Feature Fred Emery Systems Thinking Vol 1, 1981

Annotated Emery and Trist Causal Texture Paper

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Featured Image: FE Emery Ed. Systems Thinking, Vol 1 Penguin, 1981.

ORT_Logo Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  12 July 2022

Several things coming together at once prompted me to think about Fred Emery’s ideas and my involvement in them from 1979 to the end of the 1990s.

First was involvement in doing politics differently and getting an independent senator David Pocock elected into the Australian parliament. After the election, I thought search-based focus groups could be used to develop an information-rich knowledge base and assist in community engagement.

Second, at the same time a health crisis made me think that it might be important to get together my knowledge of Fred Emery’s work.

The following articles have been an education and have re-engaged me with a set of powerful ideas around systems thinking.

The articles in order are: 1 Causal Texture (an annotated version of Emery & Trist’s famous paper), 2 The Search conference (a description and explanation), 3 McQuitty Causal Path Analysis (a powerful statistical methodology as an adjunct to organisational change), 4 Participative Workplace Design (a description of workplace reform), and 5 An organisational thermometer (to measure progress in workplace reform).

The accompanying article on Q Research shows how I turned some of these ideas into a successful strategic marketing research business.

FE Emery & EL Trist The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments Annotated

Introduction

I’ve been going back to Fred Emery’s ‘Search Conference’ methodology and my own ‘Search-based’ focus groups recently and thinking about my distant past. This is the first in a series of Emery associated articles: these are 2 the Search Conference and 3 Mcquitty Causal Path statistics.

This has brought me republish this classic paper online, as it is fundamental to participative planning. Participation and community engagement may be re-emerging, particularly at the moment in Australian politics.

Many people may not be aware of how participative planning emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and why open-systems thinking was the intellectual base to these activities.

I republished JBS Haldane’s 1929 paper on The Origin of Life in 2015, with some annotations and have been surprised at its reception and ongoing popularity.

Fred Emery and Eric Trist’s classic paper The Causal Texture of  Organizational Environments Human Relations 18:21-32, 1965 cited 6356 times (according to Google & others), is longer and slightly more difficult than Haldane’s but also very readable. The annotations should provide a context and perhaps an explanation of some ideas.

I worked alongside Fred and Merrelyn Emery whilst at the Centre for Continuing Education from 1979 and more peripherally in the late 1980s and 1990s. I also followed up on much of Fred’s research and visited Einar Thorsrud in Norway for nearly two months in 1981.

Biographical Notes

Fredrick Edmund Emery (1925-1997) was born in Narrogin in the wheatbelt of WA. He obtained his PhD in social psychology in 1953. During 1951-52 as a UNESCO Research Fellow to the Tavistock Institute in London, he worked with Eric Trist and became aware of the industrial democracy system that Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth had discovered in the Elsecar Collieries, using the Longwall method of coal mining.

Fred Emery by Heide Smith

Fred Emery by Heide Smith

In 1957 he returned to the Tavistock Institute where he had a close intellectual relationship with Eric Trist and others further refining the concept of sociotechnical systems, including Einar Thorsrud in Norway, with whom he conducted the large-scale Norwegian industrial democracy experiments. Later, he worked closely with Russell Ackoff at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He probably met Ackoff in the UK in 1961-1962, while Ackoff was based at the University of Birmingham.

Fred returned to Australia in 1969 where he was a senior research fellow first in the Department of Sociology, RSSS and then at the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) at the Australian National University, from 1974 until November 1979.

Although colleagues sought to find another permanent post for him at ANU, it was to no avail (Alastair Crombie, Fred Emery obituary).

For the remainder of his life, Fred worked as an independent scholar primarily from home. He was still the most prolific borrower (seriously) from the ANU library both during his time at CCE and afterwards at home. We all trekked to his home in Cook ACT, from time to time and imbibed his Coolabah cask red over long evenings of discussion.

Fred was initially unhappy with the way he was received by colleagues in psychology and the social sciences, when he returned to Australia in 1969.

I suspect he was probably happiest in the time he spent at the Tavistock, because of the immense satisfaction of his intellectual work and the respect and closeness with his colleagues. He found his Australian colleagues less welcoming (perhaps the classic Australian ‘tall-poppy syndrome’) and less stimulating.

