Review: The Post-Capitalist Society

Post-Capitalist Society, Peter F. Drucker. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Summary: Describes the transformation of a society based on capital to one based on knowledge whose key structure is the responsibility-based organization.

Peter Drucker, who died in 2005 was the business guru I looked to as a young leader in a non-profit organization. He wrote Post-Capitalist Society in 1993. In many ways, it captures a number of his key ideas, and in many ways seems prophetic, twenty-eight years later.

His key idea here is that we have witnessed a transformation from a capitalist society to a knowledge society, based on the successive Industrial, Productivity, and Management Revolutions. Now we are not in a situation of knowledge but knowledges–specialized knowledge for work in more highly specialized organizations. Organizations make knowledge productive for a special purpose. In a knowledge society, the workers own the capital, which is their knowledge, but need the organization to make it productive.

He has a fascinating discussion on the source of capital in pension funds through institutional investors. Here as well, employees are the ultimate “owners” even while trustees manage these funds. He points to the critical role of corporate governance in creating organizations responsible to these employee-owners. As he looks at the question of productivity, he advocates for corporate restructuring and outsourcing so that organizations concentrate on what they are most effective at doing. Effective responsible organizations are ones where everyone takes responsibility for the organization.

He then turns from the knowledge society of organizations to the wider polity of which they are a part. He envisions the transitions from nations to megastates, as we see in the European Union, NAFTA, and other regional economic polities. Even in 1994, Drucker recognized the environment as one of the needs for transnational arrangements, as well as counter-terrorism efforts and arms control. Even while he recognizes this movement to regional entities and transnational agreements, he foresaw the rise of tribalism, and the stress on diversity rather than unity. For Drucker, tribal and transnational identities go together. And maybe this is so, but not in the ethnic ways he sees but in the radical political identities on the far right and left of the political spectrum that find iterations in many countries.

He is witheringly critical of “the nanny state” in which taxation and economic policy is designed not to make the “patient” healthy but rather to feel good. He points to the success of Germany (before 1989) and Japan and the “Asian tigers” that had high taxes but high investment in education, in facilities, and infrastructure. He argues that patriotism is not enough and that what is needed is the revitalization of community (even more true today) and citizenship expressed through voluntarism.

In the final section, he focuses even more on the cultivation of knowledge. He argues that we know more than we do and need to learn to “only connect,” to see how disparate pieces connect as a whole. He considers here the needs of education, and contends here, as well, for outsourcing and charter schools (an area that has a very mixed record of effectiveness). He advocates for the “accountable” school. While Drucker had a richer vision of the results he would seek from education, his was among the voices that sustained an accountability movement that has focused more on test-taking than learning, to the discouragement of many teachers. Ultimately Drucker believed people needed to be educated for work in two cultures simultaneously–“that of the ‘intellectual,’ who focuses on words and idea, and that of the ‘manager,’ who focuses on people and work.”

Where Drucker seems the most prescient is his understanding of the knowledge economy. What I don’t think he foresaw was the monetization of knowledge in the information economy. He recognized the growth of transnationalism, but didn’t fully reckon with the reactionary character of nationalism, often acting against its own interests. He had wisdom that both corporations and governments need about long-term planning and especially for governments, the follies of budget deficits in good times as well as bad. Perhaps most compelling to me was his call beyond patriotism to work for the common good and to citizenship expressed in voluntarism. He recognized that we need people educated both in humane ideals and technical skill, refusing to come down on one side or the other. None of us sees the future with complete clarity. Drucker saw it better than many, understanding the developments and trajectory of history and the challenges facing organizations and large polities of his time.

Review: Institutional Intelligence

Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Believing that institutions are essential to human flourishing, unpacks the intelligence necessary to work effectively within organizations, and the different elements of organizational life that must be navigated wisely.

Institutional intelligence. On first hearing, some would think this is an oxymoron. Institutions have gotten a bad name. One thinks of words like bloated, hidebound, unfeeling, and corrupt. Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University, thinks differently:

“But is there another way to think about institutions? Can we perhaps actually recognize that institutions are essential to human flourishing? Rather than see them as a problem or as a necessary evil, can we appreciate instead that institutions are the very means by which communities thrive, individual vocations are fulfilled, and society is changed for the good? Can we consider that we are all enriched and we all flourish when we invest in sustainable institutions? And more, could it not be that we can view this capacity as a good thing–as vital part of our personal development? Could it be that institutional intelligence–the wisdom of working effectively within an organization–is an essential vocational capacity for each of us?”

Gordon T. Smith, p.3.

Gordon T. Smith would answer all these questions in the affirmative, and after his apologetic for the importance of institutions, he addresses how we might work effectively within them, exercising institutional intelligence.

He does this by addressing the key elements of institutions we must learn to navigate intelligently:

  • Missional clarity and understanding how our role in the organization relates to its mission.
  • Governance processes and how to engage these constructively
  • Recruiting, hiring and developing top notch talent, and managing transitions out of the organization constructively and gracefully.
  • An institutional culture of hopeful realism fostered by all connected with the institution.
  • Financial health and resilience to which all are committed.
  • Built spaces that enhance the flourishing of those who work within them.
  • Strategic partnerships and collaborations consistent with the organization’s mission

Smith delineates in great detail the intelligence needed with each of these elements with examples drawn particularly from churches, non-profits, and educational institutions, but also relevant to for-profit enterprises.

