Ackoff’s Triple Systems Explanation Whopper

Russ L. Ackoff (1919-2009) was a friend and colleague of C. West Churchman (1913-2004). They both hailed from Philadelphia, both served in the Second World War, and both devoted their lives to developing and applying ‘systems approaches’ worldwide because they were certain they were on to something really important. Unfortunately, systems approaches are not normally taught in secondary education and tend to be taught in a non-generic way, if at all, in tertiary education. As a result few people experience the eureka effect of deep learning when it comes to systems approaches, because key aspects remain unclear. Churchman was a great teacher and stayed in academia, but Ackoff had a way with the spoken word that had great appeal to businessmen. In this post I will take a short fragment of one of Ackoff’s many video recordings and explain its meaning in detail. A partial transcript of the 4 key minutes can be downloaded here.

Systems explanation whoppers      The three ‘systems explanation whoppers’ are: (1) organizations can only do well if they learn (i.e. improve effectiveness) from errors of commission; (2) conventional management cannot learn very well because it disregards the errors of omission and avoids the errors of commission; (3) to make things worse, conventional management emphasizes efficiency, which prolongs the wrong actions that follow from the errors of omission. A fourth point is not mentioned in this video, but is important nevertheless: (4) conventional management of organizations, countries or businesses tends to commit the ‘environmental fallacy’, which means that it ignores the various complex, larger systems. Systems approaches, whether of the type of Churchman, Checkland or Ackoff provide practical, scientific methods to address these four whopping problems, each in their own way. There is an interesting and important complementarity between their methods, which is the subject of a book I am working on.

Concept map       This all sounds very logical, but there are a great many intricacies that may be lost if we don’t take a second look at a concept map. Systems approaches

are called for when serious organizational problems have arrived or are looming and serious, much more effective alternatives are required. One of the questions is: what is effectiveness? Effectiveness could be described as the degree of functionality in relation to the larger systems, the extent of which is a matter of choice in boundary setting, which requires boundary critique to obtain some measure of shared understanding. This is what Ackoff is referring to where he speaks of organizations that are “pursuing objectives which are contrary to their intention.” The intention is always pointing at an effect in a larger system. Perhaps ‘purposive functionality’ could be a good term to describe this, or ‘intentional coherence.’ It all points to a mismatch between the stated purpose and actual purpose of an organization or project or programme or business.

Is there magic involved?      Systems approaches need good professional knowledge and an open mind. Active open-mindedness (see Baron’s ‘Thinking and Deciding’) can only come from a well-selected group of knowledgeable people. But not too knowledgeable. And they also need guidance in the application of systems approaches, because they are not generally taught in school and an smart outsider (e.g. the systems facilitator) may be helpful. In a larger business it may be possible to select younger staff that has already worked, say, 3 to 5 years in the company. They must have complementary competences.

Systems theories       Yesterday I was with the 91-year old husband of a former colleague of my wife. From 1950 until his retirement he had always worked happily at Philips Telecommunication Industries in Hilversum. He asked me whether there were any theories or laws or principles associated with these systems approaches. He was very pleased to hear from me that there were a number of very good principles involved. Clearly there the principles of deception-perception, which state among others that any perspective, even of an expert is deceptive in its perceptiveness (Churchman 1968, 235). Another Churchman principle is that of non-separability. We have to live with the fact that all sorts of things are in inter-relationships with each other. Some of these inter-relationships can only be ignored to our detriment. A good shortlist of six principles is provided by Gharajedaghi (2011, ‘Systems Thinking: a platform for designing business architecture’) one of the former colleagues of Ackoff: (a) principle of openness (about ‘open social systems’); (b) principle of iterative inquiry; (c) principle of counter-intuitive behaviour; (d) principle of emergence; (e) principle of purposefulness; and (f) the principle of multi-dimensionality.

Christmas thought      A very important principle is that embedded in the Conant-Ashby Theorem, which says that every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system. When applied to human society we can easily see that’s what society is struggling with. Ideally, all the people in human society collaborate in a way that everything works out for the best, not only for the people and their society, including future generations, but also for nature. Humans are social learners. Evidence for human cumulative learning goes back 3.3 million years (Stout et al.). Humans have learned to create ever more complex collaborative activities since then. Ever larger networks for exchange, communication and their control emerged, but until now we fail to fully understand how they can work for the best. Clearly human collaborative learning in all its dimensions is in need of a big boost. The systems approaches of Churchman, Checkland and Ackoff, in combination or separately, can provide the tools for such a boost.

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