At CCE, Fred was involved in a long-standing and bitter intellectual dispute and ultimately pointless dispute with the Director Chris Duke that began well before I arrived there in 1979.

Despite all this Fred was immensely energetic in Australia, conducting his research and diffusing his Search Conference and participative design methodology, through corporations, organisations and at the community level throughout the country. By way of example, between 300 and 400 ‘Searches’ were conducted in Australia in the 1970s (each lasting two-and-a-half days).

He was also deeply involved in large projects.

The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments, Human Relations Journal, 1965

In what follows my annotations are mainly in italics and closely follow each section of text.

Emery Trist Causal Texture-01A

1 Herbert Spencer Jennings (1868-1947) American zoologist & geneticist, one of the first to study individual microorganisms.

 2 Walter Bradford Cannon (1871-1945) American physiologist who coined the term ‘fight or flight’ response and developed the theory of homeostasis — steady-state conditions in life — which also involves necessary interactions of the organism and its environment (an open system).

3 Lawrence J Henderson (1878-1942) American physiologist, chemist/biochemist, philosopher and later sociologist. He along with Cannon promoted Claud Bernard’s 19th century idea of internal communication in cells. In sociology, he applied his ideas of physiological regulation to social behaviour.

Internal environment a concept developed by Claude Bernard (1813-1878) a French physiologist for multicellular organisams.

4 Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt Psychology emerged in the early twentieth century in Austria & Germany. It was initially a new theory of perception based on patterns or wholes. Gestalt theory emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than its parts, which relates it to the developing theory of open systems.

Fred Emery regularly cites Max Wertheimer one of the founders of Gestalt psychology in his work.

5 Fritz Heider (1896-1988) and his balance theory was a favourite of Emery who cites him often. Fritz Heider was an Austrian psychologist whose work was related to the Gestalt school.

6 Open system model

An open system model — which can be intuited from the above — is simply one in which the system interacts with its environment. Further, there are reactions within the system, two-way interactions with its environment and presumably interactions within the environment that may impact on the system.

Emery Trist Causal Texture-01B Emery Trist Causal Texture-02A

Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) was an Austrian biologist and is mostly known as one of the founders of general systems theory. Here Fred mentions Bertalanffy’s use of the second law of thermodynamics to define the difference between the closed system of physics where entropy increases or energy is dissipated and one described with open systems (a living cell) where ‘negentropy’ prevails. This is because the open system can import energy from its environment. The balance state in closed systems is equilibrium whereas open systems can attain a steady state that is time independent (e.g. homeostasis).

The second law of thermodynamics simply stated is: entropy increases, which makes perpetual motion machines impossible and implies that the universe runs down eventually. Living systems and human systems import energy from the environment to establish negentropy.

Fred Emery, Eric Trist, Kurt Lewin 1

Emery Trist Causal Texture-02B

Equifinality is the principle that in open systems a given end state can be reached by many potential means. Also meaning that a goal can be reached by many ways. A closed system is something from physics, chemistry or engineering which does not allow the transfer of energy or matter in or out of the system. In engineering it is a bound system, where every input is known and every resultant is known (or can be known) within a specific time.

Edward C Tolman (1886-1959) was an American psychologist.

Egon Brunswick (1903-1955) born in Budapest and died in the USA was a psychologist.

Stephen C Pepper (1891-1972) was an American philosopher best known for World Hypotheses. Fred Emery was impressed by Pepper and quotes him occasionally.

Open System

Emery Trist Causal Texture-02c

This is the crux of the entire paper what follows is a discussion of the L22 relation. The theoretical types of environment are outlined and the concept of turbulent environments explicated.  (Transactional interdependencies is also an important concept  but beyond the current scope.)

Emery Trist Causal Texture-02d

Here Emery and Trist make a distinction between the system and the environment. Although they do not mention it in this paper, in later work particularly around the ‘Search Conference’ Fred Emery defines the system environment relations in a profound way. He says that the L12 relation (system to environment) is  planning and the L21 relation (environment to system) is learning.

The paper by Barker and Wright was an ecological framework for understanding the person–environment relationship.

Roger Garlock Barker (1903 to 1990) was an American social scientist was a founder and leader in the field of environmental psychology.

Herbert F Wright (1907-1990) was a pioneer in the field of ecological psychology.

The reference is to a book of Lewin’s which outlines his approach and is one of several books.

