From Mechanistic to Systemic Thinking

November 1993

Ackoff states that humanity is in the early stage of a transition from the Machine Age to the Systems Age. The Machine Age was characterized by belief in complete understandability of the universe, analysis as a method of inquiry, and cause and effect as a sufficient relationship to explain all. The dilemma that disrupted such beliefs was systems thinking. The Machine Age began to die when humanity gave up the principle of understandability. Gradually, it’s become accepted that there can be no complete understanding of the universe because nothing can be understood independently of its environment—all is environmentally relative. While analysis produces knowledge, it is synthesis that produces understanding. Furthermore, the Systems Age recognizes that cause and effect is just one way of looking at reality among an infinite number.

Presented at the Systems Thinking in Action conference.



Why, all of a sudden, is everybody interested in systems? Why, all of a sudden, has quality become a big thing? Why, all of a sudden, organizational learning or process reengineering? Why? I mean, these things (if you stop and reflect on them) have been around for a long time. There have always been consumers with expectations. Why didn’t we worry about quality before? There have always been systems. Why?


Well, all of our explanations rest on certain assumptions that we make, because explanations are simply deductions from theories—or sets of assumptions. And every theory rests on a more general theory. And the most general theory of all that each of us has is a theory of reality: a concept of the nature of the world, which is referred to as our worldview—or, as the Germans refer to it with a beautiful word: Weltanschauung. Our concept of the nature of reality.


Now, there are very few people who are conscious of that set of assumptions about reality. There’s no need to be. But you all have it. You absorb it by osmosis and the process of acculturation and growing up. And the reason that we share a culture is that we share a worldview. The worldview is the cement that holds a culture together. It characterizes what the historian calls an age. An age is simply a period of time in which a culture has a single, shared view of the nature of reality. And therefore, a change of age is a period in which the worldview is going through a transformation from one view to another. Now, the reason for all that is that the thesis of the argument I want to present to you is that we’re in the early stages of a change of age. We’re about to consummate—not immediately, but in time—a transformation from one worldview into another. Now, in order to present that argument and defend it I want to go back a little way and talk about the preceding one.


The preceding worldview—which has a long way to go before it’s completely dead, because worldviews don’t die, they fade away—began with the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a period of transformation between two ages: the Middle Age and the Modern Era. But the significance of the Renaissance is frequently lost. We all know that it represented major changes, but not what the nature of the changes were.


The fundamental nature of the change in the Renaissance derived from several facts. The first fact was: expected life was 27 years before the Renaissance. 40% of children born did not survive infancy. 95% of the people never traveled more than four miles from their place of birth during their entire life. And they lived in abject poverty. Now, if you begin to amplify those statistics and develop an image of what life was like in the Middle Ages, it was pretty damn miserable for most people.


And so the fundamental question which was asked is: what’s the purpose of life? They couldn’t understand why we were given life if it’s so punishing. Now, the only institution that mattered during the day—the Catholic Church, which was the only international institution at the time—provided an answer. It said life is preparatory for death. You see, if you live life correctly, you’ve got an infinite sojourn in paradise or heaven, so why the hell worry about 27 years? The only thing to worry about is living it in such a way that you make the right turn afterwards. And so that was the generalized belief. And as a result, the Middle Ages focused on spiritual life and afterlife, not this life. And that’s easy to see by looking at the art and the literature of the time. You don’t see any realism to speak of. You see Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Regained, Paradise Lost, pictures of gods and angels floating around. But no realistic scenes of everyday life, because the preoccupation was with afterlife.


Two things happened that began the conversion. The first was Peter the Hermit’s Crusade, which, for the first time, led hordes of men (estimated around 40,000) across the face of Europe—who, for the first time, came in contact with cultures other than the one in which they had been born. And they observed differences and became curious about those differences, and began to ask questions. Why do these people have a different set of values than we do? Why do they have different habits than we do, different trades than we do? And that led to the movement called the New Humanism. And the new interest in the nature of man led to a new interest in the environment of man. Now, that was accompanied by the opening of trade out of the city states of Italy, or, similarly, merchants began to visit other cultures as far as east and west as India and China, and saw cultures, again, completely different than ours and emphasized the question of what’s responsible for those differences, and became curious about man.


