CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*

Continue reading

Posted in Concept mapping, General, Meaningful learning, Systems thinking | Leave a comment

Rationality and thinking (Baron ctd.)

This post continues the one on Baron’s search-inference framework (here). It follows chapters 2 and 3 of Baron’s textbook (1994 edition) on human decision-making entitled Thinking and Deciding. I will make references to critical thinking and systems thinking where appropriate.

Cognitive psychology     … is a relatively young branch of science, which seeks to understand the human thinking processes. The two most referenced scientists in Baron’s book are Kahneman and Tversky (1937-1996), who did most of their important work together in the late 1970s. Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for their development of prospect theory, which is also dealt with in Baron’s book (chapter 18 in the 2nd edition). Prospect theory is central to human economic behaviour. It provides a descriptive model of decision-making under conditions of risk. It shows how human decision-making is affected by attitudes to risk rather than following the expected utility theorem of classical economics. The general attitude is that of avoiding bad feelings due to economic loss. So in general people are more risk aversive than predicted in optimization theory.

Normative and prescriptive models      Normative models of human behaviour specify decision-making under ideal Continue reading

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Baron’s search-inference framework

Last year, I read Mitroff’s “Rethinking the Education Mess”. Chapter 7, entitled ‘General heuristics for coping with the education mess’, discusses 19 heuristics to cope with such a mess. He doesn’t use the dialectical framework of Churchman’s systems approach as one of the heuristics, which puzzled me. Not even a reference. This led me from July 2018 onward to a search into the world of heuristics and biases and, finally, the nature of critical thinking. I read some material by Jackson Nickerson of Olin Business School, Halpern’s ‘Thought and Knowledge’, Hastie’s ‘Rational Choice in an Uncertain World’, a video about thinking, fast and slow, by David Kahneman (Nobel Prize) and finally Jonathan’s Baron’s ‘Thinking and Deciding’, which was a real eye-opener (review). In this post I will discuss some of the main points of Baron’s textbook and suggest how they may be linked to C. West Churchman’s work (this blog).

Search-inference framework      Baron (2008) describes thinking about beliefs, actions and goals in  a single framework for thinking processes of search and inference. This process has the following main steps: (1) thinking is kindled by the realization (dubbed ‘doubt’) that a certain belief in a certain action may not be justified; (2) thinking, especially rationally thinking, then seeks to resolve those doubts by searching for alternatives of action, belief and even goals; (3) evidence is then sought to justify, or rather infer the strengths of certain courses of action or belief; (4) the process ends by taking a decision about how well certain actions are expected to help achieve certain goals. This is a stark simplification as many considerations may enter into the equation. There is a great deal of interdependence between evidence, actions, beliefs and goals. We need goals to judge actions and beliefs, we need evidence to judge beliefs as sufficiently trustworthy. Goals are invariable part of a broader set of goals. The framework is amazingly flexible and helps explain any topic having to do with decision-making, from logic to science and statistics and from decision analysis to social dilemmas.

Generic planning tool       Baron argues that the framework can be used in any kind of planning, from a Continue reading

Posted in General | Leave a comment

RAAKS: an institutional innovation methodology

Reconfiguring organizations to generate richer innovations

About 8 years ago, when I was still working at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, I produced – with some expert help – an online dossier on ‘rural innovation systems’ (RIS), which is still available via the Bibliotheca Alexandrina website (here) as are some of its associated documents (see references below). Soft or social systems thinking underlies the main methodology on which RIS is based. The methodology in question was named RAAKS (Rapid Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Systems). RAAKS applies a knowledge systems perspective to innovation networks. There is hardly a difference between the knowledge systems perspective and the institutional innovation perspective, so it could be applied to many other areas of inter-institutional or inter-organizational activity, including health care, traffic and transport, education (Salomon 1997, 19) and – why not – business (Deloitte, 2013). In 2010, I knew very little about soft systems, so I lacked the reference framework to make good sense of RAAKS. Since then I acquainted myself with the systems field, co-wrote a practical book on the subject, and am currently in the process of writing another, more theoretical one. I am exploring an innovation focus of Churchman’s dialectical systems approach, so this seemed a good time for revisiting RAAKS and examine once more what it has to offer.

