Joe’s Journal: Practice, Then Theory

“Intellectuals and scholars tend to believe that ideas come first, which then lead to new political, social, economic, psychological realities. This does happen, but it is the exception. As a rule, theory does not precede practice. Its role is to structure and codify already proven practice. Its role is to convert the isolated and ‘atypical’ from exception to ‘rule’ and ‘system,’ and therefore into something that can be learned and taught and, above all, into something that can be generally applied.”

— Peter F. Drucker 

This passage has been very important to me. If we look at how Peter Drucker wrote his seminal book, The Practice of Management, we find that much of it was—as the title implies—based on practice, not just theory. Specifically, it is based upon his consulting work with companies such as General Motors and General Electric. He acknowledges as much in the original 1954 preface where he credits GE’s Harold Smiddy as the godfather of the book.

If we look at how Drucker wrote The Effective Executive, his 1967 classic, we see a similar pattern: It is based upon the actual practices of particularly effective executives such as GM’s Alfred Sloan and General George C. Marshall. Theory in these cases codified “already proven practice.” [EXPAND More]

Now that Peter is no longer with us it is important for us to determine just how he worked and to what end. For that, we need to excavate his vision and his methodology. He called himself a “social ecologist,” a person who studied our major institutions with the hope of improving their functioning by first identifying important ones and then by describing how they should benefit society. This is precisely what he did in the social sector. He identified it as an important counterweight to the private and public sectors in the United States—desperately needed for our society to function well. He looked for good examples, and helped some of these organizations such as the Girl Scouts and the Salvation Army to function better, in a more professional manner. He learned from the best and helped them along by codifying good practice and by improving it.

Drucker thought the next frontier would be the professional management of government. We have some good examples at all levels of government with which we can start our work.  But clearly, much remains to be done. [/EXPAND]