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) was German American psychologist often recognised as the founder of social psychology and one of the first to study group dynamics. He was also known as one of the pioneers of social, organisational and applied psychology in the USA. Lewin applied himself to three main topics: applied research, action research and group communication.

Eric Trist met Lewin briefly and was heavily influenced by him, such influence flowed on to Fred Emery, who often mentioned Lewin. Emery was also influenced by Lewin’s ideas on field theory and on extended social fields.

Fred Emery Systems Thinking Vol 1, 1981

Fred Emery Systems Thinking Vol 1, 1981

Emery Trist Causal Texture-02e Emery Trist Causal Texture-03 Emery Trist Causal Texture-04A

This is a brilliant case study, which demonstrates the causal texture of the environment. It also introduces the impact of environmental turbulence on organisations and the uncertainty that this produces.

Fred Emery, Russell Ackoff, Philip Selznick 2 Emery Trist Causal Texture-04b

The explication of these four types of causal texture or organisational environments (including living things) is essential to understand the breakthrough in defining Type 4 or turbulent environments.

Although the first three types have been described previously they need to be gathered here to make Type 4 intelligible.

There is some confusion or ambiguity in the text and also in using the sub-heading ‘steps’ rather than types of environment. The four types of environment are:

  • Type I:            Placid, Random(ized)
  • Type II:          Placid, Clustered
  • Type III          Dynamic, Disturbed-Reactive
  • Type IV          Dynamic, Turbulent

Emery Trist Causal Texture-04c Emery Trist Causal Texture-05A

Simon: A surface over which an organism can locomote.

Ashby: Limiting case of no connection between environmental parts.

Schutzenberger: No distinction between tactics & strategy. Best tactic only learned by trial & error.

Herbert Alexander Simon (1916-2001) was an American political scientist and polymath whose work influenced the fields of computer science, economics and sociology, cognitive psychology, organisational decision-making and artificial intelligence. He received the Turing Award in Computer Science in 1975 and a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978.

W Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics.

Marcel Paul Schutzenberger (1920-1996) was a French mathematician and Doctor of Science involved in formal language, combinatorics (mathematics) and information theory.

Emery Trist Causal Texture-05b

The objective of ‘optimal location’ is self-evident, ‘distinctive competence’ refers to human organisations.

Ashby cited above. Not sure what serial system refers to. (Although Ashby also discovered self-organisation in cybernetics.)

Tolman and Brunzwick were cited above.

Philip Selznik (1919-2010) was a professor of sociology and law in California. He was also noted as an author in organisational theory and public administration. His book Leadership in Administration 1957 is an enduring classic.

Emery Trist Causal Texture-05c Emery Trist Causal Texture-06A

Ashby’s concept is somewhat complex.

An oligopoly is a market dominated by a small number of companies or suppliers, none of which can keep the others from having a significant influence. Competition is thus limited.

Imbrication (overlapping of edges)

Isidor Chein (1912-1981) was a noted American psychologist and social scientist. His early work was on attitude change in the context of group relations.

Lord Heyworth makes some points on what is necessary for an operation in a Type 3 environment based on his practical experience in running a large UK corporation.

Geoffrey Heyworth (1894-1974), 1st Baron Heyworth, was a British businessman and public servant. He was chairman of ICI and of Unilever. The latter a company for which he worked for 48 years until his retirement in 1960.

Emery Trist Causal Texture-06b

The term turbulent field (field after Lewin) didn’t catch on and thereafter the term used was turbulent environment or more rarely environmental turbulence.

‘Ground’ is occasionally used for environment in the sense of figure-ground reversal (environment-system).

Autochchthonous: they probably mean endogenous processes that arise within the environment itself (psychology).

When soldiers march over a suspension bridge in step this causes oscillations to build and may perhaps give rise to wild resonance patterns that could destroy the bridge. This has happened! The most notable case was in France in 1850. The collapse killed 200 soldiers.

The salient characteristic of turbulent environments is relevant uncertainty (as it is in climate change). Salience here as a term (neuroscience) is that property by which some thing stands out.

Emery Trist Causal Texture-06c Emery Trist Causal Texture-07 Emery Trist Causal Texture-08A

I don’t find this case study as compelling as case study 1. However, it is the type of example we are familiar with today, as whole industries are changed by the advent of new situations, policies and technologies.

