Interview with C. West Churchman (video)

As far as soft or social systems thinking is concerned, the Big Three are – alphabetically – Ackoff, Checkland and Churchman. Searches for ‘Ackoff’ or ‘Peter Checkland’ in YouTube get you a number of hits with presentations. C. West Churchman (the hero of this CSL4D blog) is more difficult to find. In fact it is only two days ago that I came upon a set of four videos in in which I could finally see and hear Churchman talk. The interview (about 2 hours) was recorded on April 30, 1987, on occasion of Prof. West Churchman’s sabbatical guest stay at the department of Informatics of Umeå University. The interviewer (left) is Prof. Kristo Ivanov. The screenshot below is of video VTS 01 1 ( at 28m48s. The videos are perhaps best downloaded from A suitable video player (VLC Media Player) for the .VOB format of the videos can be downloaded from The discussions are wide ranging. They really show who Churchman was and how he thinks and why, especially why. Don’t miss it! There is wisdom in the man. He is a hero.

The human condition      To Ivanov’s first question (who he is, what he thinks, and what his plans are?), Churchman answers that his primary concern has always been that of the human condition, which is also the title of Hannah Arendt’s most influential work. Of course, Churchman’s angle on the human condition is one of management in the broadest sense, i.e. with a view to answer the question of how people can live lives they really want, because they generally don’t. It may be a coincidence, but The Human Condition was published in 1958, which is the year after Churchman had published the Introduction to Operations Research (with Ackoff and Arnoff), which already contains a number of systems ideas that would eventually find their way in his 1968 book The Systems Approach. In the same period there was another momentous event: the start of the Space Race with the Russian launch of the Sputnik I in 1957, which led to the creation of ARPA (which much later resulted in ARPAnet, predecessor of the Internet – Ivanov refers to it as telematic networks-, and e-mail) and NASA, which financed the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) at Berkeley. The second administrator of NASA – from 1961 to 1968 – was James E. Webb. From 1963 to 1969, NASA received more than 2% of the federal budget and at its peak, in 1965, it employed more than 400,000 of the best and brightest. The SSL programme was a campus-wide interdisciplinary one, originally limited to the physical, biological, and engineering sciences. In those very early 1960s, Churchman had already moved to California and he managed to squeeze in his social sciences programme into the NASA-financed SSL programme. For one-and-a-half decade it gave him the resources and the freedom to develop his transdisciplinary systems ideas with the help of lots of people, including e.g. Horst Rittel. West’s Seminar in 652 Barrows Hall was a highly popular weekly event, among both students and Nobel Prize winners.

Implementation   One of the things that Churchman emphasizes in this interview is the paramount importance of implementation. Implementation is one of the key categories in Churchman’s inquiring system. In the video he refers in particular to a paper he wrote with A. H. Schainblatt in 1965, The researcher and the manager (i.e. the planner and the decision-maker in Churchman’s categorical scheme), see also here. In it they distinguish four concepts: the separate-function position (operations researcher builds his model and recommends action to manager), the communication position (explain stuff to the manager), the persuasion position (explain stuff to the researcher), and the mutual understanding position (collaborative). The last position is the only one that does not violate the principle of non-separability, which is elementary to Churchman’s systems approach. Werner Ulrich, in his Critical Heuristics (which is based on Churchman’s categorical framework, see my combination of the two), replaces the category of implementation with the category of knowledge. This is an interesting idea (because it simplifies the framework), but it is unlikely that Churchman would approve, even though it could be argued that knowledge may well include knowledge for implementation and Ulrich’s purpose is critical (of planners) not dialectical (between key actors and the roles they play). Churchman also mentions that he would no longer give his last major book (The Systems Approach and Its Enemies) the same title. Managerial ‘politics’ – which is one of the enemies – is simply very hard to grasp by researchers, no matter how smart, good willing and well versed in mathematics they are. The systems approach is very promising and indeed necessary, but its effective adoption and implementation remains a wicked problem.

Future generations         At some point – probably in the mid-1960s – Churchman was asked by somebody from NASA to look into the issue of nuclear waste. The point was that nuclear plants that had been commissioned in the 1950s and 1960s produced a lot of this type of waste and it was quite dangerous. One idea was to put it deep underground, but that seemed dangerous too, with earthquakes and all that. Another idea was to bury it under 2 km of ice on the South Pole, but that too seemed tricky (at the time melting ice caps were not yet an issue, but even then …). Finally Churchman asked for how long nuclear waste would remain dangerous: he was told that it was 25.000 years. At that moment it “hit” him that the systems approach needed to take future generations into account. Two decades later, in the 1980s, Churchman had grown very concerned about the future. He was certain that the way things are managed by the ‘human system’ (hunger, poverty, population growth, militarism, nationalism) will almost inevitably lead to a terrible holocaust in 200 years’ time (so by the end of the 22nd century). In all his years as a consultant he had found only one organization with a concern for future generations: the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s a start, but clearly not enough.

