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Causal Texture of the Environment

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]


Causal Texture of the Environment

Published on February 4, 2016

Doug McDavid

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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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]


Causal Texture of the Environment

Published on February 4, 2016

Doug McDavid

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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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.

Read more (in a new tab)

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).

Read more (in a new tab)

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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Classes of executive functions: homeostatic, mediative, proactive | Zaleznik (1964)

The term proactive, in comparison to reactive, only dates back to 1964. [1]  #AbrahamZaleznik, a professor of organizational psychodynamics and practicising psychoanalyst, cited Chester Barnard in the distinction for managers performing in nonexecutive and executive functions.  Building on Sigmund Freud’s later development of energy cathexes, with emotional energy towards (i) ideas, (ii) persons, or a (iii) fusion of the two, the predisposition of a manager influences priorities.  These may (or may not) be altered through (executive) education.

A central objective of … training efforts [within and outside of universities] is to modify behavior, usually interpersonal, according to some set of norms that relate to organizational effectiveness or improved individual and group performance.

The purpose of this paper is to raise for inquiry the adequacy of existing notions of what interpersonal competence is, how it relates to the manager’s job, and the best means for helping managers achieve this competence. [Zaleznik (1964) p. 156]

Executive functions ensure the organization operates as a cooperative system through specialized authority; nonexecutive functions include technical activities of the organization that might be carried out by others.

A manager, according to Barnard (1958), operates in two spheres simultaneously. He performs a set of functions that relate directly to the technical aspects of his job, such as deciding on a brand name for a new product, or preparing a capital expenditures budget for the firm. Barnard calls these functions nonexecutive, and they can be expected to vary in content from job to job and organization to organization.

Read more (in a new tab)

The term proactive, in comparison to reactive, only dates back to 1964. [1]  #AbrahamZaleznik, a professor of organizational psychodynamics and practicising psychoanalyst, cited Chester Barnard in the distinction for managers performing in nonexecutive and executive functions.  Building on Sigmund Freud’s later development of energy cathexes, with emotional energy towards (i) ideas, (ii) persons, or a (iii) fusion of the two, the predisposition of a manager influences priorities.  These may (or may not) be altered through (executive) education.

A central objective of … training efforts [within and outside of universities] is to modify behavior, usually interpersonal, according to some set of norms that relate to organizational effectiveness or improved individual and group performance.

The purpose of this paper is to raise for inquiry the adequacy of existing notions of what interpersonal competence is, how it relates to the manager’s job, and the best means for helping managers achieve this competence. [Zaleznik (1964) p. 156]

Executive functions ensure the organization operates as a cooperative system through specialized authority; nonexecutive functions include technical activities of the organization that might be carried out by others.

A manager, according to Barnard (1958), operates in two spheres simultaneously. He performs a set of functions that relate directly to the technical aspects of his job, such as deciding on a brand name for a new product, or preparing a capital expenditures budget for the firm. Barnard calls these functions nonexecutive, and they can be expected to vary in content from job to job and organization to organization.

Read more (in a new tab)

Artificial intelligence, natural stupidity

Psychologist Amos Tversky, with Daniel Kahneman, collaborated not on artificial intelligence, but on the study of natural stupidity.  Their research into cognitive biases eventually became recognized in an emerging field of behavioral economics.  In hindsight, I can claim to have received an “A” in a Ph.D. course taught by the winner of a Nobel Prize in economics.

In my first cycle of doctoral studies, I was guided at UBC by my supervisor Ken MacCrimmon into a PSYC546 “Seminar in Psychology Problems”, which was led by Danny Kahneman.  This course was offered shortly after the 1982 publication of the book Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky.  With Kahneman at UBC in Vancouver, and Tversky at Stanford University in the San Francisco Bay Area, the back-and-forth flights to visit each other was frequent.  I uncovered more about the relationship between the two psychology professors in reading The Undoing Project. That book describes a difficult history of university faculty offers, not only around the two collaborators, but also the accommodation of wives Barbara Gans Tversky and Anne Treisman.

In late 1977, after Danny had told him that he wasn’t returning to Israel, word spread through academia that Amos Tversky might leave, too.  […]  Harvard University quickly offered Amos tenure, though it took them a few weeks to throw in an assistant professorship for Barbara. The University of Michigan, which had the advantage of sheer size, scrambled to find four tenured professorships — and, by making places for Danny, Anne, and Barbara, also snag Amos.

Read more (in a new tab)

Psychologist Amos Tversky, with Daniel Kahneman, collaborated not on artificial intelligence, but on the study of natural stupidity.  Their research into cognitive biases eventually became recognized in an emerging field of behavioral economics.  In hindsight, I can claim to have received an “A” in a Ph.D. course taught by the winner of a Nobel Prize in economics.