AKIS concept    The AKIS concept was developed by Professor Niels Röling at Wageningen University in the 1980s. It adopts an integrated view of all organizations and businesses that play a role in the effectiveness of agricultural research and extension. The main reason for doing so is that it is one thing to develop some new agricultural technology – say, fertilizers use -, but quite another to get it adopted by farmers. This example may look simple or silly to you, but a 2015 World Bank report asks “Is increasing inorganic fertilizer use in Sub-Saharan Africa a profitable proposition?” In fact, I have personally been involved in several smallholder fertilizer programs in Zambia in the early 1980s (settlement schemes and the Lima programme) so I know first-hand how hard it is to answer that question in the affirmative. Other concepts that have influenced the development of RAAKS at Wageningen include Rapid/Participatory Rural Appraisal (developed by Robert Chambers. I note in his biography that he spent some time at ‘Pitt’, the Alma Mater of Churchman and Ackoff, so Chambers may have been influenced by one or the other, directly or indirectly) and Farming Systems Research. The term ‘rapid’ means that no use is made of large-scale surveys with tedious questionnaires that produce boring, misleading reports (Chambers 1994, 956). Instead, stakeholders are called upon to participate directly in the production of useful (self-)knowledge.

RAAKS theory   … was developed by Paul Engel from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s under the supervision of Niels Röling. It is available online as a PhD thesis (1997, e.g. here). In my experience, it is difficult to explain RAAKS in a concise, comprehensible manner without the use of a concept map, see below. I will explain the concept map starting from the top, working my way downwards. The central question is “how to design more innovative knowledge and information systems?” An example of such systems is AKIS, Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems. The main players in such AKIS fall in a number of domains or sectors, including those of policy-making, industry, research, commerce, extension, education and agriculture (farmers are the so-called ‘end-users’). The problem is that seemingly good ideas or inventions or knowledge do not get applied: there is an implementation problem and this implementation problem is a systemic one in the sense that the AKIS system is not well enough co-ordinated to learn of its failures. It may not even conceive itself as a learning system, muddling on as it does. Previously it would be said that extension isn’t working, or research isn’t working: in other words the problem was conceived as a technological problem, rather than a ‘social’ one. Now we say that there is something wrong in the management of the AKIS that prevents good ideas from being implemented. Finding out what is wrong requires multi-stakeholder learning, i.e. looking at the problem of implementation through the eyes of those who have relevant roles to play. This in turn requires the application of principles from soft or social systems thinking. The confusing part is where RAAKS takes one more step back by considering how the AKIS should be managed and configured as an innovation system for addressing a whole bunch of ‘systemic’ problems. The solution, or at least a major part of it, is conceiving AKIS as networks of stakeholders, whose missions must more or less correspond with the problems to be dealt with. Multi-stakeholder learning of the network must then design strategies for co-ordination of the network, communication within it, and the development of commitment to apply these strategies for actually producing real results.

RAAKS practice    … is really well explained by Salomon and Engel in their manual “Networking for innovation: A participatory actor-oriented methodology”, which is available here. Paul Engel’s PhD thesis is mostly about showing the methodological validity of RAAKS. In practice there are three main phases, which I indicated with pink, green and a thick line. Phase A is about problem definition and system identification, phase B deals with the main constraints and opportunity analysis, while phase C sums it all up in a practical sense by articulating a common policy and/or plan a joint intervention. Each phase has a number of so-called tools and windows. At this point it is important to re-emphasize that ‘intervention’ here means a change in the ways the AKIS is co-ordinated and conducts its communication.