In one obscure encyclical during the Middle Ages, curiosity was actually declared as a sin. But despite that, like birth control today, people ignore it. And so they began to inquire into the nature of man and his environment. And that led to the movement called the Renaissance. And Renaissance, as you know, is a French word which means what? Rebirth. It was the re-entry of man into this world. Now, when we made that reentry, we developed a completely new view of the world which was based on three fundamental beliefs and the doctrines which were derived from them.


The first fundamental belief was that complete understanding of the universe was possible. It was a reversal of the assertion that man couldn’t understand anything. He simply had to accept reality as an act of faith, that God knew what he was doing, and you just believe it. But now, if you look at the work of René Descartes—probably the first great modern philosopher—what he was all about was to declare the ability of the human mind to understand the nature of reality and to understand it completely. That view of the complete understandability of the universe—in principle, if not in practice—was reflected in a conference held in Europe in the middle nineteenth century when, you may recall, it was the habit of such conferences to issue proclamations at the end. And the proclamation would be an attempt to state what was generally believed by the people who attended the conference. And in 1850, this conference in Europe of the leading scientists of the world said that it was their collective belief that, by 1900, our understanding of the universe would be complete. Now, that’s hard to believe today, but they really believed it, which shows that scientists can’t forecast one damn bit better than economists can. They completely missed everything that was to come later. But they believed it.


That belief, you shall see, is very important for other things that followed. That was the first leg of what I will call the Machine Age for reasons that I’ll explain in a moment. The second leg derived out of the method of thought. This period developed a concept of what thought was that derived from observing children. If you look at a child whose given an object they’ve never seen before—not an infant, but a child; it could be a radio, a clock, a toy, whatever it is—and just leave it with them. And they want to find out what it is. What’s the first thing they’ll do? Take it apart, of course. So the first step is: take it apart. Second step is: try to understand what the parts do. Now try to assemble the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole. Three-step process. That is analysis. Analysis is a process by which you take something you want to understand apart, try to understand the behavior of each part taken separately, and then assemble the understanding of the parts, aggregate it into an understanding of the whole.


Now that became the dominant method of thought in the Western world. So much so that, even today—if I say those two face the same problem. She thought about it and he analyzed it. And I ask you: what’s the difference? You’d have a lot of trouble telling me. Because analysis became a synonym of thought. Now, because it did, it led to one very important consequence. Suppose I want to understand an automobile, which I’ve never seen before. Well, analysis says take it apart. So I take it apart and now I’ve got a carburetor. What analysis says is that I can understand the automobile if I understand the carburetor. Now the question is: how do I understand the carburetor. Take it apart. So now I take it apart and I’ve got a valve. Well, how do I understand the valve? First fundamental question: is there any end to the process of taking things apart?


If you believe in the complete understandability of the universe, what must the answer be? There had to be an end. Otherwise, you’d never have complete understanding. And therefore, the first fundamental doctrine was that everything and every experience is reducible to indivisible parts, elements. And that’s manifested through every branch of human knowledge. In physics the decision was that every physical object is ultimately reducible to indivisible particles of matter called the what? The atom. The atomic theory is a reductionist theory of nature. Most of you had a course in chemistry somewhere in high school. Do you remember the first day? I can guarantee you you got a sheet of paper with a table on it. What was it a table of? Chemical elements. The element forms of matter. In biology you learn that every living thing reduces to a single element of life called the cell. And so on, through every science, until you reach something like linguistics, one of the most modern sciences. What does linguistics tell you? All language reduces to elements of sound called phonemes. Science was a crusade in search of the element because we believe that understanding of the universe would only be possible if we have understanding of the elements of which it was composed, and therefore we first had to identify them and understand them.


The third element of Machine Age thinking resulted after we understood the elements. See, if we now have taken the table apart into the atoms that compose it, we understand the behavior of the atoms. In order to understand the behavior of the table you’ve got to put the behavior of the atoms together. That means knowing how they’re related. Now, it’s not surprising that, in an era that believed that everything was reducible to indivisible parts, that we believe that all relationships between things were reducible to one single simple relationship. That’s all that was necessary. And that relationship was cause and effect. We could explain everything in the universe just using that one relationship.