This is a surprising book from an author whose other publications focus around one’s spiritual formation. Yet on further consideration, this makes sense for someone who cares for such matters but also leads significant organizations, like a Christian university. While one finds many of the same issues addressed here that one would find in many business texts, the attention throughout is on the formation of an institutional character, as well as of the persons working within it or served by it.

One of the places, early in the book, where this stood out was his discussion of institutional charisms. He admits that this is much like discussions of “brand” but distinguishes it as the distinctive gift God is giving the world through a particular organization, that extends through the organizational history to the present. Understanding this charism and stewarding it under God is critical for those who work in institutions and it elevates an organization’s vision. I appreciated the attention to governance structures and the recognition that organizations cannot be leaderless in some “we are all servants” ideal. Likewise, the cultivation of an organizational culture of hopeful realism recognizes both the flawed nature of all human efforts and the redemptive element of hope that fosters joy, laughter, and esprit de corps among people in an organization.

Most fascinating to me was the attention given to built spaces. Implicit in his discussion is a theology of built spaces reflecting how physical space reflects identity, is hospitable to people, enabling them to flourish, and aesthetically and environmentally is sustainable in its physical setting. In so doing, he invites us to look beyond building construction and maintenance to who and what is served by our built spaces, considerations at once both noble and practical.

Don’t skip the appendices. The first contains valuable wisdom about the relation of boards and presidents and their executive leadership and the tasks of each and avoiding confusion. The second more specifically addresses the spiritual dynamics of organizations. The last is a bibliography of essential works on the matters covered here.

Lack of trust in our institutions and the people who lead them is endemic in our time. Perhaps one of the reasons people so question truth is that its purveyors are perceived to front for toxic organizations, and perhaps embody hypocrisy themselves. Might part of fostering a culture of truth amid a world of lies consist of building institutions like those described in this book, where an institution’s messaging is simply reflective of its mission, and its truth is reflected in the flourishing of both the employees and clients of the organization? This book serves as an excellent primer for this good and godly work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Minority Experience

The Minority Experience

The Minority ExperienceAdrian Pei. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A book that explores the minority experience in organizations and how organizations can meet these challenges redemptively.

Being a minority is not a mere matter of numbers but an emotional experience that is about pain, about power, and who holds it, and about the past, a history and accumulation of experiences. Adrian Pei maintains that understanding these realities of pain, power, and the past are crucial to understanding and beginning to address the minority experience. He writes out of his experience as an Asian-American working within Epic, the Asian-American ministry of Cru, eventually serving as their national director of leadership development before moving into a consultant role in organizational development.

The first part of the book focuses on the emotional experience of being a minority in an organization. He describes the pain of self-doubt (“Am I the problem?”), the internalizing of pain and shame. Pei describes an experience with a leader during new staff training, and a conversation with that leader ten years later where he was able to both speak out and be listened to. He describes the inequities of power often unconsciously built into systems that attempt to domesticate minorities, to make them “fit in.” He also helps us understand how every minority has a past that colors current experience. Latinos, particularly in the southwest US saw the white United States take their country from Mexico and them reject them, wishing them south of the “new” border. Asian-Americans came as cheap and expendable labor on the Trans-Continental railroad. Blacks came against their will as slaves. Native peoples endured the seizure of their land, and then pejorative portrayals in media and even sports logos. To continue to try to step up when one is put down is wearying, another part of the history of the past that shapes the present.

Organizations often want to skip over issues of pain, power, and the past, but before doing anything else, it is crucial to sit with them, not rush to “solve” them. Understanding pain can lead to compassion, understanding power can lead to advocacy, and understanding the past can lead to wisdom. Part Two then begins to address the change process in organizations from this base. Pei outlines a seven step change process:

  • Step One: Why change or diversify?
  • Step Two: Who will lead our change process?
  • Step Three: Make an organizational assessment.
  • Step Four: What is the goal and the problem?
  • Step Five: Prepare for change.
  • Step Six: Execute Change.
  • Step Seven: Internalize Change.

Pei offers detailed principles, questions, and examples for each step. Then he goes back to pain, power, and the past and in detail discusses how we might see pain with eyes of compassion, steward power with the hands of advocacy, and reframe the past with a heart of wisdom. His conclusion draws hope from the narrative of Deuteronomy. God led Israel through pain for forty years so they could eat food in comfort in the land. God led them through power in the experience of deliverance from slavery so they would remember who gave them their freedom. God took them from a small and insignificant past to be great in number. This gives him hope as he works with organizations, even in our polarized society.

Perhaps the most powerful word for me as someone senior in age from a majority culture is the word to sit with those who experience pain, deficits in power, and a past history and just listen. It’s so tempting to jump in and try to relate comparable experiences, but this is just not helpful, or to “heal wounds lightly,” which usually only increases pain. When this begins to be uncomfortable, there is the choice to self-protect and defend, or to go deeper yet and ask, “tell me more.”

The other lesson of this book is that change is a process, and one not undertaken lightly or accomplished quickly. At one point, Pei writes about an Asian-American leader in a predominantly white InterVarsity, who patiently worked over 30 years and pioneered a program to develop Asian-American and other minority leaders. One of those leaders, Tom Lin, is now InterVarsity’s president in a much more diverse organization. A clear vision of why an organization wants to foster diversity, and resolved leadership who persist, are critical in change processes.

Most of all, Pei’s personal vulnerability in sharing his own experiences of pain, power, and the past strengthens the work immeasurably. He offers hope without dodging the hard realities he has had to negotiate, even in a well-meaning Christian organization. The stories of organizations who have worked through such processes offer hope for others contemplating leaning into these challenges.