In my first cycle of doctoral studies, I was guided at UBC by my supervisor Ken MacCrimmon into a PSYC546 “Seminar in Psychology Problems”, which was led by Danny Kahneman.  This course was offered shortly after the 1982 publication of the book Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky.  With Kahneman at UBC in Vancouver, and Tversky at Stanford University in the San Francisco Bay Area, the back-and-forth flights to visit each other was frequent.  I uncovered more about the relationship between the two psychology professors in reading The Undoing Project. That book describes a difficult history of university faculty offers, not only around the two collaborators, but also the accommodation of wives Barbara Gans Tversky and Anne Treisman.

In late 1977, after Danny had told him that he wasn’t returning to Israel, word spread through academia that Amos Tversky might leave, too.  […]  Harvard University quickly offered Amos tenure, though it took them a few weeks to throw in an assistant professorship for Barbara. The University of Michigan, which had the advantage of sheer size, scrambled to find four tenured professorships — and, by making places for Danny, Anne, and Barbara, also snag Amos.

Read more (in a new tab)

Systems sciences and the 1957-58 Fellows of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences

How do systems — systems sciences, systems thinking, systems practice — fit into the way that individuals and social groups behave?  The connections between the development of general systems theory and interdisciplinary work stretches back into the mid-20th century.  In the Science of Synthesis, Debora Hammond traced the history of researchers bridging over disciplinary boundaries.

Early in the fall of 1954, four of the distinguished CASBS [Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences] fellows — Bertalanffy, Boulding, Gerard, and Rapoport — sat together at lunch discussing their mutual interest in theoretical frameworks relevant to the study of different kinds of systems, including physical, technological, biological, social, and symbolic systems. According to Boulding, someone suggested they form a society to foster interdisciplinary research on a general theory of complex systems, and thus the idea for the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR) was born.  [Hammond 2003, p. 9]

Initiated by a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1954, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences continues today, having joined Stanford University in 2008.  The luminaries founding the Society for General Systems Research — Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Ralph Gerard and Anatol Rapoport — continue to be held in high regard today, in the International Society for the Systems Sciences (as the society was renamed in 1998).

The CASBS ties surfaced during the research leading to the report “John Bowlby – Rediscovering a systems scientist“, authored by Gary Metcalf.  … Read more (in a new tab)

How do systems — systems sciences, systems thinking, systems practice — fit into the way that individuals and social groups behave?  The connections between the development of general systems theory and interdisciplinary work stretches back into the mid-20th century.  In the Science of Synthesis, Debora Hammond traced the history of researchers bridging over disciplinary boundaries.

Early in the fall of 1954, four of the distinguished CASBS [Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences] fellows — Bertalanffy, Boulding, Gerard, and Rapoport — sat together at lunch discussing their mutual interest in theoretical frameworks relevant to the study of different kinds of systems, including physical, technological, biological, social, and symbolic systems. According to Boulding, someone suggested they form a society to foster interdisciplinary research on a general theory of complex systems, and thus the idea for the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR) was born.  [Hammond 2003, p. 9]

Initiated by a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1954, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences continues today, having joined Stanford University in 2008.  The luminaries founding the Society for General Systems Research — Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Ralph Gerard and Anatol Rapoport — continue to be held in high regard today, in the International Society for the Systems Sciences (as the society was renamed in 1998).

The CASBS ties surfaced during the research leading to the report “John Bowlby – Rediscovering a systems scientist“, authored by Gary Metcalf.  … Read more (in a new tab)

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    • 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings
      Social Systems Science graduate students in 1970s-1980s with #RussellAckoff, #EricTrist + #HasanOzbehkhan at U. Pennsylvania Wharton School were assigned the Penguin paperback #SystemsThinking reader edited by #FredEEmery, with updated editions evolving contents.
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      Resurfacing 1968 Buckley, “Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook” for interests in #SystemsThinking #SocioCybernetics #GeneralSystemsTheory #OrganizationScience . Republication in 2017 hardcopy may be more complete.
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      Proponents of #SystemsThinking often espouse holism to counter over-emphasis on reductionism. Reading some definitions from an encyclopedia positions one in the context of the other (François 2004).
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      Saying “it doesn’t matter” or “it matters” is a common expression in everyday English. For scholarly work, I want to “keep using that word“, while ensuring it means what I want it to mean. The Oxford English Dictionary (third edition, March 2001) has three entries for “matter”. The first two entries for a noun. The […]
    • Systemic Change, Systematic Change, Systems Change (Reynolds, 2011)
      It's been challenging to find sources that specifically define two-word phrases -- i.e. "systemic change", "systematic change", "systems change" -- as opposed to loosely inferring reductively from one-word definitions in recombination. MartinReynolds @OpenUniversity clarifies uses of the phrases, with a critical eye into motives for choosing a specific label, as well as associated risks and […]
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      The term "environmental" can be mixed up with "ecological", when the meanings are different. We can look at the encyclopedia definitions (François 2004), and then compare the two in terms of applied science (i.e. engineering with (#TimothyFHAllen @MarioGiampietro and #AmandaMLittle, 2003).
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