Cause and effect is such a familiar concept to us today that we don’t know what it means anymore. So let’s just reflect on what it meant when it first emerged. It meant two things. It said the cause of an effect is something which is necessary for the effect. The effect won’t occur unless the cause does. And cause is sufficient for the effect. That is, if the cause occurs, then the effect must follow. So if I do this, you just saw light come on and a sound, and I ask you, “What’s the cause?” you say it was my striking this with the coin. If I had not struck it, the light would not have come on. And if I did strike it, it would come on because I hit the switch, and therefore my striking is the cause of that effect.


Our commitment to cause-and-effect thinking led to three very fundamental doctrines which permeated our thought for almost 400 years. First one was this: if I want to explain a phenomenon, all I have to do is find its cause. So I find its cause and now I’ve got a complete explanation of the phenomenon because the cause is sufficient for the effect, right? But I’ve got an unexplained cause. So how do I explain the cause? Well, I treat it as an effect, right? Find its cause. But now I’ve still got an unexplained cause. Question: is there any end to the causal regression? If you believe the universe can be completely understood, what must the answer be? There had to be a first cause. You have just now heard the cosmological proof for the existence of God. Because that’s exactly what it was: the official doctrine as to why God existed. It was derived from our commitment to causality. And so God was seen as the creator—the first cause—and, therefore, the only thing in the universe which could not be explained, because he was not caused. God alone had to be excepted as an act of faith so that everything else could be accepted on rational grounds once we understood what the causes were.


The second consequence of cause-and-effect thinking, in a sense, was even more profound. It enabled us to develop a theory of explanation that excluded the environment. We didn’t need the environment to explain anything. Now that’s a really shocking one in light of today’s thought. But reflect for a moment. Here’s two evidences of this. First one: I used to ask my students, “What’s the most familiar law of physics?” And since they weren’t physicists they never knew the name of it, but they would usually say it’s that experiment that Galileo ran with the balls running down the hill, you know? And they say that’s the law of freely falling bodies. And some of them even knew that it was S = ½gt². I said the important thing about that law is its name. What’s the word “freely” doing in there? Well, what is it doing in there? What does “freely” refer to? It’s a law of a body falling in a what? In a vacuum. What’s a vacuum? It’s the absence of an environment. All the fundamental laws of physics tell us what will happen when there is no environment, not when there is one. Their universality doesn’t derive from the fact that they apply in every environment but from the fact they don’t apply in any! All other environments are simply approximations of various degrees to the non-environment.


But that’s not the main demonstration. What do you call a place where a scientist does his research? A laboratory. What’s a laboratory? It’s a place deliberately constructed to exclude the environment, right? You want to study the effect of x on y without the intervention of the environment, you build a laboratory. Because we believe that the understanding of the universe would derive from the understanding of dyadic relationships; x and y without the intervention of the environment. So we had an environment-free theory of explanation.


The third component that came out of cause-and-effect was this: does anything ever happen by chance, spontaneously? There certainly appear to be uncaused events. Well, if you believe the universe can be completely understood, what must the answer be? No, it can’t be. That’s just another way of talking about ignorance. Chance is simply a misstatement of ignorance. If you knew enough, you would know what the cause is. And therefore, everything which occurs is the effect of a cause. That doctrine was called determinism. Everything is caused.


If you take those three doctrines together—understandability, analysis as a method of inquiry, cause and effect as a sufficient relationship to explain everything—and put them together, what do you get? You get Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton was the first one to synthesize all those thoughts into a single image. And so it’s not surprising that Newton said the universe is a machine. He did not say it is like a machine, he said it is a machine. Furthermore, he said exactly what kind of a machine it was. He said it’s a hermetically sealed clock. Not like a hermetically sealed clock, it is a hermetically sealed clock. And it is. Think about it.