Tools and windows      Windows are lenses to look at particular facets of the problematic situation of an innovation network. Each phase has a number of facets that need to be looked at to create a full picture. Each window has one or more tools to examine or inquire into that part of the picture that is covered by the window’s facet. So in phase A the system is defined by the stakeholders that are considered relevant to the purpose of the RAAKS inquiry. A tool can be used to identify the stakeholders. There is another tool to look at their missions and how these could fit in the network mission. The tools and windows are presented in a sequence. The general sequence is logical, as explained above, but it may not be necessary to follow the sequence to the letter. People are natural systems thinkers and cannot be constrained to one facet, because facets are – well – facets of a whole.

RAAKS rationale     Engel’s thesis contains a section (p. 86-90) entitled ‘configurations as emergent joint management structures’. In it he uses cases to explains how and why certain patterns of institutional relationships evolve into configurations that are less productive of innovation than if their activities would be co-ordinated more rationally. He concludes “that social actors who are responsible for designing and implementing interventions in agricultural innovation theatres differ in their appreciation of the relevance to innovation of particular social actors, including their functional interdependence.” The study, awareness raising, and realignment of actor perspectives of each other’s potential contribution to innovation is what RAAKS is all about.

Horse husbandry      Nothing is more convincing of a methodology than a couple of good cases. Two are described in Engel’s PhD thesis. A particularly good one is that of the Dutch horse husbandry sector (1997, p. 176-182).  Another two are described in Salomon’s RAAKS manual (1997, p. 34-40), but they seem a bit less convincing. There is no point in me trying to summarize these cases in this post, but I will make a reiterate a few conclusions from the horse husbandry case. It was found that not all three horse husbandry segments (professional riding and racing, breeding and export, recreational riding) were equally well represented in the national coordination committee. Some of the segments were not well organized. Data collection was sketchy, which hampered policy making and setting the right priorities. With horse racing on the decline and recreational riding having half a million practitioners, there was a clear need for restructuring. A comprehensive list of general information areas was formulated, as were the information priorities of each segment.

RAAKS users    It is obvious that the main intended users of RAAKS are facilitators (or their trainers) that guide stakeholders through the entire process. But RAAKS can also be used by individual researchers or field workers to better understand the context (i.e. the knowledge and information networks) for innovations they try to develop or implement. In this sense RAAKS could be considered a complementary method for the dialectical systems approach, in which ‘implementation’ is a key category (see previous post). Other important users are trainers, managers and consultants. As a manager, one “can encourage teamwork, self-monitoring and the generation of ideas on how to improve collective performance related to innovation, with built-in feedback and follow-up.”

Historical notes    In the past it was thought that research and extension were sufficient to innovate in agriculture. In fact, before WWII there was hardly any extension at all anywhere in the world. An agricultural university like that of Wageningen was only created after WWI (although there were predecessors of some kind). These days, things are much more complex, not just in agriculture, but in society as a whole. Systems thinking developed and kicked in at Wageningen in the late 1970s, particularly in the form of Checkland’s soft systems methodology, which has a very practical and easily understandable format that appealed to many academics, especially in the UK and the Netherlands. The more generalizing, theoretical work of Churchman, which was well known to Checkland since the early 1970s, was by and large ignored, probably because it was conceived by Churchman himself as a fairly loose set of principles and insights. I am convinced that Churchman’s work should not be ignored, because its generalizing nature helps understand and learn or train a very broad range of systemic or wicked problems as well as the more specific techniques (or methodologies or methods) that have been developed to deal with particular categories or types of systemic problems such as network organization, knowledge management and institutional innovation.