The systems idea      Churchman explains where the idea for systems and systems thinking came from, as far as he was concerned (systems ideas had been around much longer). Churchman had been working in operations research for many years. this had started during the Second World War, just after Pearl Harbour, so December 1941, when he volunteered to work at the Frankford Arsenal, at the time the largest small-arms ammunitions factory in the United States. It went on throughout most of the 1950s at Case Institute of Technology. It was a time when mathematics (algorithms) became commonplace for simulating business operations, computers quickly became more advanced, and the mechanical calculators of Marchant and Friden were discarded. It dissatisfied him, because the modelling went very well, but the recommendations that followed from the modelling were rarely implemented. Models were unable to simulate real decision-making. The systems idea was an attempt to go beyond models and get to grips with ‘systems as a whole’. It was clear early on that the systems idea could be applied to all sorts of systems, be they nations, organizations, businesses, universities, government departments or even humanity as a whole, the human system. About his work at the Frankford Arsenal he mentions fleetingly that he discovered what had to done to improve ammunition production, but that it was very difficult to get the idea accepted by the decision-making brass. If I recall well it took him a year and hard pleading to convince the right guy in Washington.

Knowledge management        Churchman has published hundreds of articles in his life. Churchman was also the founding editor of Management Science in 1953 to step down in 1960. In his mind the usefulness of the journal was hampered by a lack of papers that not only described models, but also their relationship to application or implementation. He concluded that managers have a totally different world view from that of researchers. Managerial concerns are eminently practical, such as meeting next month’s payroll demands. The complexities of decision-making are such that it is virtually impossible to model it properly or describe it in such a way that practical generalizable wisdom can be obtained by the reader. This concurs with my own experience at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam about half a century later, when we attempted to share online successful cases of advisory work by our senior consultants. The cases simply left out most if not all the interesting stuff that explained how implementation was achieved.

Names in the interview       Names of people and organizations that are mentioned in the interview, in order of appearance: Hannah Arendt, Tom Cowan, Kepler, Newton, FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Marchant and Friden (manufacturers of mechanical calculators), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Ronald Reagan, Saint Paul’s Romans, The Club of Rome, Jay Forrester (MIT), Aurelio Peccei, Immanuel Kant, Carl Gustaf Jung, Joseph Campbell, Edgar A. Singer Jr., William James, Joe McClosky, Koopman, Roger Crane, A. Schainblatt, Russell Ackoff. (This list is shown at the end of video 4, as are below biographical notes, presumably composed by Prof. Ivanov).

