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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Peter Drucker is making a posthumous comeback.

It isn't happening in the U.S., where the Austrian-born management scholar spent much of his career until his death in 2005, at age 95. While most of Mr. Drucker's 39 books remain in print, they aren't fixtures on American best-seller lists, as they were a generation ago.

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In China, however, Mr. Drucker is the man of the moment. In the past few years, devotees have created 14 Drucker academies, in Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and other Chinese cities. Their curriculum draws extensively on Mr. Drucker's writings, so thousands of students can quickly grasp the management essentials needed for China's booming economy.

Mr. Drucker's old-school values like integrity and humility play well in China, says Henry To, chief executive of the Drucker academies. Mr. Drucker spent much of his career as a consultant and professor studying big, well-known American companies. Based on their experience, he urged managers to set clear objectives, to value employees and customers, and to define their mission as more than just making a profit.

"When Drucker writes about leadership, he says that integrity must come first," Mr. To observes. "He says leaders need to listen to their employees and be followers, too. That matches our Confucian heritage."

Unlike many American management gurus, Mr. Drucker frequently stretched his precepts into nonprofit and governmental areas such as education and the Red Cross. That panoramic focus turns out to be well-suited for many Asian nations, where state policy and private-sector initiative are knit together more closely than in the U.S.

Mr. Drucker's magnum opus of the 1970s, "Management," was updated earlier this year by Joseph Maciariello, a longtime colleague of Mr. Drucker's at Claremont Graduate University in California. But his prominence has faded in the U.S., in part because his imagery often speaks to a different era.

His books sometimes recount stories from the 1940s, when Mr. Drucker was a consultant to legendary General Motors Chief Executive Alfred Sloan. Mr. Drucker's prime predated Google Inc., private-equity funds and other staples of todays most-popular business authors.

At the Drucker academies in China, however, Mr. Drucker's fondness for business history is considered a virtue, not a fault. "I tell students: 'The truth will not be outdated,'" Mr. To says.

With China building up its manufacturing capacity at breakneck speed, Mr. To says, it's probably more useful for Chinese management students to examine U.S. industrial triumphs of past decades, rather than get distracted by the fanfare associated with various postindustrial ventures of today's America.

Mr. Drucker himself laid the groundwork for China's enthusiasm for his teachings, meeting in 2000 with leaders of the nonprofit Bright China Management Foundation to get the Drucker academies started. Last year, 6,000 Chinese managers graduated from the academies, says Bright China's chairman, Ming Lo Shao, adding he expects this year's tally to be 20% higher.

Other Asian countries also are embracing Mr. Drucker's work. Last week, Drucker enthusiasts from around the globe met at the Drucker School of Management in Claremont, Calif. They discussed their efforts, through various Drucker Societies and a university think tank called the Drucker Institute, to spread his ideas.

Some of the most detailed presentations came from boosters in South Korea and Japan. In Korea, chief executives of sizable companies meet periodically in book clubs to discuss Mr. Drucker's work and how it applies to their companies. Japanese devotees publish a journal called Civilization and Management that tries to apply Mr. Drucker's ideas to current-day problems.

By contrast, U.S. attendees at the conference seemed more inclined to look backward. They giggled about Mr. Drucker's ability to outsell "The Joy of Sex" in the 1970s. Former students and colleagues shared memories of their time with him. The phrase "We miss him" was heard repeatedly.

Bob Buford, chairman of the Drucker Institute, voiced concern that American business audiences tend to be faddish, rapidly switching their attention to whatever scholar or commentator seems freshest. That makes it harder to keep Mr. Drucker's work in the public consciousness at home.

Mr. Drucker's writing style -- which mixed anecdotes and precepts in a way that led some fans to describe him as a philosopher -- is out of step with the tastes at many leading business schools, where the preference is for conclusions based on large statistical studies.

In China, however, Mr. Drucker is in no danger of fading away. His boosters there, in addition to running the Drucker academies, have assembled full sets of his translated works and have donated them to major Chinese universities. Their hope is that Chinese students will come to these "Drucker libraries" in decades ahead for inspiration.

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