We are very familiar with this type of example in Australian agriculture. The long-term decline in importance of agriculture. The increase in farm size and the decrease in numbers of farmers. Politically, the National Party (country party) is no longer representing the interests of farmers. And, more recently, the massive restructuring of the dairy industry, with little effort by government to compensate or retrain is another example.

The current turmoil in energy supply in Australia, as a result of fossil fuel subsidies and previous governments’ political inaction over renewables, and the opportunities for changing technology not being acted upon have exacerbated similar complexity and relevant uncertainty. Although, had the process been managed better, the environmental turbulence and complexity would have remained the same. Hence: It is scarcely surprising that progress has been, and remains, both fitful and slow, and ridden with conflict. As, Emery states.

Fred Emery, Einar Thorsrud 3

Emery Trist Causal Texture-08b

Kurt Lewin’s 1936 book is mentioned for Lewin’s ‘power fields’, but Lewin was consistent in his writings. All of Lewin’s books are accessible and readable. My favourite is Resolving Social Conflicts 1948 (first British Edition 1973) focussing on group dynamics. Extended social fields are also a term and key concept put forward by Lewin.

I’m not exactly sure what the reference to Ashby is all about. However, what Fred and Eric are trying to say here is that the introduction of social values makes turbulent environments tameable. And, he seems to say that he is only talking about rational values in this context.

Up to this section of the paper, Emery and Trist are seemingly very careful to acknowledge their intellectual antecedents and to carefully argue their case for the existence of and relatively recent need to compensate for turbulence or turbulent environments.

However, here, apart from two relatively minor attributions, they provide no evidence whatsoever that values can simplify and make static turbulent richly-joined environments. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps, they felt that the concept of values was too large to introduce at this point in the paper and should only be summarised briefly. However, I do know that they did have compelling and incontrovertible evidence that values could perform this role. The evidence:

Fred Emery visited the Tavistock in London on a fellowship from 1951-1952. He was well aware of the work  by E L Trist E and K W Bamforth Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Long Wall Method of Coal-Getting, Human Relations, 4: 3-38, 1951. Fred also participated in follow-up work at the time. He was certainly impressed by the discovery of industrial democracy underground in the Elsecar Collieries, which had evolved as the result of community values above ground.

Sociotechnical systems coined by Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth and Fred Emery evolved from their work with workers in English coal mines at the Tavistock Institute. 

Fred Emery designed the Search Conference in 1959 for organisational change in turbulent environments. The Search combines normative planning (values) with strategic planning and active participation. He conducted first Search Conference at Barford in 1960, over 6 days, to help amalgamate two hostile aircraft-engine companies Bristol and Armstrong Siddeley, under intense pressure from their only customer the RAF. (According to Fred, Trist’s role was as an observer.  He was there to confirm Bion’s Basic Assumption Groups.)

Fred was also working with Einar Thorsrud in the early 1960s in the large Norwegian Industrial Democracy experiment. (Einar Thorsrud, Fred Emery and Eric Trist Industrielt demokrati : Representasjon på styreplan i bedriftene? Noen norske og utenlandske erfaringer 1964. In English,  FE Emery and E Thorsrud Form and content in industrial democracy 1969 Tavistock (CCE, ANU, 1975, M Nijhoff, 1976).

FE Emery and EL Trist Towards a Social Ecology: Contextual Appreciation of the Future in the Present, 1972, FE Emery Systems Thinking, 1969 (Vol 1, 1981) and Russell L Ackoff and Fred Emery On Purposeful Systems: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Individual and Social Behavior as a System of Purposeful Events 1972 were all conceived in this period and all promoted values as a way for humans to operate in turbulent environments.

Hence industrial democracy, sociotechnical systems, the Search Conference, systems thinking, values and values-based planning in response to turbulent environments are inextricably inter-linked in Fred’s most productive period of mixing action research and theory at the Tavistock Institute in the UK.

It is inexplicable that Emery and Trist have not made more of this or been clearer in this section of the paper on values.

Emery Trist Causal Texture-08c Emery Trist Causal Texture-09 Emery Trist Causal Texture-10A

I’m not sure if I am struggling here or it is Emery and Trist who are being tentative. Matrix organisations are not a term that seems to have lasted. They have nothing to do whatsoever, with matrix management or what are referred to as matrix organisations today.

