A Lifetime Of Systems Thinking | Russell Ackoff | Systems Thinker | June-July, 1999

Russell Ackoff

While this article is from 21 years ago and about systems thinking, Ovidiu Contras felt compelled to share it on LinkedIn today, because of the following quote:

“My fourth source of fun has been the disclosure of intellectual con men—for example, propagators of TQM, benchmarking, downsizing, process reengineering, and scenario planning. Managers are incurably susceptible to panacea peddlers. They are rooted in the belief that there are simple, if not simple-minded, solutions to even the most complex of problems. And they do not learn from bad experiences. Managers fail to diagnose the failures of the fads they adopt; they do not understand them…. Those at the top feel obliged to pretend to omniscience, and therefore refuse to learn anything new even if the cost of doing so is success.”

Source: Systems Thinker, June-July, 1999

Michel Baudin‘s comments:

“Lean” is not in the list of panaceas. Before finding solace in this omission, however, we need to consider the vintage of the article. It’s from 1999, when flip phones were cool. Writing today, the author might have included Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, TOC, Agile, and, on the other hand, omitted dead horses that have long been buried.

While the “belief that there are simple, if not simple-minded, solutions to even the most complex of problems” is certainly mistaken, the approaches peddled as panaceas sometimes contain nuggets of wisdom applicable to specific problems. The mistake is to go global cosmic and promote them outside their range of applicability. My own comparative analysis is from 2013, and would also need an update to include the more recent panaceas.

Reading the whole of Ackoff’s article, I had no issue with most of his points but a few stood out, about which I had a few comments. Russell Ackoff, unfortunately, died in 2009 and won’t be able to reply.

“Systems thinking is holistic; it attempts to derive understanding of parts from the behavior and properties of wholes, rather than derive the behavior and properties of wholes from those of their parts.”

Do Systems Engineers Look After the IT Infrastructure?

In most businesses, the people with the title of Systems Engineer are in charge of the IT infrastructure and on-call to restart Windows servers in the middle of the night. Academics and professional societies like INCOSE have a broader view of systems thinking.

(Almost) Everything Is A System

As pointed out in The Engineering of Human Work, a nail can be described as integrating a head, a shank, and a point into a system people use with a hammer. The idea that there is more to a whole than the collection of its parts goes back at least to Cicero, who coined the term “qualitas” to designate what the difference is (Academica, §27, 45 BCE). With the possible exception of lumps of coal, there are few objects of engineering attention that are not, at some level, systems, and all engineers have to be systems thinkers to be effective.

The Systems Engineering Body Of Knowledge

The body of knowledge systems engineering then has to be the intersection of all engineering disciplines — mechanical, electrical, chemical, civil, industrial, etc. — and therefore at a high level of abstraction. It encompasses design, development, project and program management, life-cycle management, economic analysis, at a generic level. It reads more like a set of skills every engineer should have than like an engineering specialty. In fact, most of the job offers for Systems Engineers are in IT infrastructure, system software development, or weapon systems.

Science And The Humanities

“Science, I believe, consists of the search for similarities among things that are apparently different; the humanities consist of the search for differences among things that are apparently similar.”

This sounds great, but does it check out? Geology is a science but geologists are not looking for similarities between contiguous layers of rock. They are, instead, looking for differences in mineral composition, physical characteristics, or fossils. The arts are part of the Humanities, and I don’t see how the work of painters, musicians, or poets can be described as “the search for differences among things that are apparently similar.”

Schools, Learning, and Teaching

“The educational system is not dedicated to produce learning by students, but teaching by teachers—and teaching is a major obstruction to learning. […] Most of what we use as adults we learned once we got out of school, not while we were in it, and what we learned in school we forgot rapidly—fortunately. Most of it is either wrong or obsolete within a short time. Although we learn little of use by having it taught to us, we can learn a great deal by teaching others.”

Learning by Teaching

While most of this is hyperbole, the last point is true: we can learn a great deal by teaching others. When I was in software development, I once had to pinch-hit and travel to a user site to deliver training on a product documentation management module I was not familiar with and that was, itself, poorly documented. I spent two days learning user needs and, when I returned, undertook to write the missing user manual. By the time I was done, I knew that module inside-out.

Producing Citizens

Schools have existed since ancient Greece. Their original purpose was to produce adults capable of functioning as citizens, not tradespeople with utilitarian skills. And yes, much of what they teach is wrong or obsolete. We did learn most of what we use after leaving schools. What we get out of a good school is not information but the ability to learn on our own.

Gleaning Nuggets From Fads

As Ackoff pointed out, the business world is faddish. To stay current, schools could teach the latest fad. It wouldn’t be a service to students because their knowledge would be stale by the time they graduate. Schools should instead extract the valuable nuggets from each purported panacea and incorporate them into the body of knowledge.

Replicating The Social Structure

In many societies, schools have drifted from the goal of producing citizens to that of replicating the social structure. Useless knowledge, like arbitrary spelling rules or dead languages, breaks down cohorts of students into levels. It later life, it allows the members at each level to recognize one another. Attempts to make the curriculum more relevant fail unless society has changed. The adults who have struggled to master the useless knowledge want it passed on. Germany is now trying to eliminate the “ß” from its spelling, replacing it with “ss.” Time will tell whether this bold reform sticks.

Data, Information, Knowledge, Understanding, And Wisdom

“I’ve also enjoyed producing conceptual order where ambiguity and confusion prevail. Some examples:

  • Identifying and defining the hierarchy of mental content, which, in order of increasing value, are: data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
  • …”

Here Ackoff identifies a hierarchy but doesn’t bother to explain each of its elements. What are the differences between data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom? Perhaps he does it in other publications. What he does say portrays them as a sequence of learning stages. 21 years after he wrote this article, his perception of a hierarchy of value is challenged by the web economy. Analytics companies are dwarfed by the likes of Google, Amazon, or Facebook that live off data.

I don’t know what Ackoff specifically means with data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. It has, however, been the topic of several posts in this blog:

In a nutshell:

  • Data is whatever is read or written.
  • Information is the perceived reduction in uncertainty about the world achieved by reading data.
  • Knowledge is information that is objectively true.
  • Understanding is the ability to answer causality questions about what you know.
  • Wisdom is the resourcefulness due to the assimilation of accumulated knowledge.

#systemsthinking, #russellackoff