Russ Ackoff, Systems Thinking, and Enterprise 2.0

I posted another “tribute” to Russ Ackoff in my blog at the 2.0 Adoption Council’s collaborative site and thought to share it outside the Council as well. Our site is enabled by Jive SBS and is private, so I’d like to share it with others. What follows, then, is the post as I wrote it the other day:

I am of the opinion it takes a certain kind of sensibility to understand how and why Enterprise 2.0 fits into an organization and, more importantly, how it can increase the effectiveness of everyone and everything with respect to how that organization realizes its goals. In my mind that sensibility was understood well (if not best) by people like W. Edwards Deming and the man I’d like to reflect on just a bit in this post, Russell Lincoln Ackoff. I am writing this because Russ just died last October 29 and the resonance of his passing has yet to settle amongst the community of people who knew him – either personally or through his writings and teachings. Just today I received an email from John Pourdehnad, Director of ACASA at UPenn, with a link to another tribute to Russ, which I urge you to read. I have written about his passing also, as Russ affected me profoundly. I was hoping to visit with him once again next month. Alas, that was not to be. You can read my feeble attempt here, and you can read the latest blog I received from Johnnie here. If you aren’t aware of who Russ was just Google his name and you’ll find plenty out there to inform you.

I raise this issue for several reasons. One is my feeling that, much like so many great people, the full impact of Russ’s influence will only be felt now that he is gone. Whle he was alive he was the spokesperson for his thoughts; nobody could convey what he had to say as well as he could and few tried. Absent his presence it now falls to those of us who stood at his feet to now stand upon his shoulders and try our best to carry on his work. Make no mistake about it, Russ was an important figure in contemporary thought. Not merely in business, but also in education and life in general. No less than Peter Drucker held Russ’s work in high esteem. Drucker once wrote a letter to Russell, which he proudly displayed on the wall of his office. In it, Peter had this to say:

“I was then, as you may recall, one of the early ones who applied Operations Research and the new methods of Quantitative Analysis to specific BUSINESS PROBLEMS — rather than, as they had been originally developed for, to military or scientific problems. I had led teams applying the new methodology in two of the world’s largest companies — GE and AT&T. We had successfully solved several major production and technical problems for these companies — and my clients were highly satisfied. But I was not–we had solved TECHNICAL problems but our work had no impact on the organizations and on their mindsets. On the contrary: we had all but convinced the managements of these two big companies that QUANTITATIVE MANIPULATION was a substitute for THINKING. And then your work and your example showed us–or at least, it showed me–that the QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS comes AFTER the THINKING — it validates the thinking; it shows up intellectual sloppiness and uncritical reliance on precedent, on untested assumptions and on the seemingly “obvious.” But it does not substitute for hard, rigorous, intellectually challenging THINKING. It demands it, though — but does not replace it. This is, of course, what YOU mean BY system. And your work in those far-away days thus saved me — as it saved countless others — from either descending into mindless “model building” — the disease that all but destroyed so many of the Business Schools in the last decades — or from sloppiness parading as ‘insight.’” (I took this from a comment by Steve Brant – a friend – to Michael Trick’s Operations Research Blog. I have personally read the letter as well, in Russ’s office earlier this year)

Another reason I wish to point to Russ’s work is my belief it can – and should – play a significant role in our understanding the implications of Enterprise 2.0. As Andy points out so saliently in his book, and as I would hope most of us have already come to realize, our work is not merely to theorize about the efficacy and implications of adopting E2.0 principles, but rather to apply them to the conduct of our respective organizations such that they improve their day-to-day operations and assist them in achieving their strategic goals. I think that can best be done by also understanding the systemic nature of the organizations within which we operate, and Russ had unique understanding and insight into how this was so.

The intent I had for my personal blog, which I link to above, was to work on reconciling Systems Theory – as taught by Russ and others – to the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism; perhaps a bridge too far given the demands on my time and energy. I do, however, wish to continue understanding how the principles of E2.0 (here‘s a great overview Dion linked to in Twitter) can be best understood from the viewpoint of Systems Theory. To that end I will continue attempting to reconcile what Russ had to teach us with the work we are all engaged in with respect to this council. It is my hope many of you will asssist in this endeavor. I believe it is extremely important to our success. Actually, I believe it is a valuable component of the continuing development of human thought and organization – economically, politically, and socially. I welcome your comments.




About Rick Ladd

Born in 1947, I was an officially retired pensioner, but in January of 2015 I returned to work as a contractor at Aerojet Rocketdyne. I remain intensely interested in, and fascinated by, Systems Thinking, Knowledge Management, Decision Intelligence, and Business in general. I am also conversant in such concepts as innovation and ideation, collaborative tools and strategies, crowd sourcing, and the use of social media to accomplish goals ranging from improving business processes to promoting small retail businesses. While "retired" I did a little bit of freelancing as an editor/proofreader, as well as some technical writing. There's lots more where that came from. Need some help? Perhaps another set of eyes? Contact me. The first one's free! ;0) View all posts by Rick Ladd

One response to “Russ Ackoff, Systems Thinking, and Enterprise 2.0

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