The references to Selznick and McGregor are appropriate in the sense that Selznik is concerned with leadership that is broader and more expansive than conventional authoritarian management structures and what Mcgregor calls Theory Y. Both reference the crucial nature of values in leadership and management.

Philip Selznik Leadership in Administration 1957, as mentioned was enormously influential when published and is an enduring classic.

Douglas McGregor was an American management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and was and still is famous for propounding Theory X and Theory Y concerning motivation and management at work in 1960.

Theory Y: people are self-motivated and enjoy the challenge of work. Managers with this assumption have a more collaborative relationship with their people, and motivate them by allowing them to work on their own initiative, giving them responsibility, and empowering them to make decisions.

Theory X: managers tend to take a pessimistic view of their people, and assume that they are naturally unmotivated and dislike work. They tend to use an authoritarian style of management.

Fred develops these ideas much further in his practical workshops on participative design in the 1970s. He defines the psychological and social characteristics necessary of a happy and productive workplace, and pursues this quantitatively in his use of McQuitty causal path analysis (ideas to be developed further in a later article).

These last two sections on Values and Relevant Uncertainty and on Matrix Organisation and Institutional Success are both far too important to Fred Emery’s future theories and career to deserve the scant treatment they receive here.

I can only hazard a guess as to why it is so, either Emery hadn’t developed the ideas sufficiently to articulate them, or he and Trist agreed that there wasn’t sufficient room to expand them at this time. I think that the answer is a combination of them both. But, I am somewhat surprised that the clarity of ideas expressed earlier in the paper are missing in these two sections. (Perhaps, the example of the NFU mentioned in both sections was too fresh for proper in-depth reflection.)

[The Note on page 29 refers to CW Churchman and FE Emery 1964 and the reference to 1964 & 1965. In Systems Thinking Vol 1, 1981 the reference to the paper is dated 1966. I suspect that the last is probably the correct published date.]

Emery Trist Causal Texture-10b Emery Trist Causal Texture-11A

[The Summary here has an odd system of ordering (a), (b), (c), (d), (e) for the main points and 1-4 for the minor ones. Systems Thinking Vol 1, 1981 reorders the layout as 1-5 for the main points and a.,b.,c.,d. for the minor ones. However, in the latter in the second last line says ‘as low’ instead of ‘a slow’, which is confusing.]

 

Emery and Trist’s summary is quite straight forward and emphasises the key points. It is well-written and I think does an excellent job of summarising what is a dense and complex paper. I don’t want to comment on this, other than to point out that their emphasis in the summary is what they consider are the most important elements of the paper, which I found enlightening!

The last paragraph, main point (e) (or 5.) solves for me the slightly unsatisfactory nature of case study II and of the last two content sections.

According to the authors, Case history II is presented to illustrate problems of transition from Type 3 to Type 4 environment. This helps understand their purpose in presenting case II which to my mind got lost in the longer explanation. 

The next two sentences suddenly clarify my concerns with the last two content sections. They are both about values!

The confusing nature of the Matrix Organisation and Institutional Success is suddenly clearer if it is only about organisational values. The perspective of the four environmental types is used to clarify the role of [McGregor’s] Theory X and Theory Y as representing a trend in values. This means I think that Theory X no longer works in turbulent environments, whereas Theory Y works because its implementation is dependent upon a new set of human values.

The final sentence, while not found elsewhere in the paper outlines the future direction of Fred Emery’s career. The establishment of a new set of human values is a slow social process requiring something like a generation —unless new means can be developed. Fred Emery designed the new means in the Search Conference, in the implementation in the work place of industrial democracy, and in the participative design workshops (all Theory Y implementations). Fred also energetically espoused participative methods in general . He helped organisations and groups to implement them. And, he promoted and diffused the concepts and techniques for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, he could not predict the way the world would go. Organisationally, the hope of the 1960s and 1970s turned into the greed of the 1980s, the Gordon Gecko era and beyond. The unprecedented expansion of income inequality from the 1980s to the present is part of this trend. Perhaps, inculcating a new set of human values takes longer than a generation, and is as difficult a process as changing a culture.

It is easy to be pessimistic, but there are also signs of hope.

Kurt Lewin 4

Emery Trist Causal Texture-11b

Emery Trist Causal Texture-12

Final Comment

It is amazing to think that this paper was published 57 years ago, yet the ideas contained are as fresh today as they were then. The ideas were also ‘standing on the shoulders of giants‘ and I’m pleased that in a small way I’ve revealed them once more to to a new audience who will perhaps renew interest in Fred’s ideas. 

