Building the Knowledge Culture

Drucker Management for Libraries

Guy St. Clair

The management of non-profits was always one of Peter Drucker’s great interests, and he gave much attention to the role of management excellence and its importance for non-profits, particularly later in his work. In The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Nonprofit Organization (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993), Drucker expressed his goals for nonprofit organizations:

“Although I don’t know a single for-profit business that is as well managed as a few of the nonprofits, the great majority of the nonprofits can be graded a ‘C’ at best. Not for lack of effort; most of them work very hard. But for lack of focus, and for lack of tool competence. … For years, most nonprofits felt that good intentions were by themselves enough. But today, we know that because we don’t have bottom line, we have to manage better than for-profit business. We have to have discipline rooted in our mission. We have to manage our limited resources of people and money for maximum effectiveness. And we have to think through very clearly what results are for our organization.”

The management of nonprofits was the theme of a recent presentation to a gathering of public library trustees. Asked to represent The Drucker Society of New York City and speak to some 130 members of the Suffolk Country Library Trustees Association in New York’s Long Island, I was honored with the invitation. The subject chosen was “Drucker Management for Libraries,” and my brief remarks are described in the sub-title I chose for the presentation: “The Focus is on the Opportunity – And the Results.” [Presentation slides are here.]

I had been asked to give attention to how Mr. Drucker’s management principles could be applied to library management, with particular emphasis on managing in turbulent times (not coincidentally the title of one of Mr. Drucker’s most popular books, published in 1980 when the global society was going through an earlier financial crisis).

At the meeting, audience members were all trustees in public libraries, and I suggested that the best methodology for dealing with turbulent times in public librarianship is two-fold: to get down to fighting weight, so to speak, by identifying essentials in terms of services offered, staff, and market (that is, community) requirements and, second, to focus on planning, particularly contingency planning. In New York State, planning is required for public libraries, but the requirement is only for strategy planning once every five years. I recommended – based on what I’ve learned from Mr. Drucker’s work – that the five-year plan should only open the door, and that a level of flexibility and continuous review is necessary at frequent (much-more frequent!) intervals, certainly no less often than every two years. Ideally, strategic planning should be on-going.

The basic message of the presentation built on Mr. Drucker’s core management criteria (the famous five questions) as applied in the public libraries framework:

What is the library’s mission?

Who is the library’s customer?

What does the customer/library patron value?

What are the results (to the individual library patron and to the community with which the library is affiliated?)

What is the library’s plan (that is, what is the strategy for library service for the community?  How does the plan match community needs and requirements?)

The presentation ended with the day’s message from The Daily Drucker (New York: HarperBusiness, 2004), which could not have been more appropriate. Since a key element of knowledge services – and one of the foundations of the whole knowledge development/knowledge strategy (KD/KS) process – is strategic learning, and since the title for the day’s entry was “Continuous Learning in Decision Making,” we had a Drucker observation that would be (and is) of great interest to public library trustees. Simply by substituting the word trustee for executive, an important message was shared with a very receptive audience:

“In no area is it more important than in decision making to build continuous learning into the executive’s (the trustee’s) work. And the way to do this is to feed back from results of the decision to the expectations when it was being made. Whenever executives (trustees) make an important decision, they put down in writing what results are expected. And then the executive (trustee) … begins to feed back from the actual results to the expected ones and keeps on doing this as long as the decision is in force….” (from The Effective Executive: The Elements of Decision Making (Corpedia Online Program).

In his comment, Mr. Drucker shows how the idea originated with physicians, tracing the technique back to Hippocrates in Greece 2,400 years ago. The same message can be applied today to library managers and trustees, that they “write down what course they expect a patient’s condition to take as the result of the treatment prescribed.” To the executive (trustee), Mr. Drucker advises: “write down your expected ‘prognosis’ for a particular decision, track the results as they transpire, and  then use what you learn in subsequent decision making.”

– Guy St. Clair

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