Some final remarks      There is a lot that can be said about RAAKS in relation to Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. Here is my pick: (1) RAAKS deals with a real problem: in a complex world multiple actors are involved in the successful design and/or implementation of systemic interventions. A better co-ordination of the knowledge and information system (KIS) is definitely part of that. By concentrating on the KIS part RAAKS leaves a lot of freedom to stakeholders for making autonomous contributions. The level and detail of co-ordination of the innovations required is left entirely to the RAAKS participants, it is not dictated by the methodology. (2) RAAKS is incomplete in the sense that it does not offer systems methods for designing or assessing end-user innovations. This seems to carry the risk that RAAKS will turn into a participation tool for the sake of participation. Churchman’s dialectical systems approach offers a framework for assessment (and even design) that provides room for unfolding the decision-maker and implementation categories across other elements of the framework to examine whether there are any critical oversights. This includes the category of measures of performance, which is needed for decision-makers (with their missions) to know whether system components achieve their objectives. (3). RAAKS lacks a method for learning how it works. The generic social systems thinking method of the Dialectical Systems Approach of Churchman could be of considerable use, although it would have to be learned itself. Once Churchman’s approach is mastered it could be applied to or in any other systems situation or method.  (4) The applicability of RAAKS may be limited to situations where systems intermesh. In a developed country such as The Netherlands, we have many, many systems, even to the point that the systems become the problem, they turn into a mess (in the words of Ackoff), whereas in developing countries there is rather a lack of systems, which is why international agencies call most of the shots. And many international agencies make very poor stakeholders since they lack real insight and commitment. Their commitment is to their mission and the avoidance of risk. (5) RAAKS makes me wonder about the inter-relationship between the potential for end-user innovations and the redesign of the innovation system.

Conclusion      To paraphrase Churchman (1968, p. 232) when he stated the fourth principle of deception-perception of the systems approach: RAAKS is not a bad idea! In fact, I think it is a brilliant example of systemic agency, because it offers a dearly needed way of increasing the probability of the right things getting innovated without decreasing the autonomy of the stakeholders involved.


Posted in General | Leave a comment

Notes to video interview with Churchman

In one of my last blog posts I added a link to my transcript of a two-hour video interview with C. West Churchman, a well-known American systems philosopher. I said that the interview could serve as an introduction to Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. Now, perhaps that is a bit too optimistic. So I figure I have to add a few notes to the first 30 minutes to make sure such an introduction works out as more than a passing acquaintance. It is also an opportunity for myself to check if I haven’t overlooked anything in the rich thoughts of a great systems mentor. The notes to the first 30 minutes of the transcribed video interview are available as a PDF from here. It is 5 pages in all and contains 3 rather interesting concept maps, including a novel one, which I baptized “Concept map of Churchman’s categorical scheme for the inquiring system of a dialectical systems approach”. Below concept map is described in considerable detail in the PDF.

Concept map of Churchman's categorical scheme for the inquiring system of a dialectical systems approach

Systems, systems and dialectics       How systemic is it all? Very much, I would say: (1) First of all there is the system itself with all its inter-relationships, which could be just about anything. A few examples were mentioned: postal system, business, government agency, education system, international development system, capitalist system, local food production system, a project, energy system, global climate system. As long as it has humans in them, it’s a system in the Churchmanian sense of the word, a social system, an organization of sorts. We also have messes in the Ackoffian sense, which are systems of systems interacting, e.g. the climate-energy-human reproduction-economic-international politics system. Or – as pointed out by Harold Nelson in The Design Way – simple ones, like the stone-age fire system with all its complexities of collecting wood, keeping the fire going, all sorts of smoking, cooking and heating aspects etc. (2) Then there is the inquiring system, which tries to look at the system as a whole, as described in the concept map; (3) Next there are the modelling systems, used in the designer role, but needed to communicate between the other relevant role players. Some of the modelling systems may well be specific forms of systems thinking as well. Often models are partial models of the system or models of part of the system. I think patterns and structures could be said to fall in this category of systems. The fun thing about patterns and structures is that one set of them for one system can serve as a ‘model’ for another system. This is actually the rationale underpinning systems thinking generally. This idea is put to good use in the systems archetypes of Senge’s Fifth Discipline (see Kim 1992), but examples abound in systems thinking, the simplest being the input-output model; (4) Finally there is the dialectical system to determine the system boundaries (in a broad sense, so also looking at patterns and structure). It makes use of the perspectives of stakeholders, broadly defined as those most concerned by the system in a variety of roles, the main ones being client/beneficiary, decision-maker/manager, designer/planner, systems philosopher/thinker. The dialectical system makes use of the inquiring system and different models, formal or informal. There can be no dialectic without good communication and without looking through each other’s eyes, i.e. placing oneself into a different role. There is no such thing as a perfect dialectical system. Yet, imperfect ones may still yield satisfactory results. It is possible to expand on the subsystems (e.g. we could put the designer in the context of a design system, the decision-maker in the context of decision-making or management system etc.), but the four types just mentioned seem to cover the essence of it quite well, from the dialectical systems approach point of view, that is.

