Beyond Machine Age Thinking

"In her book Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives, Mary Jo Hatch provides an introduction to general systems theory that is useful in thinking about organizations. She makes a point worthy of repeating: The use of lower level models is problematic when applied to higher level systems. Thus, the language of simple machines creates blind spots when used as a metaphor for human or social systems; human systems are infinitely more complex and dynamic. In other words, it can be counterproductive to treat a complex dynamic social system like a simple machine.

"Noted management scholar Russell Ackoff puts it another way. He asserts that we are in the process of leaving the machine age that had roots in the Renaissance and came into favor through the industrialization of society. In that era the machine metaphor became the predominant wayof looking at organizations. The universe was envisioned by thinkers such as Isaac Newton, as having the characteristics of a big clock. The workings of the clock could be understood through the process of analysis and the analytical method.

"Analysis involves taking apart something of interest, trying to understand the behavior of its parts, and then assembling the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole. According to Ackoff, “One simple relationship—cause and effect—was sufficient to explain all relationships.” Much machine-age thinking remains with us today; however, there are alternatives.

"Systems Thinking
"Systems, like the human body, have parts, and the parts affect the performance of the whole. All of the parts are interdependent. The liver interacts with and affects other internal organs—the brain, heart, kidneys, etc. You can study the parts singly, but because of the interactions, it doesn’t make much practical sense to stop there. Understanding of the system cannot depend on analysis alone. The key to understanding is, therefore, synthesis.

"The systems approach is to:
• Identify a system. After all, not all things are systems. Some systems are simple and predictable, while others are complex and dynamic. Most human social systems are the latter.
• Explain the behavior or properties of the whole system. This focus on the whole is the process of synthesis. Ackoff says that analysis looks into things while synthesis looks out of things.
• Explain the behavior or properties of the thing to be explained in terms of the role(s) or function(s) of the whole.

"The systems thinker retains focus on the system as a whole, and the analysis in step three (the third bullet) is always in terms of the overall purpose of the system."

Read more in this article by Col. George E. Reed from which the foregoing was quoted.