Towards appreciating “action learning”, the history of open systems thinking and pioneering work in organization science, the influence of Action Learning Group — in the Faculty of Environment Studies founded in 1968 at York University (Toronto) — deserves to be resurfaced.
- 1. Trist in Canada
- 2. Environmental studies, and contextualism in organizational-change
- 3. Action learning, based on open systems theory
- 4. Extending action research into action learning
- 5. Social engagement in social science
- Appendix: Contents
The 1989 book with “A Tribute to Eric Trist” on the cover was titled Learning Works: Searching for Organizational Futures. The editors were Susan Wright, a part-time assistant professor at York U.; and David Morley, a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York U., who would become Dean of FES from 2001-2004.
1. Trist in Canada
Eric Trist was a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Social Ecology at York University, 1978-1983, passing away in Carmel, California in 1993. Systems scholars may better recall Trist as emeritus from the 1969-1978 program in the Social Systems Science program at University of Pennsylvania, that was founded by Russell Ackoff.
The preface to the book describes the origins of its writing.
This volume began life at a 1985 meeting of the York University Action Learning Group, a loose network of people who were participating in the development of a new framework for theorizing, studying, and participating in the creation of new organizational capacities and enabling strategies to operate within turbulent environments (one of Trist’s most important metaphors).
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Douglas Austrom and Carolyn Ordowich shared some reflections developed jointly with Bert Painter (Vancouver, BC) on some draft humanistic principles, the three Tavistock perspectives, and a meta-methodology with Systems Thinking Ontario.
Proponents of Socio-Technical Systems design refer back to the 1960s-1980s research of Fred Emery and Eric Trist of the Tavistock Institute. Calls to reinvent approaches to organization design for hyper-turbulent environments may be better viewed through the whole systems view of three perspective for sensemaking:
- social-psychological systems;
- socio-technical systems; and
- socio-ecological systems.
Those who live and work in a given social system should be given the voice and and choice in designing their system. Calvin Pava’s notion of deliberation design applies not only to non-linear knowledge work. It can serve as a meta-methodology for dialogic design of organizations, networks and ecosystems. The role of designers shifts from designing the social system itself, to co-designing the deliberations by which key stakeholders can dynamically design their own systems.
This video has been archived on the Internet Archive .
Audio downloadable onto mobile devices was transcoded from the video into MP3.
Doug Austrom has four decades of consulting experience, having co-founded three change consultancies: Turning Point Associates, Adjutant Solutions Group, and People Powered Innovation Labs. He is an adjunct professor with Indiana University’s online MBA program, Kelly Direct.… Read more (in a new tab)
For the first of three workshops by the Systems Changes Learning Circle in October 2020, Zaid Khan led a session for the Relating Systems Thinking and Design RSD9 Symposium. Our team had developed a set of reference slides for the three workshops, from which content that would most resonate with the audience could be selected. RSD attracts designers across practitioner and academic communities, with leadership formalized in 2018 as the Systemic Design Association.
Zaid introduced this workshop with a caution as work-in-progress, as 2 years into a 10-year journey. We orient towards developing practical systems methods well-founded in theoretical depth, better tested in applications with willing participants. We all learn together.
The flow for the workshops were short orientations on out progress to date, with two breakout sessions for discussions. In the web video , the plenary discussions are included, and breakout conversations edited out.
The video file is available on the Internet Archive, for those who prefer a downloadable option.
The digital audio has been transcoded to MP3 for those who prefer to just listen.
Here is the original description for the session.
— begin paste —
The idea of “systems change” has risen in popularity over the past few years. To make this more than just another buzzword, how might we approach it?
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While it’s important to appreciate the systems thinking foundations laid down by the Tavistock Institute and U. Pennsylvania Social Systems Science (S3, called S-cubed) program, practically all of the original researchers are no longer with us. Luminaries who have passed include Eric L. Trist (-1993), Fred E. Emery (-1997), and Russell L. Ackoff (-2009). This does not mean that systems research has stopped.
One individual who participated in it all is David L. Hawk.
We have been continuously been collaborators ever since. DLH served as the thesis advisor for Aalto University on my Open Innovation Learning research.… Read more (in a new tab)
In order to move forward, the Systems Changes Learning Circle has taken a step backwards to appreciate the scholarly work that has come before us. This has included the Socio-Psychological Systems, Socio-Technical Systems and Socio-Ecological Systems perspective, from the postwar Tavistock Institute for Human Relations. The deep dive on “Causal texture, contextualism, contextural” takes us back to 1934-1935 articles by Pepper, Tolman and Brunswik. These influenced Fred Emery and Eric Trist in their famous 1965 article.
In Trist’s later years (i.e. between 1977-1985, when he was in Toronto at York University, with the Action Learning Group). the younger researcher with whom he was collaborating most was Calvin Pava. There is a great summary of Pava’s work and life in Austrom and Ordowich (2019).
Through some fortunate coordination, I was able to meet Doug Austrom in Indianapolis in August 2018, having discovered a preprint of the article, just a few days before I was to travel to Iowa.
In our conversation, I discovered that as Austrom, after completing his doctoral dissertation at York U. in 1982, received an appointment as a postdoctoral researcher. Austrom was interested in Quality of Life, and Trist was interested in Quality of Working Life. This led to many conversations. Austrom and Trist never published anything together, as Trist was wrapping up his project with the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Austrom has since had an entire career in Socio-Technical Systems, consulting to the current day.… Read more (in a new tab)
For those who haven’t read the 1965 Emery and Trist article, its seems as though my colleague Doug McDavid was foresighted enough to blog a summary in 2016! His words have always welcomed here, as Doug was a cofounder of this web site. At the time of writing, the target audience for this piece was primarily Enterprise Architecture practitioners. [DI]
Published on February 4, 2016
This post is a quick summary (or reminder) of a seminal piece of work by Fred Emery and Eric Trist, which I personally think should be required reading for EA practitioners. We occasionally hear about outside-in thinking, and inside-out thinking, and this paper is a very good place to start to focus on these styles of thought about the architecture of enterprise.
The paper I’m referring to is named “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments”*. Emery and Trist pioneered the idea of sociotechnical systems at the Tavistock Institute in London in the 1950s. There’s a lot that can be said about organizations as sociotechnical systems. For instance, it’s worth noting this quote from Wikipedia (as of 3 February, 2016):
“Sociotechnical theory … is about joint optimization, with a shared emphasis on achievement of both excellence in technical performance and quality in people’s work lives. Sociotechnical theory … proposes a number of different ways of achieving joint optimisation. They are usually based on designing different kinds of organisation, ones in which the relationships between socio and technical elements lead to the emergence of productivity and wellbeing.”
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