The word ‘system’      …. seems to confuse and put off people. As Churchman explains in the video interview  of 1987, its use for ‘social systems’ such as organizations, projects or nations came naturally in the early 1960s, when people were talking about systems a lot: computer systems, administrative systems etc. Churchman, like everybody else, was just expanding the applicability of the word to, well, systems generally. In addition, the use of the term ‘The System’ for “prevailing social order” is from 1806. Its Greek origin (see here) makes it suitable for most major languages, from Portuguese to German or Russian, with the exceptions perhaps of Chinese and Japanese. Now, what is a system? According to Churchman it is ‘things hanging together’. But he doesn’t mean the solar system, but human or social systems. So, it is actually ‘people and things hanging together’. But that too is incomplete, because systems are designed by people with a purpose. So the full definition of a system in the Churchmanian sense is ‘people and things designed to hang together for a purpose‘. The systems approach was developed (or designed) to improve the system design when it turns out not to function properly. The term ‘approach’ was preferred because of its double meaning of: (1) a particular way of handling a (problematic) situation not necessarily implying a final solution; and (2) approximation, i.c. the approximation of an ideal situation (see concept map). The term ‘systems approach’ is also used in psychotherapy (see e.g. Bauserman and Rule 1995). There are parallels, but it has nothing to do with Churchman, although he had a particular liking for the work of Carl Gustav Jung. There are also interactions and influences as described in Part Thirteen of Bauserman and Rule’s brief history, where they mention Von Bertalanffy, Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson and Erickson. If we speak of The systems approach in a Churchmanian context, we mean the dialectical systems approach of above concept map and everything it entails.


Posted in General | Leave a comment

Climate change and the systems approach

Yesterday morning (July 11, 2018) I read an interview (sorry, in Dutch) with René ten Bos in Trouw, a Dutch newspaper, about the Dutch Climate Agreement of July 10, 2018. It contained a couple of references to the private sector and the systems approach, so I got interested. Here is my take of the matter.

René ten Bos      … is ‘National Thinker’, one might perhaps even say Philosopher Laureate of The Netherlands, since April 2017. He is a philosopher, author and organizational theorist who teaches at the University of Nijmegen, where he is Professor of the Philosophy of the Management Sciences. He says his drive comes from outrage (‘onderbuikachtige verontwaardiging’ on his Wikipedia page), which is the word used by West Churchman when he discusses the motivation of the ‘heroic systems philosopher’ in some of his books. The outrage in the article is about the convenience with which the Dutch private sector appropriates the term ‘sustainable growth’ for its meagre efforts to turn the Dutch Climate Agreement of the day before into some kind of a success.

The inconvenient truth      … is that the Dutch Climate Agreement lacks global impact, except – of course – if it can impact global decision-making, either politically or in green business development, which remains to be seen. This morning the Trouw editorial pointed out that Dutch industry wants the Dutch tax payer to foot most of the bill of the industrial energy transition. That hardly seems fair, but then globalizing industry could also pack its bags for higher grounds, lower labour costs, fewer environmental laws. And leave The Netherlands a lot poorer. Perhaps industry and ethics are not each other’s favourite company (unless ethics is paid by industry or industry dresses like ethics).

