Since the publication of Duff McDonald’s The Golden Passport in April, we’ve had an array of opinion articles about what I tend to refer to as “the purpose of management.” It’s a topic I take up with students, professional colleagues, and, yes, even friends as we try to figure out just what our role is. I have a pretty strong feeling about the topic, obviously influenced (very seriously influenced) by those management leaders who came along some years ago. I’m attracted to the whole idea of what has become known — in recent years — as “CSR” (corporate social responsibility) and I suppose I was first caught up in the idea of the contribution of organizational management to the social good from my early years of study of Peter F. Drucker, and his many commentaries about how management should work, and the effect of management on the organization being managed and, not to put too fine a point on it, on the effect of management on society at large.
Indeed, one of Drucker’s earliest concepts resonated with me (and matched my thinking even more once I became serious about knowledge services and the management of intellectual capital within the organization). It was his attention to the organization’s contribution to the common good, stated in his Introduction to Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. While he made it clear that management’s obligation is to manage the organization, the organization itself “exists only to contribute a needed result to society, the economy, and the individual.” He went on to state that “if the managers of our major institutions, and especially of business, do not take responsibility for the common good, no one else can or will.”
That was in 1973. And just six years earlier, David E. Lilienthal, in a series of lectures that were published under the title Management: A Humanist Art, provided his own definition of management (“…simply stated, the ability to get things done”) and then described his own version of management’s “larger” — we might call it — role in society:
The heart of the modern managerial task is to close the gap between man’s goals and the fulfillment of those goals; to make practical in man’s daily lives the discoveries of the scientist and the techniques of the engineer; to translate into reality the visions and dreams of poets and artists; to bring to actual fruition in men’s lives the aspirations of social reformers, the theories and concepts of scholars and economists, the stirrings in the hearts of the compassionate, the desperate need of the hungry, the shelterless, the sick and the heavy laden.
That was then. Reading Drucker and Lilienthal in light of what we now have in our “larger society,” what they felt so strongly about certainly is not where we are today. We’re a far cry from asking management to take responsibility for contributing to the common good. And with the publication of McDonald’s book and the many responses to what he had to say about the current role of management and, especially, of the role of graduate MBA programs, the point is now being very clearly made. [And by the way, if you don’t plan to buy McDonald’s book or read it from your favorite library, take a look at the excerpt (which he prepared) in Newsweek, the April 14, 2017 issue. The Newsweek title says it all: “How Harvard Flunked Economics: If You Want to Know Why the U.S. Economy is a Mess, Look to the Business School and Its Army of Craven MBAs.”]
And less than two months later an even more disheartening message came to us when two of the president’s important advisors — H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn— wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the president’s recent journey: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
And just a day or two later, I heard David Miliband speak at a luncheon. Miliband is in New York now, as the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Himself from a refugee background, Miliband came to the job after his work in Parliament, first as Environment Secretary, during which short term climate change became a priority for policymakers. He was then promoted to Foreign Secretary, a position he held until April 2013 when he resigned to come to New York to lead the IRC. In his talk with us, Miliband reminded us about the importance of the meeting between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in Newfoundland in August of 1941, a meeting which led to what soon became known as the Atlantic Charter. It was a critically important policy statement, and particularly at that time, for it defined (even though the United States was not even in the war yet) the Allied goals for life after the war. Ultimately, once all the Allies had signed on — which happened very quickly, on January 1, 1942 — the Atlantic Charter became the foundation of the modern United Nations.
On top of all that, throughout the last several months I’ve been focusing on the work Professor Jeffrey Sachs and his team are doing. At the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute at Columbia University they are seriously pushing us forward — as a society — with much good attention to our need for looking at sustainable development. Like everyone else, I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to get beyond where we are now (and if you haven’t yet had a look at Professor Sachs’ book Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, get a copy and read it — the book is short — a good evening’s read — and you will find it extremely stimulating).
So how does this all come together, and how does what I’m sharing here connect with knowledge services, knowledge strategy, and knowledge sharing? Well, that’s a question probably best answered by my students this term, for not only do they have my book on knowledge services as their text, they have Sachs’ book, Elizabeth Edersheim’s The Definitive Drucker, and much more. And so far (it’s early days yet) the discussions have been terrific. These students are committed to bringing together the principles relating to knowledge sharing; they are thinking already about how their generation will be able to make our society a better society, to figure out how we can use what we learn and what we know, sharing with one other, to see that the things that need fixing get fixed.
Am I suggesting that we’re in a spot where we have to do some serious thinking? Definitely! We’re having articles in a wide range of magazines (including my favorite, The New Yorker) asking if the organization’s obligation is only to the shareholders. And while it’s not possible for me to read (and digest) all that’s being written, I’m sure there are arguments being made on both sides of the debate. Naturally, with the way I feel about knowledge services and the societal rewards of knowledge sharing (to say nothing about the benefits to the organization in which the knowledge is shared for the organization’s advantage), I’m drawn to those who recognize with Drucker and Lilienthal that the primary object of management is not exclusively the return to the shareholders. Milton Friedman might have had his moment of fame but I prefer to hear what people like Suhas Apte and Jagdish Sheth have to say, as they do in “Developing the Sustainable Edge” in Issue 85 Summer 2017 of Leader to Leader, the award-winning journal of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute. In their article (available in the Wiley Online Library at most research, academic, and large public libraries), Apte and Sheth describe their Sustainability Stakeholders Framework, a new way of approaching sustainability that goes far beyond the exclusive domain of the stockholders and could, it seems to me, be a logical first step toward what they refer to as a version of sustainability that is embraced “in a holistic, transformative, and balanced way.” What they are proposing — it seems to me — is an almost ideal opportunity for knowledge sharing for very tangible, measurable results.
This is a direction and an opportunity for knowledge services, knowledge strategy development, and knowledge sharing that I’m going to watch very closely.