Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Socio-Technical Systems, Service Systems Science

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.

David Ing, Diana Yee,  Mary Guerriero Austrom, Doug Austrom
Mixed research agenda with social, at intercept dinner after driving 11 protracted hours from Toronto. Discussed release of paper on “Calvin Pava’s Legacy: Sociotechnical Systems Design for the ‘Digital Coal Mines'”, and histories leading up to its writing. Spouses had parallel conversation on less academic pursuits. (Yen Ching Restaurant, E. Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN) 20180808

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.

Pava was immersed in the systems movement at the University of Pennsylvania.

Cal pursued a doctorate in advanced systems planning design at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He participated in the innovative “S-cubed” program, Social Systems Sciences, that operated as a department of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s. The program’s founder, Russell Ackoff, had become increasingly critical of Operations Research’s reliance on specific mathematical techniques. So, he launched S-cubed as a multidisciplinary, functional approach to problem-solving (or preferably, problem “dissolving”). S-cubed also attracted other prominent social theorists, such as Fred Emery and Eric Trist, who contributed additional principles such as synthetic (as opposed to analytical) reasoning, broad stakeholder participation in decision making, and idealized design.

Pava engaged with several key change theorists in this Wharton program such as Eric Trist, Tom Gilmore, Larry Hirschhorn, Don Schon, and Jay Galbraith. He was also influenced by his dissertation chair, Hasan Özbekhan, a Turkish- American systems scientist, cyberneticist, philosopher, and planner. Özbekhan (Christakis 2014) applied systems theory to global problems in a paper for the Club of Rome, entitled The Predicament of Mankind, which addressed issues of energy, overpopulation, depletion of resources, and environmental degradation. We see these seeds in Pava’s novel approach to coping with our human predicament, namely, organizing our vision at a higher level through a dialogic process of different points of view, where new approaches and attitudes might begin to acquire a degree of immediate relevance. Cal completed his doctorate in 1980. His dissertation, Towards a Concept of Normative Incrementalism (1983c), was an early conceptualization of his organizational change theory, a theory that favored being impactful with short-term goals in the present world, while at the same time, through action research, contributing to long-term goals of moving gradually towards a more just society. [Austrom and Ordowich (2019), pp. 4-5]

The mentorship by Trist extended beyond graduate supervisor, into continuing research.

Eric Trist undoubtedly had the greatest influence on Cal’s thinking regarding organization design and change. Pava honed his intense interest in social change theory under the guidance of Trist whom he described as a mentor of “great rigor, vision and compassion” (1983c, p. xi). Much of Cal’s early writing addressed issues that clearly reflected his mentor’s research interests including quality of working life (Pava 1977, 1979b) and autonomous work groups (Pava 1979a). Another central tenet of Trist’s thinking that Pava adopted and extended was the issue of organizational choice in the face of the technocratic imperative. Beulah Trist (2017) described them as being of “like minds.” Eric shared with the first author that Cal was his best doctoral student (Austrom 1984).

Theirs was a remarkably close relationship that was grounded in their shared intellectual passions, but extended well beyond. In a memoir on Eric Trist, Richard Trahair noted that “Cal Pava had a special place in Eric’s heart” (2015, p. 309). When Eric was informed that Cal was in the last stages of dying from an incurable tumor, he insisted on visiting him in the hospital even though he was himself in a weakened state. Stu Winby, a mutual friend, drove Eric to the hospital. When they arrived, Stu said “Cal, Eric’s here.” And even though Cal did not open his eyes, he responded with a huge smile (Trahair 2015; Winby 2017).  [Austrom and Ordowich (2019), pp. 5-6]

Pava taught at NYU from 1978 to 1981.  In 1982, he became a professor at Harvard Business School.  In 1986, Pava was diagnosed with a brain tumour.  He relocated to California in 1987 for medical treatment, and consulted in the technology industry, including with Apple Computer and Intel.  He passed away in 1992, at the age of 39.

In re-reading Austrom and Ordowich (2019) , I was struck by parallels in the research that Pava was conducting, and my own interests in the early 1980s.  With the most famous research on Socio-Technical Systems grounded in coal mines in Yorkshire, a reasonable question is whether the learnings from that industrial era are still valid in today’s information-based, knowledge economy.  It turns out that Pava was working on that.

However, by the late 1970s and into the 1980s, there was increasing concern that STS design had fallen into a conceptual rut. Tom Cummings (1978) argued that STS’s shop-floor heritage and its language, concepts and orientation, limited its application in office settings. He also claimed that at the time, the relatively lower reliance on technology in the office created an imbalance between the social and technical systems and  rendered the analytic tools less useful. Eric Trist (1983) and Cal Pava (1986b) shared these concerns and claimed that STS design’s over-reliance on traditional practices, such as the nine-step method and self-managed teams, had stifled innovation and restricted STS’s applicability to the emergent workplace. [Austrom and Ordowich (2019), pp. 7-8]

Pava was interested in the changing nature of work.  The Apple II computer was launched in August 1997.  The IBM PC was introduced in August 1981.  These would reoriented organizations from the history of centering on industrial production, towards 21st century organizations centered on information.