Business ethics      … is largely limited to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which by way of the market trickles down its profits more or less socially and – in the very long run – also plays a role in curbing human population growth by raising incomes and bringing health. There is much less concern of business for global environmental and ecological impacts as we can see in the destruction of tropical forests, the extinction of species such as the rhinoceros, and global warming, which threatens global agriculture and coastal populations. It doesn’t seem to matter whether business takes place in the context of a deregulated Anglo-Saxon model or the totalitarian Chinese system. Market forces relentlessly shape the activity of the invisible hand. Are these forces sacrosanct or can we bring them under control? Or is that a contradiction in terms, just like sustainable growth.

Whole-planet ecological consciousness      …, according to Ten Bos, must necessarily be the answer to our climate troubles. The reason is simple. In 1867, now 150 years ago, Marx wrote, not thinking of any climate-induced flooding:  “Après moi, le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.” Somehow, capitalism was able to transform itself into a benign system, although initially that seemed impossible. Wealth was not only generated, but also shared (after a while), leading to the demise of communism (unless the Chinese version could still be called that), demographic transitions (even to the point of declining populations), nature conservation, and democratic citizenship, holidays, education, mass entertainment etc.

Out of synch        The trouble here is that this social transition took place at the level of the nation state, whereas our environmental problems are of a global nature. Another thing is that the social transition only took place in the West, when the West ruled supreme. This ‘West’ shared centuries, if not millennia, of historical, philosophical and religious developments, making it more or less homogeneous and subject to the same contemporaneous social and intellectual forces. So the social transition took place at the level of the nation state in a more or less homogeneous part of the world, known as the West, in a period that the West knew few threats (apart from Comunism, Nazism and the like). The present world as a whole is not homogeneous at all, it is very, very much ‘out of synch’.

The environment game        .. is a book written by Nigel Calder (1931-2014) in 1967, in which he correctly predicted a world population of 9 billion in 2050. I think I bought it second hand in a Dutch translation in the early 1970s. In 1967 the world population was less than half of what is now, yet there were great concerns about agriculture feeding the world. By the time I ‘woke up’, there was the concert for Bangladesh (August 1971) followed by some of the more serious Sahel droughts of 1972-1974. And of course there had been famines in India in 1966-1967 (which led to the Green Revolution) and China in 1959-1961 (36 million died). Calder famously wrote: “If men were intended to work the soil they would have longer arms.” Calder combined trends (pollution, destruction of nature, automation of work, advances in bio-industrial production of food) to solve a combination of predicaments (food, population, nature, work). He didn’t solve the problem of leisure, though. Well, perhaps he did in a little way: I always liked his 1967 book for all its clever utopia-mongering (I borrowed this word from Arthur C. Clarke’s Report on Planet Three), so I reread it several times.

The weather machine   … is a 1974 BBC documentary, which is recalled in a 2007 Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle (you may like to watch from about 35m30s onward) with a special role for Nigel Calder since he was involved in both documentaries. The weather machine makes the point that an ice age is looming and CO2 may help prevent it. The great swindle suggests that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was perhaps not quite founded by Margaret Thatcher, but at least its creation was enormously advanced by her desire to create an energy-independent Britain with nuclear energy and destroy the mining unions. During my studies in the UK in the 1980s, that’s what I watched on television on a day to day basis: Scargill vs. Thatcher. Of course we also watched the Falkland War and Dallas.

Flood risk       One of the aspects of climate change is the threat of rising sea levels and associated flood risks (or perhaps we should already speak of certainty). Clearly the Dutch have reason for concern, living with 17 million people in an enormous delta that drains vast parts of continental North-Western Europe (Rhine, Maas, Schelde, IJssel). So a New Delta Plan has already been put into action to limit the risks until the end of the 21st Century to a minimum. The situation is very different in highly populated places such Bangladesh and most countries in South-East and East Asia, including China. More delta plans will be needed. The question remains to what extent we can or should shape deltas effectively, considering their complex geomorphological dynamics and the huge costs involved in protecting them.

