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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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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In the famous 1965 Emery and Trist article, the terms “causal texture” and “contextual environment” haven’t been entirely clear to me. With specific meanings in the systems thinking literature, looking up definitions in the dictionary generally isn’t helpful. Diving into the history of the uses of the words provides some insight.
- 1. Causal texture
- 2. Contextualism and contextural
- 3. Texture
- 4. Causal
- 5. Transactional environment, contextual environment
- Appendix. Retrospective on the 1965 article from 1997
The article presumes that the reader is familiar with the 1965 Emery and Trist article,. The background in the Appendix provides some hints, but is more oriented as context in a history of science.
1. Causal texture
While Eric Trist (with Fred E. Emery) are generally first associated with the socio-technical systems perspective directed inside an organization, the socio-ecological systems perspective concurrently was conceived for with changes outside the organization. Rapid changes in technology, even those not currently in use in the workplace, were a concern.
A main problem in the study of organizational change is that the environmental contexts in which organizations exist are themselves changing, at an increasing rate, and towards increasing complexity. This point, in itself, scarcely needs laboring. Nevertheless, the characteristics of organizational environments demand consideration for their own sake, if there is to be an advancement of understanding in the behavioral sciences of a great deal that is taking place under the impact of technological change, especially at the present time.
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Covering practical wisdom (phronesis), the third of four lectures again was compressed for the Systemic Design course in the Master’s program in Strategic Foresight and Innovation at OCAD University. The students in the part-time session on February 7 extended their discussion period longer than those in the full-time session on February 5. I again jumped slides in the sequence to stay within the timebox.
The agenda was in four sections:
- [preamble] Episteme, Techne, Phronesis (reordered)
- Intellectual Pursuits (Rethinking Systems Thinking)
- Systems changes as situated c.f. ideal-seeking
- A. Value(s), Judgment, Soft Systems Thinking
- Appreciative Systems (Vickers, Checkland)
- Policy, impacts and consequences of systems changes
- B. Service Systems (c.f. Production Systems)
- Science of Service Systems (Spohrer, Kijima)
- Material-products c.f. information-services as systems changes
- C. Socio-Technical Systems Perspective
- Tavistock Institute + Legacy (Trist, Emery, Ramirez)
- Coproduction and design principles guiding systems changes
The web video can be streamed on Youtube.
Copies of the video files are downloadable for disconnected viewing.
Readers who want to follow through on web link references may want to review the slides directly.
The same presentation slides were used for both lectures. The questions from the students were considerably different across the class sections, so the diligent listener might want to compare them. … Read more (in a new tab)