Minding the Gaps: Organizing Ignorance and Managing Development
Abstract

Wesley D. Balda, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Centre for International Management Studies
St. George’s University, Grenada


I was surprised when approached to speak at a science and technology conference, but reassured when I read in the announcement that “Competence in Science & Technology and good management practices as the drivers of sustainable development of societies will be discussed.” I knew when “good management practices” were mentioned there was a place for one such as I. So thanks for letting a management guy in the door.
It’s fairly challenging to talk about management without coming across Peter Drucker. In my case, I wouldn’t dare ignore him.

To bring everyone up to speed, Drucker is widely considered to be the father of “modern management,” his 39 books and countless scholarly and popular articles explored how humans are organized across all sectors of society—in business, government and the nonprofit world. His writings have predicted many of the major developments of the late twentieth century, including privatization and decentralization; the rise of Japan to economic world power; the decisive importance of marketing; and the emergence of the information society with its necessity of lifelong learning. In 1959, Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker.”

Peter was a good friend and mentor to both my wife and I. Since his death three years ago, we miss him very much, but have stayed in contact with his wife Doris and the Drucker Institute. By the way, we at St. George’s are moving toward the establishment of a Drucker Society of the Caribbean in Grenada, with all Caribbean Druckerites welcome to participate.
Peter defined management in different ways over the years, but one definition I like is “making knowledge effective”.

And, with his gift of word juxtaposition, Drucker’s “organization of ignorance” recently caught my attention. He adapted this idea from Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodic table of elements – Mendeleev found the answer to his problem by identifying what was missing in the gaps. Every attempt before Mendeleev had tried to organize existing knowledge, and then to build on it. For Mendeleev, the blank spaces ordered the known – the gaps defined the solution.
Systematic organization of our ignorance, the determination of the things that would have to become known, the inference of what they would be and would mean, and the organization of work on each piece of ignorance. This is a worthy roadmap in science and technology as it is elsewhere.

So, with our friend and guide, Peter Drucker, we ask, “what, that is today unknown, do we have to assume to make order out of the chaos of our fragments of knowledge?” What, in other words, are the specifications for future knowledge? I hope to show this morning that community wellness rather than community wealth may be a key gap in managing sustainable development and a specification for future knowledge.

A personal “fragment of knowledge” came into focus for me while eavesdropping on a conversation between North American business students and a young Brazilian professional while accompanying an MBA class to Brazil. The group had just visited a favella – a poor area - outside of Sao Paulo, and, overwhelmed by the usual need to fix something, decided to organize a separate trip later to build a house. The Brazilian kindly, but firmly, responded, "If you build a house, you take jobs away from Brazilians. Come and teach us management instead." Jaws dropped as this truth sank in. It was a pivotal moment for the students. I became mindful of the gap in realizing that:

  • A relationship had been built,
  • A symptom mutually identified,
  • The North Americans responded in generosity (because they could),
  • The Brazilian felt free to challenge them (because they had a relationship), and
  • The gringos listened and learned as this friendship deepened.

The "postscript" is that the students began to explore ideas such as creating community-driven credit unions within the favella, run by residents, to keep the capital circulating within the neighborhood: maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But poorer Brazilians will learn, communities will become healthier and hope will be sustained

The case of Chagas disease in Bolivia illustrates another blank space involving management. The initial solution, literally, involves minding the gaps by sealing the openings in adobe houses to remove sites where the insect nests and gains access to sleeping humans during the night to feed on their blood, thus spreading the parasite.

So, we know at the outset, that the fairly straightforward task of patching holes in adobe walls, diminishes the incidence of Chagas in Bolivian villages. Where are the gaps? They are not only scientific. One piece that signals success or failure in meeting the Chagas challenge, as it is in other forms of long-term community development, is management.

A well-known international NGO practices total health – “the capacity of individuals, families and communities to work together to transform the conditions that promote, in a sustainable way, their physical, emotional, social, economic, environmental and spiritual well being.” Similarly, WINDREF at SGU is developing a concept called “one health – one medicine”. The Centre for International Management Studies is exploring a model of “functional management”.
These three organizations are exploring a joint project addressing Chagas.
Beyond the direct response to Chagas, management issues emerge quickly.

  • Innovation
  • Supply chain-materials required for construction
  • Resources
  • People-work crews
  • Entrepreneurship-Project as enterprise
  • Operations management- PERT/CPM
  • Training
  • Benchmarking-Performance and results
  • Modeling & replication
  • Long-term employment and employability
  • Organizational and community sustainability

But the management gaps can be problematic. In The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, (a recent business book), the savvy entrepreneur is assured that wealth can be harvested from the other 98% - or less wealthy - of the world’s population. The top of the pyramid comprises about 100 million people, or 2 per cent of the world’s people. The rest of the pyramid includes the other 5.75 billion who made under $20,000 USD per year.

So, if it is a fact that more than one-half of humanity has yet to make a single phone call, according to these authors, then there are economic possibilities. The growth of cell phone networks themselves, bypassing the high cost of old-fashioned telephone hard-wired infrastructure, creates another entire economic possibility for those who figure it out, especially among the masses toward the bottom of the pyramid.

When the levels of the world’s earning power are graphically shown, the vastness of this market becomes clear and the economic possibilities even more impressive.
Four strategies are proposed:

  • Create buying power
  • Shape aspirations
  • Improve access
  • Tailor local solutions

but one – “shaping aspirations” – raises ethical concerns about values and sustainability. In creating a market or a customer, what benchmarks hold “aspirations” accountable to the wider community? For the scientists, how have the “aspirations” of the developed world contributed to global warming, for example?

This idea of fortunes to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, (which tends to ignore the social sector’s role in these communities), brings a different perspective to the tasks of management as they apply to business specifically, especially in nurturing sustainability.

The “bottom of the pyramid” approach misses the gaps when it focuses on wealth creation almost as a silo. Perhaps a broader starting point for thinking about economic sustainability should be community wellness rather than community wealth, as in the Chagas example.

Would our ignorance be better organized if every project had a management capacity-building function, aimed at creating sustainable, continuous improvement in community life over the long term?

Would that qualify as a gap? Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller Company, was another friend of Peter Drucker’s. He speaks of “places of realized potential”. What if we envisioned places of realized potential in long-term community scenarios?

  • A place of realized potential opens itself to change, to contrary opinion, to the mystery of potential, to involvement, to unsettling ideas.
  • Places of realized potential offer people the opportunity to learn and to grow.
  • A place of realized potential offers the gift of challenging work.
  • A place of realized potential sheds its obsolete baggage.
  • A place of realized potential encourages people to decide what needs to be measured and then helps them do the work.
  • A place of realized potential heals people with trust and with caring and with forgetfulness.
  • People in places of realized potential know that organizations are social environments.
  • A place of realized potential celebrates.

As a management professor I realize that our MBA programs invariably address the top 2 per cent of the pyramid. But what kind of management practice will unleash the imagination and productivity of the other 98 per cent? Perhaps we should organize the ignorance about the kind of business schools that could serve 5.75 billion of the world’s people. What if MBAs were about community wellness as a path to community wealth, rather than the other way around?

May I close by saying, that at the end of a week celebrating the vagaries of greed and rapacity around the world financial markets, driven by those perhaps too much consumed by the creation of wealth, that it’s good to be with scientists, engineers and others who believe there’s a place for management and have hope for places of realized potential. Thank you.