A clock is a mechanism that operates with a regularity dictated by its internal structure and the causal laws of nature. Newton, of course, thought he had formulated those laws in his laws of motion. How do we tell time ultimately? How does the Naval Observatory tell time? By the movement of planets. The universe is a clock. It’s hermetically sealed. It’s a closed system. It has no environment. The universe is self-contained, has no environment. And so he saw the universe as a machine.


Now, the interesting thing about this giant of science was that he was a very religious man. Very religious. And if you look at the Principia, his major work was dedicated to the glory of God. Because he thought that science demonstrated the wonder of God. And so he made an assertion that was believed and preached from every pulpit of every religion in the Western world regardless of sectarian differences. The universe is a machine created by God to do God’s work. We are here to serve his will. Now, whatever the concept of God was, [???] universe [???] people believed that. The universe, a machine to do God’s work.


Combine that with another belief that’s much older than Newton that goes back to Genesis. In the Bible it says that man—meaning “people,” but they were a little prejudiced at that time—man was created in the image of God, which means that we are more like God than anything else on Earth. That’s not surprising because we wrote it. But now put those two thoughts together. You’ve got the premises of a very interesting syllogism. One: the universe is a machine created by God to do God’s work, and man is created in the image of God, then what should man be doing? Creating machines to do His work. And that was the origin of the Industrial Revolution. It was a direct consequence of our view of the world. It was man’s effort to imitate God as he understood him. Now, if there were time, we could go into details of the Industrial Revolution, but let me just do enough to show you that every characteristic of the Industrial Revolution derived out of our view of the world.


The Industrial Revolution was about the mechanization of work. There are two fundamental concepts: work and machine. Now work—according to the Reformation, which came on the heels of the Renaissance—was real; very real. That’s what Luther and the others showed. And everything that’s real reduces to atoms. And atoms only have two properties: mass and energy. And therefore, it’s not surprising that work was defined as the application of energy to matter in order to transform the matter. So if I move a chair, I change the location of the chair. And that’s work because I applied energy to changing a property of the chair. If I burn coal and create heat, that’s work because I applied energy to the coal to transform it. So work was seen as the application of energy to matter so as to change its properties.


Now, what’s a machine? A machine is any object which can be used to apply energy to matter. Now let’s see how good your memory is. You all learned somewhere in school that there are three elementary machines from which all other machines are derived. Reductionism again. What are the three machines? Lever arm (or pulley), wheel and axle… what else? Inclined plane. There they are. So you take the screwdriver. What’s the screwdriver? Well, you’ve got a wedge at the end which is what? It’s the inclined plane. You’ve got the handle, which is the wheel and axle. And if you take the length you’ve got the lever. You’ve got all three combined to create a screwdriver.


The problem was to deal with work so we could mechanize it; apply machines to it. So here’s a job to be done. How do we do it? Well, first thing you’ve got to do to anything is analyze it. So we took it apart. You took the task apart. How far apart do you take it. Well, if you read Frederick Taylor, he’ll tell you. He says reduce work to its elements. Work element. How’s a work element defined? It’s a task so simple that no two people can do it at the same time. It can only be done by one person at a time. I can remember my father trying to tighten the same screw as I was working on. Didn’t work! Tightening the screw is a work element. You know, moving a 500-pound table isn’t. But lifting this watch is a work element because it only takes one person to do it, and two would only obstruct it.


Alright. What we try to do then is, by analysis of work—and it’s called work analysis by Taylor—we reduce work to elementary tasks. Now, the next job was to mechanize those tasks. Well, you can see why we reduced it to elements, because the simpler the task was the easier it was to mechanize. And in many cases we could elementary machines to do it. However, for one of two reasons we couldn’t mechanize all of them. Either we didn’t have the technology for some of these tasks, or it was cheaper to use human labor than machines. So what we did is we assigned these tasks to people, we mechanized the others. And now, following the analytical procedure, we aggregated all of them. And so what we had was a sequence, or a network, of elementary tasks performed by men and machines to produce a product. And what do you call that network today? It’s the modern factory. The production line and assembly line is simply the result of the analysis of work and its mechanization. Direct consequence.


