Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Causal texture, contextualism, contextural

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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Trist in Canada, Organizational Change, Action Learning

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.

Front cover: Learning Works

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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Remembering Doug McDavid

Doug McDavidThe news that Doug McDavid — my friend, colleague, and one of the original cofounders of the Coevolving Innovations web site in 2006 — had passed, first came through mutual IBM contacts.  More details subsequently showed up on LinkedIn from Mike McClintock.

Doug left us on May 9, while working at his desk, likely in the very earliest hours of the morning. His wife Carleen, accustomed to his habit of disappearing into intense all-nighters, expected to get him to pay a bit of attention to breakfast. Instead, she found him at peace amid his books and his papers.

I left a response to that posting.

Doug McDavid was in my path towards systems thinking. He was the first person that I had met, who had a copy and read Living Systems by James Grier Miller. This came from his studies when systems were still active at San Jose State University. I’m not sure, but I seen to recall that Bela H. Banathy was an instructor there.

There was a memorable meeting at IBM Palisades in 1997 with Stephan Haeckel where Ian Simmonds (from IBM Research) and I were trying to make sense of the Sense and Respond approach with Doug. That launched me into attending some seminars with Russell Ackoff, and becoming deeply immersed in the International Society for the Systems Sciences . In later years, Doug would be an active participant at ISSS meetings.

Inside IBM, Doug was leading the Business Architecture community, in our continuing battle for recognition with the Enterprise Architecture competency within IBM.

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Pattern language, form language, general systems theory, R-theory

One of the challenges with the development of pattern languages is the cross-appropriation of approaches of techniques from one domain (i.e. built physical environments) into others (e.g. software development, social change).

The distinction between pattern language and form language is made by Nikos Salingaros.

Design in architecture and urbanism is guided by two distinct complementary languages: a pattern language, and a form language.

The pattern language contains rules for how human beings interact with built forms — a pattern language codifies practical solutions developed over millennia, which are appropriate to local customs, society, and climate.

A form language, on the other hand, consists of geometrical rules for putting matter together. It is visual and tectonic, traditionally arising from available materials and their human uses rather than from images. Different form languages correspond to different architectural traditions, or styles. The problem is that not all form languages are adaptive to human sensibilities. Those that are not adaptive can never connect to a pattern language. Every adaptive design method combines a pattern language with a viable form language, otherwise it inevitably creates alien environments.  [Salingaros, 2014]

The focus on form is apparent in the title of Notes on the Synthesis of Form [Alexander, 1964].  Form has geometry, that brings up the idea of “life” in The Nature of Order.

Chapter Five:  Fifteen Fundamental Properties

I have introduced the idea of life as something which may occur in any spatial system, and suggested that a degree of life which appears in a thing depends on the life its component centers and their density. 

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How do Systems Changes become natural practice?

The 1995 article by Spinosa, Flores & Dreyfus on “Disclosing New Worlds” was assigned reading preceding the fourth of four lectures for the Systemic Design course in the Master’s program in Strategic Foresight and Innovation at OCAD University.  In previous years, this topic was a detail practically undiscussed, as digging into social theory and the phenomenology following Heidegger is deep.  Peter Jones and I are fans of ideas expanded into the 1999 book. I was privileged to visit personally with Fernando Flores in Berkeley in 2012, as I was organizing the ISSS 2012 meeting.  Contextualizing this body of work for a university course led into correlated advances in situated learning and communities of practice.

A preface to the lecture included The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, and revisiting Change as Three Steps to clarify what Kurt Lewin did and did not write.

The agenda was in four sections. In the timebox available, the lecture covered the first two:

  • A. Situated Learning + History-making
    • Legitimate Peripheral Participation + Practices (Lave, Wenger)
    • Skill Acquisition + Disclosing New Worlds (Dreyfus, Spinosa)
  • B. Commitment + Language-Action Perspective
    • Conversations for Action (Flores)
    • Deliverables, procedures, capacities, relationships

Slides for the last two sections were ready to go, but foregone in favour of other course work priorities.

  • C. Argumentation + Pattern Language
    • IBIS (Rittel), Timeless Way of Building (Alexancer)
    • Architectural Programming c.f. Designing
  • [postscript] (Open Innovation Learning)
    • Quality-generating sequencing; Affordances wayfaring; Anticipatory appreciating
    • Innovation learning for; Innovation learning by; Innovation learning alongside

This fourth lecture is available on Youtube as streaming web video.… Read more (in a new tab)

Whom, when + where do Systems Changes situate?

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.

Video H.264 MP4 WebM
February 7
[20200207_OCADU_Ing HD m4v]
(HD 2477kbps 1.6GB)
[20200207_OCADU_Ing nHD m4v]
(nHD 1344kps 866MB)
[20200207_OCADU_Ing HD webm]
(HD VP8 375kbps 349MB)
[20200207_OCADU_Ing nHD webm]
(nHD VP8 139kbps 206MB)

Readers who want to follow through on web link references may want to review the slides directly.

Whom, when + where do Systems Changes situated?

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)

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