November 10, 2010
On business school’s alleged education
By Late Russell L. Ackoff
The talk was given in 2005, to the students and faculty at the University of Hull - Business School
Cottingham Rd, Hull, North Humberside HU601482 347 500, United Kingdom.
A pdf file is attached. Download UK TALK 05
November 07, 2010
Russell Ackoff, Wharton Professor, Reveals Ancient Management Secret
By Clare Crawford-Mason
(This article is based on remarks made at a Conference on Systems Theory at Villanova University, St. Davids, PA., March 4-6 celebrating the 80th Birthday of author and consultant Russell Ackoff, the Anheuser-Busch Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.)
Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking, teaches us to manage the things we can’t control as life becomes more and more complex and change more and more rapid. He has written numerous books and helped American industry and government begin to meet the challenges of the third millennium. His many clients include General Motors and the White House. But his greatest contribution has gone unrecognized.
It involves the heretofore secret history of the origins of systems thinking --- that way of looking simultaneously at an organization or a family or basketball team and seeing the parts, the whole and the interactions and beginning to understand how to make the organization or the team greater than the sum of its parts. It is a hot topic in business circles today.
Most people, if they think about it at all, believe that systems thinking was discovered this century by a number of academics who spoke in big words and complex theories. Actually, the beginnings of systems thinking are obscured in the mists of pre-history on the African savannah when an aging woman, about 30, became increasingly distressed as she noticed that her teenage son was becoming bigger and stronger everyday and his father, her mate, was becoming older and weaker every day. And the two men weren’t getting along.
She had seen many such situations like this end badly. So she talked to some of the other mothers about how to do more than solve the immediate problem—to permanently dissolve it. She finally came up with the idea of calling the three of them “a family.” She talked to her mate about how his traits and ideas could be carried forward in the future and that the son might help them out when they got older and couldn’t work anymore. He was grumpy and not interested in discussing the idea of a “family.” Nor was the son, but they said OK and were able to continue to live together more peacefully and cooperatively.
Generations later, another woman gathering seeds and fruits with the other mothers noticed that more grain was growing where they had accidentally spilled seeds last year. One of the women said, “Let’s dump some seeds here deliberately and see what happens next year.”
Another woman had the idea of poking with sticks the ground where they dropped the seeds. Others of the women suggested watering the seeds. And in later years, after they were able to harvest more food and feed more people, they tried to explain to their mates that as part of the group each had thought of something important to do and that no one of them could have had all those good ideas. The men were too busy to listen; they were inventing weapons and private property and deciding who would own the extra fruits and grains.
Over the years, the women talked among themselves as they made baskets. They realized that if each cooperated and did a separate task in basket-making and food preparation and passed it on to the next, they could get the work done quicker and better and have more time to carry water. They tried to explain the idea of cooperative process improvement to their husbands and sons, but the men weren’t interested; in fact they were annoyed. They were busy inventing race distinction, gender roles and hierarchy.
However, the women kept passing on their ideas, advice and knowledge of working together, of healing herbs and cooking spices to their daughters. They told them that from watching their children and talking to each other as they produced cloth and baskets, they had learned that almost everyone had different and valuable points of view. They also told them not to bother their fathers and brothers with this kind of talk. The men were busy inventing competition and rugged individualism. The women’s ideas just upset them and the men were bigger and stronger. The best things to do with men, the mothers told their daughters, was to feed them when they were hungry and leave them alone when they were tired.
And so this information about cooperation, continual improvement, the value of diverse points of view and placating those who are bigger and stronger was passed from mother to daughter over the generations. My mother told me about these ancient ideas right after she explained about the birds and the bees and she warned me not to upset my father or my brothers by discussing either with them.
So years later, in l980, when I was a senior producer at NBC and I produced a documentary on W. Edwards Deming, the American who taught the Japanese and the American auto and electronic industries to work smarter, I was surprised when he mentioned this new idea called “systems theory.” But because of his difficult and different vocabulary I didn’t realize that what he was talking about was those ancient ideas that my mother had passed onto me.
Then, about seven years ago, I met Russell Ackoff and to my surprise he could explain systems theory better than any woman I had ever met. But, much more importantly, he could explain it to men.
And so, I want to toast Dr. Ackoff on the occasion of his 80th birthday, because he has finally made equality of the sexes possible. And, of course, I want to toast his mother, Fanny Ackoff, whom I suspect taught him how.
Clare Crawford-Mason, former NBC News Senior Producer and Washngton Bureau Chief of People Magazine, is the producer of “The Deming Video Library,” “Better Management for a Changing World” video series and co-author of Thinking About Quality: Progress Wisdom and the Deming Philosophy and Quality or Else The Revolution in World Business.