Knowledge work involves nonroutine problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking (Reinhardt et al. 2011). It is typically nonrepeated, unpredictable, emergent and primarily involves the management of unstructured or semi-structured problems (Keen and Scott-Morton 1978). It is characterized by imprecise information inputs, varying degrees of detail, extended or unfixed time horizons, dispersed information formats, and diffuse or general scope [Austrom and Ordowich (2019), pp. 8]

This reference resurfaced a turning point in my life.  In 1982, I was a graduate student at the Kellogg School of Management, applying for the doctoral program at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  Flying from Chicago to Boston for a visit, Peter Keen was one of the professors who I met at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research.  I was interested in pursuing research into Decision Support Systems.  If I had known about Calvin Pava at that time, I would have hopped across the Charles River to meet with him.  Alas, this was future that was not to be.  I became #2 on a list of one to join the PhD program focused on Management Information Systems at the Sloan School of Management.

In fall 1982, I briefly joined the PhD program at UCLA, dropping out when the faculty direction didn’t line up with my expectations.  As a Canadian, I ended up moving to Vancouver to study at the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration 1982-1984.  In 1985, a corporate career commenced, and I spent 28 years at IBM, including opportunities to collaborate with scientists at IBM Research.  Inside IBM, I gained the opportunity to study Decision Support Systems with an assignment to Silicon Valley in 1998 to work with Metaphor Computer Systems.  Further, I was not to study knowledge work as a university professor, but as a practitioner in a company that formed the IBM Consulting Group in 1993, and the Institute for Knowledge Management circa 1999.

Google, 1965 Charleston Road
In 1988, I worked at 1965 Charleston Road, in a partnership between IBM and Metaphor Computer Systems (a spin-off from Xerox PARC). This led to the partnership between IBM and Apple, called Taligent. The building didn’t have the current landscaping, and was surrounded by Sun Microsystems. (Googleplex, Charleston Road, Mountain View, California) 20170320

So, what direction might have the research have gone, if Calvin Pava had lived beyond age 39, in 1992?

Pava provided us with a preliminary model for a flexible and scalable organizational architecture based on the precepts of self-regulation. It is a template for combining and integrating self-managing work teams (routine work), project teams (hybrid work), and discretionary coalitions (nonroutine work) into a reticular organization (Friend et al. 1974).

Trist (1983) further confirmed in the afterword in Pava’s book that the concept of self-regulation was meant to be extended to every system level so that the organization as a whole is seen as a series of mutually articulated self-regulating systems, which would make the enterprise both flatter and leaner. Essentially, Trist was making the case on Pava’s behalf that deliberations should be regarded as the common or basic unit of analysis for the purposes of STS design of nonroutine work at every system level; teams, organizations, networks, and ecosystems. In short, knowledge work is conducted through deliberations regardless of system level. It is fairly safe to assume that if Pava were still alive, he would have more fully elaborated on concepts and tools of deliberation analysis for the STS design of our temporary and dispersed, or networked, organizational forms. [Austrom and Ordowich (2019), pp. 22-23]

Pava’s course proved to not be one that I was to follow.  In 1998 and 1999, I met David Hawk, who, on Eric Trist’s encouragement, returned to the PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania — having dropped out, to work in London in urban planning — to complete his dissertation in 1979.  (In 2019, he republished that work as a book with a new foreword, as an anniversary edition).  Hawk was a graduate student student in the same program as Pava.  He has been my guide to the systems movement from the 1970s to the current day.

Pava was interested in networked, organizational forms.  In collaboration with David Hawk and Annaleena Parhankangas, a conference paper in 2004 with a similar title would eventually formally published as “Negotiated Order and Network Form Organizations” in 2005.

Further, my interest in knowledge work would not be framed primarily from the Socio-Technical Systems perspective.  In my presidency of the International Society for the Systems Sciences in 2012, I called for Rethinking Systems Thinking in light of two major shifts in the 21st century that were not evident for Tavistock Institute researchers in the 1980s:  the service economy; and the anthropocene.  By 2015, research into the service economy would become known as Service Systems Science.

In the ongoing development of science for the benefit of humanity, there are many schools of thought.  Socio-Technical Systems Theory (combined with the Socio-Psychological and the Socio-Ecological) from the Tavistock Institute — particularly from Eric Trist through Calvin Pava — represents one school.  The Systems Changes Learning Circle embraces that legacy, and yet is now building its own distinctive school of thought.  This new school of thought is an expansion, building on joint research with many colleagues and friends, collaborating in the International Society for the Systems Sciences from 1998 to 2012.

References

Austrom, Douglas, and Carolyn Ordowich. 2019. “Calvin Pava.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Organizational Change Thinkers, edited by David B. Szabla, William A. Pasmore, Mary A. Barnes, and Asha N. Gipson, 1–31. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-49820-1_104-1.

Keen, Peter G. W., and Michael S. Scott Morton. 1978. Decision Support Systems: An Organizational Approach. Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts.

Parhankangas, Annaleena, David Ing, David L. Hawk, Gosia Dane, and Marianne Kosits. 2005. “Negotiated Order and Network Form Organizations.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 22 (5): 431–52. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.717, cached at http://coevolving.com/commons/200710_Negotiated_Order_and_Network_Form_Organizations.

Pava, Calvin H. P. 1983. Managing New Office Technology: An Organizational Strategy. Simon and Schuster.

Pava, Calvin. 1986. “Redesigning Sociotechnical Systems Design: Concepts and Methods for the 1990s.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 22 (3): 201–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/002188638602200303.

Trist, Eric L. 1983. “Afterword.” In Managing New Office Technology: An Organizational Strategy, by Calvin H. P. Pava, 163–75. Simon and Schuster.


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