That has two very important implications for what we’re about. The first one is this: if there turns out to be another way of thinking other than analysis, then there must be another way of organizing and designing work. And by god there is, and it doesn’t look anything at all like Ford’s assembly line or production line. They already exist. And when they were looked at for the first time by the deans of American production, they denied its validity. Of course they did. They couldn’t understand it. We’ll come back and we’ll look at that in a moment.


The second thing it did was not intended by any means, but nevertheless occurred. In the process of mechanizing the work, we reduce work to elements that are simple enough to mechanize. Those that we couldn’t mechanize we gave to people. And therefore, we made people behave as though they were machines. We dehumanized work, which ultimately led to its alienation—the alienation from work which has been a major phenomenon of the twentieth. According to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, it’s the most serious problem confronting this country. Because despite all the productivity figures you see, when you separate the productivity of capital from the productivity of labor, the productivity of labor’s been going down.


Well, the Industrial Revolution was the technological manifestation of Machine-Age thinking. Now, what happened? Well, what happens at any age is the appearance of certain problems that challenge the validity of the worldview. Those problems are called dilemmas. A dilemma is a problem which cannot be solved within the prevailing view of the world. Well, hundreds of them appear over time, and you have to develop a critical mass before anything really occurs. Now, I’m not going to go through hundreds of them, but let me just give you a sample of some of the more important ones.


The first critical one that arose was this. The Machine-Age view of the world says that everything which occurs is the effect of a cause. And that means there’s no free will, no choice. Everything you do is determined by something that preceded. Now, we don’t believe that. Obviously we don’t. We believe we make choices, that we have freedom. But that’s incompatible with the view of the world. That a dilemma. That was a central problem of Western philosophy for 300 years, and we only began to approximate some kind of agreement or consensus at the turn of this century when, largely through the influence of the logical positivists—which became a dominant mode of philosophy at the time—we came to a conclusion that free will was an illusion granted by a merciful God who realized how dull our life would be if we didn’t have it. One philosopher who had two very unique gifts—brevity and clarity—said it in two sentences. He said, “Man is like a fly riding on the trunk of an elephant who thinks he’s steering it. The elephant doesn’t mind and it makes the ride more interesting.” Now, despite all that, we continue to believe we have freedom of will, and therefore the dilemma persisted.


The second one I want to mention really rocked the Machine Age and produced the first chink in its armor. In 1923, a young physicist in Germany by the name of Heisenberg came out with an incredible finding. Remember, the atom has only two properties: mass and energy. Now, if you want to determine those two properties for a given atom in a given moment in time, it turns out you can’t do it. Because what Heisenberg showed is, the more accurately you can determine its mass, the less accurately you can determine its energy, or vice versa. And so the limit is you can only know one of its properties perfectly when you know the others completely imperfectly. Now which belief did that challenge? The understandability of the universe. It said the universe cannot be completely understood.


John Dewey, America’s leading philosopher of the day, immediately responded with this classical book called The Quest for Certainty. He said, “Understandability of the universe is an unattainable end, but an ideal that we can continuously approach but never attain.” It is unattainable in principle. Like zero error in science. You can continuously reduce the error of any observation, but you can never reduce it to zero. You can only make it smaller. And so gradually, in the 1920s and 30s, we began to think of understandability as an ideal, not as something that was attainable.


The dilemma that actually broke the back of Machine-Age thinking is an interesting one. Its origins go back into the 30s but it only reached consciousness in the 50s. But there was a great deal of apprehension and anxiety and awareness that something was about to happen. In 1946 I returned from four years in the military and went back to the university to complete my graduate work. And shortly thereafter, in 1947, a book appeared that really shocked everybody, at least in the academic circles I was in. Because we knew that something was up but we didn’t know what it was. Something fundamental was being challenged. The book was Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics. Something was really up, but we couldn’t tell what it was. And the first insight to what it was, I think, occurred in 1954 when von Bertalanffy’s book appeared. Now, the content of von Bertalanffy’s book was not particularly important, but the concept around which it was built was. And that, of course, was systems. Because the book was called “General System Theory.” Now, why? That’s the critical question. Why did, all of a sudden, did systems break the back of Machine-Age thinking? Well, let’s take a look.