The right non-separability        …. is at the root of all systems solutions. The basic assumption of the Dutch Climate Agreement (and the Paris Agreement to which it claims to contribute) is the close-coupling between climate and energy and the de-coupling of energy from CO2 emission/production. That’s just one kind of non-separability. It doesn’t say much about couplings with the rest of the world, globalized trade, world population growth, economic inequalities and so on. It is my humble view that we haven’t gone very far over the past half century, when the environment and global poverty became an issue. We need to invest in the capacity to address the climate issue. This can only be done by investments in getting the world more in synch without upsetting the golden goose, which is capitalism. This means we need to follow the basic rules of capitalism and combine them with innovative rules for igniting its transformative power.

Tricky truth      To me this boils down to a question of getting the world into synch: historically, philosophically and spiritually (to avoid the word religion, because that’s bound to divide us further). All three are about truth. Since the world is historically, philosophically and spiritually (and perhaps even racially) divided, we need some form of pluralistic truth with sufficient room for the partial truths of different parts of the world and sufficient concordance between these partial truths to create a politically effective pluralistic truth (without it turning into a totalitarian truth). An open-ended model for designing an appropriate response to the ‘human predicament’ has been described by Hasan Özbekhan (a systems thinker in the school of Churchman and Ackoff) in his 1970 proposal to the Club of Rome. When I say “open-ended model” I mean that it doesn’t make any assumptions beforehand about which forms of non-separability should prevail (e.g.  as suggested by me just now) or provide an overall framework. Any such assumptions can only emerge during the, no-doubt lengthy discussions during the design period (which may never end, especially if there is room for redesign and adjustments).

Implementation    … is key to systemic solutions. It is human to think systemically, i.e. to make observations of controversial separability (and become outraged or not). But to think systemically as well as effectively is where the real challenge lies. It means that we somehow have to identify the right non-separability, but also the right way of looking at that non-separability, and developing a way of handling that non-separability in a way that really (i.e. effectively) improves a problematic situation (or problématique), of mankind or at a much smaller scale (say of a nation like the Netherlands). Implementation is a central category in Churchman’s categorical framework for a dialectical systems approach. Read his books or watch his video. See also my transcript of his two-hour interview.

You can support my work (of writing an even more convincing sequel) by buying Wicked Solutions at Amazon.com. You will support me even more if you buy at Lulu’s. There is also a PDF at Gumroad for only $12. Your thinking will never be the same.


Posted in General | Leave a comment

C. West Churchman: a biographical concept map

Churchman during interview by Prof. Kristo Ivanov in April 1987.

Biographical summary      Churchman was born in Philadelphia (1) from Catholic parents in 1913. He was educated at Germantown Friends School in the Quaker tradition (2). As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania he was taught ethics (3) by Thomas Cowan, which kindled his taste for philosophy (4). He went on to obtain a PhD in philosophy (logic) under Edgar A. Singer (5), a notable Pragmatist, who himself had been taught by William James, one of the founders of the American philosophical school of Pragmatism. At one point Churchman learned statistics (6). Exactly why he did so is not entirely clear, but measurement and the proper interpretation of data is part of Pragmatist inquiry. Moreover, under the influence of Taylor’s scientific management, the application of statistics had real practical value, which must have generated an interest in the practically oriented Churchman. Coincidentally, after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Churchman volunteered (7) to work in the war effort at Frankford Arsenal (8), also in Philadelphia, where he used his knowledge of statistics to improve inspection procedures. This type of work was known during the war as military operations research. A lot of research took place during the war, including computer development, the development of linear programming and so on, some of which played an important role in his career. After the war several major companies saw the potential of computer-based operations research for a science of management or management science as it has become to be known since then. As a result of his war experience Churchman, together with Ackoff, became very active in its development (9) and co-authored the first textbook on industrial operations research in 1957. He was also among the first to acknowledge the limitations of this type of operations research, especially in terms of implementation (10). This and Edgar Singer’s inquiring system inspired him (11) to draw on his knowledge of Pragmatism (12) and philosophy in general – possibly also influenced by Dewey – to design his dialectical systems approach (14) for better understanding and fixing problematic situations. By the 1960s he had developed a profound sensibility for problématiques (13) as the combined result of character (conscientious), training (Quaker ethics, Pragmatism), work (operations research, management science) and history (World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, technological, industrial and scientific developments, Cold War, ecological movement). It could be argued that his systems approach was impracticable because it was given the form of a set of principles rather than a methodology (Churchman 1968, 1971, 1979). However, these principles remain valid to this day and have found their way in a great many modern management tools and practices and are likely to continue to guide or influence  management developments in the future.

