Home > Uncategorized > Harvard Business Review Synthesizes Peter Drucker’s Perspectives on Automation: Life-Long Learning is Essential

Harvard Business Review Synthesizes Peter Drucker’s Perspectives on Automation: Life-Long Learning is Essential

Roughly 20 years ago I read several books on management theory and found that almost all the writers on this topic based much of their thinking on the ideas of Peter Drucker, a prolific and insightful writer and thinker. Rick Wartzman, the Executive Director of the Drucker Institute in Claremont, CA wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review titled “What Peter Drucker Had to Say About Automation” that synthesized his perspective on that topic, and they ultimately boil down to one idea: life-long learning is essential for any worker who wants to avoid becoming obsolete.

In the essay, Wartzman cites Drucker’s writings from a 1946 Harpers essay on the mechanization of cotton harvesting and concluding with quotes from his 1993 book The Post-Capitalist Society.  In 1946 Drucker wrote:

“It is easy—and very popular in the Deep South today—to see only one aspect of the technological revolution through which the Cotton Belt is passing: the removal of the dead hand of the cotton economy and plantation society, the establishment of a sound agriculture and of a better balance between industry and farming, higher incomes, better living standards, the end of sharecropping—in short the final emancipation of both white and colored from slavery. It is also easy to see only the other aspect: dislocation, the suffering, the uprooting of millions of people who will lose their homes and their livelihood.

However, the full picture, as in all technological revolutions, emerges only if both—the better life for those who can adjust themselves and the suffering of those who are pushed out—are seen together and at the same time.

In 1986, nearly four decades after observing the impact of the mechanization of cotton harvesting, Drucker observed the same phenomenon in the rust belt:

The “shrinkage of jobs in the smokestack industries and their conversion to being capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, that is, to automation, will put severe strains—economic, social, political—on the system,” Drucker warned in his 1986 book The Frontiers of Management.

In 1993, nearly five decades later, Drucker underscored the need for everyone to adapt to technological advances by learning new and different skills, envisioning a role for both traditional schooling and corporations:

“School,” Drucker wrote in 1993’sPost-Capitalist Society, “has traditionally been where you learn; job has been where you work. The line will become increasingly blurred.”

Employers also have their role, including “active and energetic attempts at retraining for specific new job opportunities,” as Drucker put it. And each employee must step up and be ready to embrace what’s being taught—over and over and over again. “People have to learn how to learn,” Drucker advised. “No one is allowed to consider himself or herself ‘finished’ at any time.”

The highlighted sentences from Post-Capitalist Society resonate with me the most, and should be the basis for determining if a high school graduate is “ready to work”. If “learning how to learn” is the ultimate goal of schooling, the use of a single test to determine if a student is “ready to work” or “ready for higher education” is preposterous. Passing a test implies that the student is a “finished” product. The ability to “learn how to learn” cannot be measured with a single test. It requires initiative, independence, and insight, traits that a teacher can observe and, if given the chance, could document. The ability to pass a test measuring a prescribed set of skills requires compliance and conformity. It doesn’t require a teacher’s observation, only the grading by a machine. Compliance and conformity might land a job, but being able to remain in the workplace in the future requires a combination of initiative and the ability to learn independently. And only a skilled teacher can motivate a student to want to learn… but instead of training and valuing teachers who can motivate independent learning we are trying to replace teachers with computers that train compliant students to pass tests.

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