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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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.
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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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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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