The Causal Texture paper also contains elements of everything Fred Emery continued to work on for the rest of his life. I’ve given some references below in Further Information where some of Fred’s work and that of those who influenced him can be found quite easily. Fred’s time at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations was extremely stimulating, but it was not all plain sailing. Towards the end the Tavistock Institute had to move towards self-funding and the consultancy arm was beginning to take over. Fred was heavily involved in leading a ‘palace revolt’ to reassert the ascendency of the research arm. Although this was successful, it most likely only stemmed the tide of change briefly.

Fred Emery was a genius, an amazing thinker and researcher in the interdependent fields of social psychology, group theory, sociotechnical systems, systems thinking, industrial democracy, participative methods of developing strategy and participative design, especially in the workplace.

His work whilst internationally renowned was less well-known or regarded by academia in Australia. Whereas, Fred’s immense energies in practical engagement, kindness and consideration and action research made him popular in multifarious locations around Australia from the largest corporations to the smallest community organisations.

Nevertheless, Fred wasn’t always easy to get on with and wasn’t someone you wanted to cross, which worked to his detriment in later life.

Key Words: Frederick Edmund Emery, Fred Emery, Eric Trist, causal texture, Search Conference, ‘Search-based’ focus groups, methodology, Einar Thorsrud, Ken Bamforth, Elsecar Collieries, longwall coal mining, sociotechnical systems, Russell Ackoff, Merrelyn Emery, Tavistock Institute, Centre for Continuing Education, CCE, Australian National University, Internal environment, Claude Bernard, gestalt psychology, Max Wertheimer, Fritz Heider, open system model, Herbert Spencer Jennings, Walter Bradford Cannon, homeostasis, Lawrence J Henderson, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, second law of thermodynamics, entropy, negentropy, equifinality, closed system, Edward C Tolman, Egon Brunswick, Stephen C Pepper, Roger Garlock Barker, Herbert F Wright, Kurt Lewin, environmental turbulence, relevant uncertainty, organisational environment, placid randomized environment, placid clustered environment, disturbed-reactive environment, turbulent environment, Herbert Alexander Simon, W Ross Ashby, Marcel Paul Schutzenberger, Philip Selznik, oligopoly, imbrication, Isidor Chein, Geoffrey Heyworth, salient characteristic, complexity, extended social fields, Towards a Social Ecology, Systems Thinking, On Purposeful Systems, Douglas McGregor, Theory Y, the Vortex, Type 5 environments, Oguz Baburoglu

Further Information

The Authors

Fredrick Edmund Emery (1925-1997)

Eric Lansdown Trist (1909 – 1993) was one of the founders of The Tavistock Institute for Social Research after the war and a leading figure in organisational development. A more complete autobiography comes from Guilty of Enthusiasm 1993 (note: Click on Biography of Eric L. Trist). 

Publications Access

If you are fortunate enough to live in Canberra or Australia, all of the Emery related books (and many others above) are available in the National Library of Australia (NLA). Also in the NLA manuscript area are the papers of Fred & Merrelyn Emery, biographical cuttings, Papers of Richard Trehair relating to Fred Emery, and most of Fred’s books, including obscure ones and the Tavistock Anthology. The manuscripts are not available to borrow or online (except the contents of the boxes).

Systems Thinking

Surprisingly, many of the books referred to above are still available. However, some of the papers were slightly obscure, even in Fred’s lifetime.

To make them more accessible in order to promote the ideas and make his sources more available, Fred published: FE Emery, Ed. Systems Thinking Penguin 1969 (reprinted 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1976). He then published a new revised edition entitled: Systems Thinking Vol 1 and Vol 2 in 1981.

Volume 1 was primarily a republication of the 1969 book and mainly contains mainly theoretical considerations of open-systems thinking. These include a paper by Emery and Trist on sociotechnical systems and a chapter by Ackoff and Emery from On Purposeful Systems. There is also a paper by Emery on McQuitty causal path analysis (a means of statistical analysis) that I am also very interested in.

The Second Volume contains theoretical readings that reflect changes in some aspects of systems thinking in the intervening years. Although not all of the papers are newer than 1969 and also perhaps some slightly more practical applications.