Biographical notes         The Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Umea, Sweden, decided in 1985 to appoint Professor Emeritus Charles West Churchman at the University of California, Berkeley, honorary doctor of economic science. West Churchman was born in 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. He is today one of the main representatives and critics of systems theory considered as a research method at the interface between natural science, technology and the human sciences, especially ethics.  His PhD was in symbolic logic. He has been professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and Wayne University, and professor of engineering administration at the Case Institute of Technology and then business administration at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1963 he was appointed research philosopher at the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley and he was acting chairman at the Center for Research in Management Science at Berkeley. He was one of the founders of a research institute of city planning and has been director of research and chairman of the board in several organizations. Professor Churchman who is, by the way, already honorary doctor of philosophy at the University of Lund, is a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and of the American Statistical Association, editor-in-chief and former president of the Institute of Management Sciences, as well as a member of the Operations Research Society, the Philosophy of Science Association and the American Philosophical Association. He has authored about ten books, some hundred other publications, and edited many books and articles including Philosophy of Science and Management Science. He is honorary chairman for life of a new department at Berkeley, Peace and Conflict Studies. West Churchman started his academic career in the area of mathematical logic that together with digital electronics and mathematics constitutes the basis for the development of computer software. During the war he was active within the defence effort with statistics and applied mathematics. That awakened his interest for economic science and for questions of social science. From this period originates one of his first and most important books in a time when mathematics were the fashionable sciences: Theory of Experimental Inference (1948). This development resulted in West Churchman’s becoming one of the pioneers who launched operations research and management science. It became a synthesizing concept for the attempts to attack practical problems and support decision making with the help of quantitative and interdisciplinary methods. From this period originates the book that made both operations research and the names of the pioneers known all over the world: Introduction to Operations Research (1957) co-authored together with R.L. Ackoff and E.L Arnoff. The military and technological industrial interests for the ‘harder’ mathematical-logical and quantitative aspects of operations research dominated, however, very soon all other aspects. Within a few years operations research turned into an abstract formal research area isolated from the social sciences reality that stood at the center of the pioneers’ original intentions. Following the themes of his studies in philosophy, churchman continued his interest for economic science and for questions of values in science, often in low-keyed but sharp polemics against those who advocated the possibility and need of strict separation between facts and values, natural science and social science. His methodological development starts from American philosophical pragmatism and especially from one of its branches named empirical idealism. The book that most adequately represents this stage of development, in a time when the world spoke about economic decision theory, information processing, problem analysis, administrative rationalization, etc, is Prediction and Optimal Decision (1961). It represents an attempt to re-vitalize the original idea of operations analysis by means of a criticism of oversimplified economic utilitarian thought. Churchman tried subsequently to develop an applied economic science directed towards global problems such as militarism, poverty and pollution, in a spirit that recalls J. Bentham’s attempt to apply economics to the criminal justice systems. The concept of opportunity cost, that Churchman considers as the most important concept of applied economics, cannot be reduced to simpler concepts but rather takes us into larger contexts – or systems – including political reality. ‘Analysis’ and traditional probability thinking, are consequently not the right way for systems planning and for studies of normative decision-making. Churchman rejects therefore utilitarianism (Hume, Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, etc.) as ethical basis for economic theory and prefers instead to use the concept of justice or equity (Kant). One consequence of all this is that Churchman – who by the way could be considered a statistician as well as a philosopher – questions several of the basic concepts that are often taught and applied in a thoughtless way in these disciplines, e.g. tests of hypotheses, confidence intervals, cost-benefit analysis and logical deduction. In general he finds that it was a serious 19th century strategic mistake to subdivide human knowledge into club-like disciplines with their own rules of admission and membership. These thoughts are to be found in Churchman’s later work and in his development of operations research’s original idea into a systems theory. the systems approach allows one to describe and understand the context and functions of complicated activities through many but reciprocally dependent parts or subsystems. Churchman’s socially oriented systems theory is also an organization theory or theory for administrative development (rationalization). It was first presented in two books that were written in more accessible language, oriented towards educated laymen, business people, and the public in general: The Systems Approach and Challenge to Reason (both published 1968). They were widely read and the constituted the bridge to Churchman’s later deeper information systems oriented work: The Design of Inquiring Systems – Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization (1971). it translates the original ambitions of statistics and operations research into information and computer language in the age of computer revolution systems, databases, computer simulations, administrative systems development, artificial intelligence, expert- and support systems etc. During the latest years Churchman has dedicated a sizable amount of his efforts to studies of conditions for peace and to the possibilities to prevent famine in the developing countries e.g. better food distribution. He has at the same time studied from a philosophical and scientific point of view the criticism and resistance to the systems approach. This was done in a couple of books which also have in part an autobiographical character: The Systems Approach and its Enemies (1979) and Though and Wisdom (1982). Churchman appears now to be working on a manuscript of a book with the preliminary title Counting and Caring that so-to-say closes the circle to his early interest for statistics and economic science considered in a humanistic perspective. West Churchman represents an alternative to Herbert A. Simon’s works, and hence another mainstream of modern thought in economic and social science and in the view of administrative systems development that supports theory-building in administrative data-processing. His life-time work is of extreme importance for all those disciplines and academic initiatives that, like administrative data processing, systems science and computer-economics’ attempt to connect the explosive technological development to social science, behavioural science, and to the humanities. His research has been relevant for such disparate applications as space technology, city planning, health planning and consumer economy, as well as peace and conflict in the world. His disciples and international network of contacts reach to Central Europe and so-called developing countries in the Far East and South America. During almost 30 years he has constituted a point of contact and a source of inspiration for many Swedish researchers in several of the social sciences. (This note is shown at the end of video 4).

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2 Responses to Interview with C. West Churchman (video)

  1. antlerboy - Benjamin P Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Systems Community of Inquiry.

    • Thanks again. I have always regretted never having seen Churchman talk. This video really fills a void. And it has some very worthwhile explanations, especially about the concept of implementation and the systems idea, both in relation to OR (or OR-like) models.

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