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December 28, 2022

Seeing Your Company as a System

Whole-systems Design

Much-needed guidance on making companies more employee-centered, adaptive, and capable.

Any effort to cultivate a systems orientation could profitably begin with the work of the late Russell Ackoff, one of the field’s pioneers. Not surprisingly for a man who warned against organizational silos and fragmentation, Ackoff rejected narrow specialization in his own career. He studied architecture and philosophy and pioneered operations research before joining the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, where he taught systems sciences and management. After leaving Wharton in 1986, Ackoff worked as an independent consultant until his death in October 2009.

Ackoff drew a clear distinction between the machine age, in which companies could assume relative stability and seek optimum solutions to discrete problems, and the systems age, beginning after World War II, a time of growing global and technological complexity. Organizations would henceforth have to deal with “sets of interacting problems” and give up the quixotic search for simple solutions that could be applied consistently. The key challenge, Ackoff said, would be designing systems that would learn and adapt. In a talk he frequently gave on “the second industrial revolution,” he said, “Experience is not the best teacher; it is not even a good teacher. It is too slow, too imprecise, and too ambiguous.” Organizations would have to learn and adapt through experimentation, which he said “is faster, more precise, and less ambiguous. We have to design systems which are managed experimentally, as opposed to experientially.” To accomplish this, he laid out a method of interactive planning, which involved an “idealized design of the organization” — a technologically feasible future that reflected how key stakeholders would redesign and rebuild a system if it were suddenly destroyed.

Seeing Your Company as a System

Posted by ACASA on December 28, 2022 at 11:05 PM in Classics | Permalink


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