I’ve been approaching the development of an emerging science of service systems from a background of the systems sciences. Describing and designing service systems — not only in business, but also in the public sector — includes the evolution and development both of human organization and of technology. A large body of knowledge on social systems science was developed in the post-war industrial age, e.g. research conducted by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (1941-1989). This work has been categorized in three perspectives:
The socio-ecological perspective emerged while facing cases where “von Bertalanffy’s concept of open systems” was not sufficient to deal with the degree of change in the environment.
We gradually realized that if we were usefully to contribute to the problems that faced the cases mentioned above we had to extend our theoretical framework. In particular, we had to discard the assumption that systems or individuals could not know their environments and the unipolar focus on the system, or individual as system. In a positive sense we had to theorize about the evolution of the environment and the consequences of this evolution for the constituent systems. (Emery 1997, pp. 38-39)
In 1967, Fred Emery summarized needs that the social sciences should have prepared to meet over the next thirty years. More than a decade beyond that, we now have the Internet, globalization, and the prospect of an instrumented, interconnected and intelligent “smarter planet”.… Read more (in a new tab)
On my quest for management research based on systems theory, I’ve generally been disappointed since the systems foundations are rarely apparent from a superficial reading. Typically, when I read management research, I get a queasy feeling inside, because a lot of the content written is anti-systemic.
In contrast, when I read Johan Wallin‘s 2006 book, Business Orchestration: Strategic Leadership in the Era of Digital Convergence, I felt strangely comfortable. I attribute this to the lineage from which Wallin has come, so that there is “systems thinking inside”. Wallin completed his dissertation in 2000 in association with Rafael Ramirez. Ramirez is a graduate of the Social Systems Science (S3) program1 at the University of Pennsylvania, and now a professor at Oxford. In addition, Wallin worked closely with Richard Normann, immersing him in the Value Constellation model. I suspect that the average reader would be oblivious to the fine distinctions that systems theory makes. For management researchers, however, such foundations enable a strong scientific foundation, rather than simplified metaphors that break down under scrutiny.
I really wish that I had the time to join this course … but I’m trying to stay focused on completing my dissertation over the next few years!
At the Sonoma 2006 meeting of the ISSS in July, Len Troncale, Lynn Rasmussen and Todd Bowers had a workshop describing the study of 80 systems processes. They’re now maintaining a blog with a report of their experiences from fall 2006, and have announced of a new session beginning January 2, 2007.
In my work with the ISSS, one of my concerns is that the systems movement needs to advance and continue to move forward. A lot of people in business come to systems thinking through writers like Russell Ackoff, but I claim that the last significant influential systems writing in management was published by Eric Trist in 1981, for the Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre. (When was the last time you heard about Quality of Work Life?)
The problem that I have with systems theory is that a lot of it is really modernist, and most continuing research streams acknowledge postmodernism, if postmodernism isn’t already a central philosophical foundation. Having systems theory stagnate in the 1980s helps no one, and it’s arrogant to believe that 1980s researchers knew everything.
When David Hawk encouraged me to continue doctoral studies at the Helsinki University of Technology, he said that I really should complete the degree, but the way to do that was to continue to study my natural interests.… Read more (in a new tab)
What is a business? How can (or should) an expert business practitioner relay his or her knowledge to another interested party? Trying to understand these questions leads down a path of debating the merits and demerits of understanding through metaphors, and understanding through models. This eventually ends up with a discussion of roots in philosophy of science.
During the Seiad project in 1977, Ian Simmonds and I had many discussions about understanding business, filling up the whiteboard in his office at the Watson Research Center.1 My studies into business strategy reflected the two primary foundations: microeconomics — Michael Porter is a leading proponent of this approach — and organization theory — with roots in the research of the Tavistock Institute, and the sociotechnical systems thinking from Fred Emery and Eric Trist. Add onto that my personal bent towards decision support systems — Peter Keen‘s research while at CISR at the Sloan School at MIT was highly influential — and a strategic view of marketing that can be described as Market-Driven Strategy, as described by George Day. These all represent models of business.
Ian — as I recall, starting from a side discussion with Doug McDavid — brought up an alternative approach to businesses, with the book: Images of Organization, by Gareth Morgan. I had a visceral response to this work, because it prescribed the use of metaphors to describe business. The problem that I’ve found with metaphors is that they relay an initial — and possibly superficial — portrayal of business.… Read more (in a new tab)