Biographical core      The core of the concept map is Churchman’s design of the dialectical systems approach. He didn’t do that in one go. It took him three books or what we could call Churchman’s trilogy: The Systems Approach (1968), The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971) and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979). The purpose of the dialectical systems approach is to help understand and thereby possibly fix problematic situations. Churchman had a strongly developed sense of what is problematic in a great deal of situations. Perhaps the systems approach will probably appeal most strongly to those who have also acquired somehow an acute sense of the problematic in situations they have been into during their (working) lives. That’s how it worked for me and that’s how it seems to have worked for Churchman.

Element of the systems approach        Some basic elements of Churchman’s systems approach can already be gleaned from this very short biography. I painted them light orange. I will work from the top downwards, starting with: (a) ethics, meaning here some idea that something has to change from “is” to “ought”, the question being what that “ought” ought to be? (b) Pragmatism, meaning that we can apply the question of “how things work?” or “what they do, really?” to all sorts of activities in business and society, raising the ‘effectiveness’ question; (c) inquiring system, meaning here some way of learning about reality, raising all sorts of questions, from the nature of reality to its meaning and what is the best way to learn about that? (d) problematic situations, which is actually a term coined by Dewey, means situations with ill-defined or ill-structured problems in them. Another way of saying this is that all problems in business and society have context, but before we can get to that we have to know which problems we are talking about. The requires an open-minded type of inquiry; (e) measurement, in the present context, is especially about the question how we can know that something works or doesn’t work, so what should we measure in order to know whether a particular intervention moves us in the direction of a less problematic situation? (f) dialectical value: the measurement question or the measurement results can form the start of a debate about facts or the best approximation of facts. Such a debate is best carried out by the key role players in a problematic situation, each having their own perspective on how their interests may be affected; (g) computers and models: when we try to improve a problematic situation, we use mental models of the way in which things hang together, to know which lever we have to pull. Sometimes these models are best implemented in a computer, because they are too complicated for the human mind. On the other hand, computer models tend to ignore many aspects that human minds are more capable of handling. It is the task of the planner to come up with the best possible model. The role of the planner can be fulfilled by an actual expert of some kind or – at least during part of the dialectics – by anybody involved in the problematic situation; (h) implementation can be quite a problem. Decision-makers may not at all like the wonderful plans designed by the planners. Or, in other terms: the model of the situation used by decision-makers can be quite different from the model of the planner. Note that the remark I just made about the role of the planner also applies to the role of the decision-maker; (i) management to Churchman is a very broad term: we manage our lives, executives manage businesses, professors manage their department, boards manage schools, a government manages a country, international politics manages the world. Management is about decision-making, especially about problematic situations when things go seriously wrong or threaten to do so relatively soon.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Full transcription of 2-hour video interview with C. West Churchman

Screenshot from the video

Two days ago I posted a partial transcription of a 2-hour video interview with C. West Churchman. Today I completed the full transcription, so here it is, in PDF format (updated July 6, 2018). The interview can serve as an introduction to Churchman the systems philosopher with regard to his early, seminal work on operations research, but also to his later, even more original work on social systems thinking, which he called the dialectical systems approach. The video, which was recorded in April 1987, shows that after his retirement his ideas on some aspects of the dialectical systems approach continued to evolve, especially where the relationship between the planner and the decision-maker (or the researcher and the manager) is concerned. In his categorical framework that falls under the category of ‘implementation’. The interviewer was Professor Ivanov, to whom all West Churchman afficionados owe a deep debt of gratitude for having arranged and produced these videos.

Posted in General | Leave a comment