Reflection on Global Drucker Forum 2015: Work, human potential and technology
by Khuyen Bui

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“Global Peter Drucker Forum is not so much about better answers as it is about better questions” — Richard Straub


Any discussion about technology invariably has some forms of “What is in the future?” question. What changes will technology have in our lives and professions, how should we be prepared, what will happen to us?


The attitude behind these questions must be a proactive one. There is a big difference between “concern” and “worry”; only the former allows for practical actions. As Peter Drucker said, “The only way to predict the future is to create it”. Technology co-evolves with humans. For anything humans do, we can imagine machines replacing us: the ability to judge and make decisions, to analyze and synthesize information, or even to feel and convey emotions. Somebody will, or are already making these once sci-fi ideas happen.


Let us not forget in the midst of so many talks about “Technology”, the greatest invention for humans has been language — it allows humans to exchange ideas, coordinate actions and develop cultures. Cultural evolution has been faster than the biological one. While it is true that the biological makeup of our human brain hasn’t changed that much since we were all in Africa, the environments have drastically changed. As mentioned by Marten Mickos (CEO of MySQL), the waiting time in every conceivable services of every industry from transportation to healthcare to education has reduced. It also means that we are able to create and iterate on prototypes much quicker. As feedback loops tighten, we can learn exponentially faster as individuals and and even more so as communities. The latter is crucial because it binds societies together, especially in our current fractured world of clashing ideologies and dogmatism. This reminds me of Henry Mintzberg’s quote: “If you want to know the different between community and network, try asking your friends on Facebook to clean your house”. One responsibility for our future is then clear: we need to understand and leverage on the power of networks to strengthen learning communities.


Another message from the forum is that we should not get too distracted by technology and forget the essential challenge: to continually find and define ourselves, regardless of our time. Management should always start with that realization. We must focus on being human and on the human beings around us. I hope the terms “human resources”, “human capital” or “human assets” should be out of the management lingo soon. They all imply being “used”, or at best “renewed”. Why don’t we call it “human potential”? Potential is limitless yet can only be realized through intentional work and effort; it is promising but unguaranteed. The purpose of any kind of leadership is then to realize such potential and thus collectively shape our futures together.


Another dominant theme of the conference is the need to rethink the nature of work. I believe one reason for the theme for Drucker Forum next year being “The Entrepreneurial Society” stems from the question of engagement at the workplace.


Jim Keane, CEO of Steelcase, mentioned the 2015 Gallup study that 87% of employees report they are disengaged. We have designed the workplace with the alarming assumption that most people don’t want to work, and that we have to use incentives (either carrots or sticks) to motivate them. Carrots and sticks are, however, so 19th century ,Industrial Revolution. They no longer work in the knowledge and creative economy of the 21st century, and as long as managers still hold on to that assumption, they won’t survive. How can we inspire people around us when we ourselves are not even inspired?


That grim state of disengagement at work is why we need to foster an entrepreneurial spirit. Few things are as engaging as being part of a new and meaningful endeavor. From startup founders, social entrepreneurs, intra-preneurs, to solo-preneurs, those with such spirit are the boldest, most energetic and creative people. They will set the standard for the next generations for what real engagement at work looks like by setting their own examples.


Having an entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t necessarily mean becoming entrepreneur – or at least the image of all-consuming start-up founders we are used to. In fact, it can be quite draining to surround oneself with this group too often. Some people are more inherently driven to create solutions, while others tend to muse on the problems. Each of us in fact operates everyday by switching between these two modes of being. The task of self-management is thus to balance between the two extremes: mindless actions and actionless mind. I once heard of the “Cry test” to decide if one should pursue an entrepreneurial lifestyle: only when I cry about a problem that I should commit to solving it. An extreme test but not without some truth, given how lonely, tough and all consuming the journey will be.


Regardless of which path to choose, a big lesson that I am learning is that in order to do anything truly good, fear must be explored and transformed into aspiration. There is a great deal of people with the Fear of Being Mediocre syndrome, who think that their lives must shine and that they must be different from the rest. Alas, while the spirit is laudable, worrying too much about being mediocre is a surefire way to become one. What is the antidote then? I’m reminded of Drucker again: focus on contribution and being consistent with one’s effort. The first mantra steers our vision on the right path, and the second ensures we keep moving. They have always been and will continue to be the key to meaningful and valuable work.


How can I bring these ideas into my daily life? By practicing a habit of retreat and reflect often (especially when our smartphones keep vying for our attention) and taking deliberate actions. “Follow effective actions with quiet reflections, and there will come even more effective actions”, as Drucker once said. Each of us has to be both mountain and cloud, always grounded in purpose while floating with changing realities.


About the author:

Khuyen Bui won the Drucker Challenge 2015, and is a current junior at Tufts University. He is interested in organizational learning and development – how do people come together, learn and adapt and how technology can help or harm that process.


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