David Ing has kindly provided a Table of Contents online for both volumes.

Systems Thinking 1981 should be readily available in university libraries and occasionally on the secondhand market.

Tavistock Anthology

This was published by the University of Pennsylvania, where I bought my copies (and stupidly moved them on some years ago). The anthology covers the entire Tavistock period and includes papers very difficult to obtain elsewhere. This project was initiated by Eric Trist, but Fred needed to take over Volume 3 because Eric died. The volumes are probably available through large university libraries.

The Social engagement of social science : a Tavistock anthology/ edited by Eric Trist and Hugh Murray ; assistant editor, Beulah Trist, c 1990-1997:

  • Volume 1 Edited by Eric Trist and Hugh Murray The socio-psychological perspective
  • Volume 2 Edited by Eric Trist and Hugh MurrayThe socio-technical perspective
  • Volume 3 Edited by Eric Trist, Fred Emery and Hugh Murray The socio-ecological perspective

For references to the coal mining studies see the end of Further Information in the Search Conference.

Obituary on Fred Emery

Obituary on Fred Emery by Alistair Crombie 1997

Type 5 environment, The Vortex

The Type 5 environment, The Vortex was proposed by Fred Emery in Futures We Are In, Leiden 1977 . Emery, according to McCann and Selsky, calls a ‘vortical environment’ — an environment shaped by forces totally beyond management.

JE McCann and J Selsjky wrote a paper in 1984 entitled Hyperturbulence and the Emergence of Type 5 Environments Management Academy Review, 9:460-470 referring to this. An interesting paper on how communities may react to hyperturbulence. They use a term they call social triage and how, of course, collaborations arise locally and that there will be winners and losers. According to Babüroğlu below, their ‘hyperturbulence’ is a midrange condition between the turbulent field and the vortical environment.

At CCE, ANU I met a young Turkish man Oğuz Nuri Babüroğlu in the early 1980s. We communicated informally over coffee and perhaps lunch on several occasions. He was there to meet with Fred Emery and to examine the idea of Type 5 Vortex environments. At the time he was very concerned by the nature of stalemate politically and administratively in his native country Turkey. He was very interested in Type 5 environments, the Vortex at the time. His PhD dissertation at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania was on stalemated systems with a case study of Turkey. In the last three years he has collaborated with John Selsky on a number of publications from 2007 to the present and also published with Merrelyn Emery in 2000.

Oguz published a major paper in 1998 on the Vortex: Oğuz Nuri Babüroğlu The Vortical Environment: The Fifth in the Emery-Trist Levels of Organizational Environments Human Relations 41: 181-210, 1988. He traces the vortex back to Emery and Trist Towards a Social Ecology 1973.

Oguz’s paper is a more difficult paper than Emery and Trist 1965. He brings together quite difficult concepts related to further work by Emery and Trist, including the topic of maladaptation, which is necessary to arrive at his three dangerous maladaptive responses or ‘frozen states’: 1 Monothematic Dogmatism, 2 Polarization and 3 Stalemate. Oguz provides a very cogent discussion of adaptive and maladaptive responses to turbulent environments (both active and passive). I remember Merrelyn Emery describing the extreme reaction to the death of Princess Diana as an example of a passive maladaptive response. Oguz provides several good international examples of stalemated systems. His analysis of maladaptive responses and the characteristics of the descent into the vortex environment are compelling.

I am attaching a PDF of Oguz Baburoglu Type 5 Vortex paper 1988 for those who are interested. 

Why is this important? Oguz paper was written in 1988. Since then a whole series of concerning maladaptive events have occurred with potential global impacts, particularly post-millennium: after September 2001 and the over-the-top reaction of the USA, the rise of China, Putin, Trump, the rise of strong men globally, the GFC, the current Covid pandemic, NATO and Putin’s war, the transfer of global power from the USA to China, not to mention technology and the other issues, including climate change outlined in Global Threats the Last Five years 2021. Almost everywhere we are experiencing extreme maladaptive responses. The vortex is locally abundant, and globally we are facing the existential threat of global warming, which is exacerbating everything that is already happening.

We probably need to understand what Type 5 environments really mean and how to learn cope with them, in a hurry. We may well need to decide how to cope locally, rather than to expect a coordinated or even rational global response.

This theory of environmental types is now important to the continuance of civilisation in our current century.

posted in Canberra

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