Joined up Management and the Ackoff-Beer Contribution

Russell Ackoff

Joined up Management is a Very Good Idea in theory. I look forward to finding convincing examples of it working in practice

The concept has been around for some while, and still crops up regularly in business speak, particularly in the public sector. There seems little recognition that mostly this sounds like the mouthing of rhetoric. Its basic idea is that of systems thinking. This provides an explanation of organizational silos, and proposes remedies which permit improved integration of previously sealed-off knowledge packages.

One distinguished systems thinker is Russell Ackoff who is still going strong, and has been talking much sense on the subject over several decades.

Ackoff is regarded as a serious academic who may have been hindered in promoting systems theories by a distaste for the art of the guru. He likes to quote his old friend, the late Peter Drucker noting that the only reason people called him a guru was that they did not know how to spell the word “charlatan”.

Systems theory makes the essential dilemma of joined up thinking clear. You connect up some sub-systems more strongly at the expense of others. That was why matrix management – an early attempt to overcome management silos – failed to deliver what was optimistically expected of it. Turned out that one dimension of the matrix would get privileged over the other. Incidentally, that was why the tripartite system set up by Gordon Brown to improve the UK’s financial system a decade ago was intelligent attempt to replace silos with joined-up thinking. But it was never going to solve a problem, only help expose possible dilemmas and ambiguities of control.

Ackoff worked with Stafford Beer on his trips to the UK, on a plan to remodel business educations along more holistic lines. The first of their experiments was in The Manchester Business School whose first leaders (in the late1960s) introduced a systems-based management system. The system attempted to foster creativity and a healthy operational environment. This was to be a ‘viable self-structuring system’ with appropriately open communication with egalitarian leadership. Come to think of it, the Ackoff-Beer vision was an early attempt to design an organisation based on joined-up management.

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One Response to Joined up Management and the Ackoff-Beer Contribution

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