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The Knowledge Man

The Knowledge Man

The IT industry is always throwing up "gurus" who spout catchy buzzwords and claim to have the answer to where business is going. They remind me of someone hurtling along in a train who casts the odd glance out of the window, sights something interesting, and then spins an elaborate new theory out of this single observation, explaining the rest of the world. They then do their level best to make a motza running high-priced seminars to evangelise their vision (do Michael Hammer and re-engineering come to your mind, too?)Well, there are these pseudo-gurus and there are pseudo-seers, and then there is Peter Drucker. Drucker has been aboard the twentieth century express all the way from the station. Born in Vienna in 1909, he is still going strong today, and it's one of his insights that I'd like to mention here.

If we are to believe him, Drucker never speculates about the future. Instead he "analyses the present to discern what is happening, and then applies the lessons of history to try to work out a few possible scenarios". It is this sense of historical perspective that distinguishes Drucker from other observers and lets him give context to the changes we see around us.

Sure, we live in fast changing times, but it's wrong to assume that the situations we're encountering are entirely novel. Global business is not new; it's been with us since the Medicis invented international banking in the fifteenth century.

The idea that pioneers die with arrows in their back, while the smart imitator wins the new market, is hardly new; that's how the electric power industry began 100 years ago. It's wonderful to have someone with the perspective to be able to make these points, and it's owing to that perspective that Drucker has been able to stay ahead of the curve for so long.

Who do you think coined the term "knowledge worker" in 1959? Peter Drucker.

It's taken the 40 years since for the idea of knowledge management to become general currency, to become a buzzword for everyone to pass around. But now more and more organisations -- yours among them, I hope -- are getting to grips with the idea of knowledge management and what it involves.

I believe that the most important idea in today's debate about knowledge management -- due, of course, to Drucker -- is his insight that the really important information you need is NOT information about what is going on inside your company; it's information about the outside.

Drucker cites the example of American department stores in the mid-1980s. They owned 28 per cent of the US retail market, the largest single slice, and knew all about these customers. But they knew nothing about the 72 per cent of the market represented by people who were not their customers. And so they were unaware of changes among these customers, to their demographics and so on, and were blind-sided by the rise of new competitors.

In Drucker's own words: "For most CEOs, the most important information is not about customers but about non-customers. This is the group in which change will occur." If you take on board only one new idea today, let it be this insight of the illustrious Peter Drucker.

Steve Ireland is publisher of ComputerWorld newspaper

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