to the future of the world economy and business organizations. Whether or not the global future is bright or dark, and whether the path is strewn with human misery or joy, depends in large measure on the vitality, vision, mindfulness, and courage of business. Our belief is that the most positive and powerful force for change—the sector with perhaps the greatest likelihood of helping humanity move through our era of rough and uncharted waters in the most peaceful, free (non-totalitarian) and constructive way—could be business. Organizations that are leading and going “beyond business through business”–this is where we want to put our focused attention.

Our purpose with Business as An Agent of World Benefit is to unite the best in business with the call of our times, of creating prosperous, inspired, and sustainable societies that work for all.

This is not the place to publish the full text of our interview but I do want to share what Drucker said about the inquiry itself, and how several of his challenges to “aim higher” speak to not only this project but virtually every Ai project in any organization or community. In essence his challenge was something like this: “it is one thing to find the positive stories of corporate leadership, courage, hope and change but it is a whole other challenge to make those stories and new knowledge productive of positive action…we still do not have nearly enough know how about how to take exemplar stories and use them, replicate them, mobilize them to generate change”. Yes: a great topic for our doctoral students!

From the perspective of appreciative inquiry the BAWB world inquiry is one of the boldest Ai’s to date and it promises to take us all beyond our competence. But isn’t this precisely where we need to be?

To be sure ours is not a time to be sitting in safe harbors or hiding in ivory towers. One of the highest priorities facing our complex and interdependent world is for business leaders and thinkers to articulate a future vision of business as an agent of world benefit that powerfully shifts the terms of the global discourse that has often seen business as opposed to world benefit. It is a time to recalibrate our feelings about work and life, business and purpose and to call upon the spirit of innovation, creativity, determination, and struggle that moves the world forward.

The interview with Peter Drucker was a joy as I asked about moments in his life when clarity in life purpose first emerged and what his boldest visions of business and society for the new century look like. The interview also provided the opportunity to ask Drucker about significant high point moments in his career. In the interview Drucker discussed how management needs to operate as a profession with a Hippocratic oath of “doing no harm” and how every social and global challenge of our day could be turned into business opportunity given the right mix of innovation, organizational competence, pragmatism, and business social entrepreneurship. What was most exciting was his theory of abundance—of how the productive force of knowledge is inexhaustible and positive sum—and that the central agenda of the future is not one of material innovation but social innovation and the re-generation of a caring community.

It was an Ai experience I will not forget. I was like a little kid. And yes, I admit it; I felt a sense of awe. Conversations like these are a gift.

What I did not bargain for was Drucker’s immense interest in handing out advice on the project itself. At several points he simply tossed the Ai questions aside and started coaching me “that the gathering of the plentiful stories of business as an agent of world benefit is not enough” and that “this project should not ever be a PR campaign” instead “it should be a force for change”. To do this, however, he said “you are going to need a lot more resources than you currently have…you need someone like a Rockefeller to get behind this.”

At the close of the interview/advice session Peter Drucker genuinely startled me when he brought up the subject of his consulting fee: “My fee, perhaps you know, is quite large… and what it involves is that you keep me clearly informed as the initiative progresses...this is my charge and only fee”.

At that moment I knew why he said “yes” to the Ai interview in the first place. It was all about learning.

What a thrill!


Business as Agent of World Benefit We invite you to participate and to invest in a task of historic importance in a world wide search for stories of Business as an Agent of World Benefit. If you could interview any visionary person or CEO about their highest hopes and visions for the relationship between business and society for the new century, what one person would you most want to interview? You are being invited right now--it's a call to inquiry. The interview you do, when connected to a community of others, could make the difference! Learn more at www.worldinquiry.org.

View a multimedia presentation introducing Business as Agent of World Benefit.

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