We’ve got a system. I don’t care whether it’s a hospital, a school, a conference, a corporation. We want to understand it. Right? We have to analyze the system in order to understand it. Now, before we can understand the consequences of analyzing a system we have to understand what a system is. So let’s look at that first. A system is a whole which consists of a set of two or more parts. So it’s not an atom, it’s not an irreducible thing, it’s not an element. It can be divided into parts. Three requirements are imposed on parts. Each part can affect the behavior of the whole. So you are a biological system; an organism. Your heart can affect your behavior, your lungs, your stomach, your pancreas, your liver. You name the part, it can affect you. Unfortunately, I said that to a group of doctors a while ago, and one of them immediately arose and said, “It’s not true.” He said there’s at least one part of the body that’s not known to have any effect on it at all. And I pretended surprise and said, “What is it?” And he yelled out, “The appendix.” I said, “What does the word ‘appendix’ mean?” Well, what does it mean? It’s added on or attached to, but it’s not a part of. You see, if the medical sciences ever find a use for the appendix they have to change its name, because as soon as it has a function it’s a part, it’s no longer an appendage.


Okay. So the first requirement is: every part of a system is capable of affecting its behavior. Second: the way each part affects the behavior of the system depends on what at least one other part is doing. Now, there’s several different ways of saying that. It says no part has an independent effect on the system. It depends on other parts. Or, if you’re a logician, you would say it simply is the parts constitute a connected set. They all interact. No part is isolated. So it says the way a heart affects your behavior depends on what the brain and the lungs are doing. You all know that. What the lungs are doing depends on what some of your nerves are doing in the brain and so on. The parts are all interconnected is all the second part says.


Now, the third part says if you take the parts of the system and line them up in any order at all—doesn’t matter how you do it—and then divide it up into groups, subsets, the subsets, no matter how you create them, will have the same properties as the parts. That is every subset of parts can affect the behavior of the whole, and no subset of the parts has an independent effect on the whole.


So we take the human body and break it up into a motor system, the nervous system, the metabolic system, and so on. These subsystems interact, and each one can affect your behavior. Now if you take those three properties, put them together, we get a poetic definition of a system. It’s a whole which cannot be divided into independent parts. Now that certainly doesn’t sound radical and revolutionary, does it? It sounds almost trivial. Until you reflect. Because the system, following from its definition, has certain very critical characteristics.


First one: the essential properties of any system, the properties that define this system, are properties of a whole which none of its parts have. Now, that’s not obvious. But it is on reflection. Take an automobile—a mechanical system you’re all familiar with. What’s its essential property? It can take you from one place to another, right? What part of an automobile can carry you from one place to another? A wheel? A seat? The axle? Of course, nothing. Not even the motor. The motor can’t even carry itself from one place to another. The automobile can, though. You walked into this room earlier, I looked at you and decided you were human beings—perhaps in error, but nevertheless I did—because I saw you do characteristically human things. Like, you’re writing. You can write. Your hand can’t write. Cut it off and put it on a table and watch what it does. Nothing! Your eye doesn’t see, you see. Your brain doesn’t think, you think. Those are instruments which you use in the process, but they are properties of you as a whole. And therefore, when I take a system apart it loses its essential properties. If I bring an automobile into this room and disassemble it, although I have every single part in this room I don’t have an automobile. Because the automobile is not the sum of its parts, it is the product of their interactions. Therefore, when I take a system apart, the whole loses its essential properties and, furthermore, so do its parts.


What does the engine of an automobile do? It moves the car, right? If you take the engine out of the car, it can’t move. But if I take the engine out of the car, it can’t do anything. It just sits there. It’s lost its capacity to move when it’s separated from the system of which it’s a part. The steering wheel determines the direction of the automobile, right? Take it off the steering column, put it on a table, what does it steer? Nothing. The hand separated from the arm just sits there. And so, when a system is taken apart, the system loses its essential properties and so do the parts. Now comes the system’s dilemma that broke the back of the Machine Age.


Where’s that system we had up here a minute ago? Here it is. We want to understand it. Analysis says: what’s the first thing we do? Take it apart. What happens when you take a system apart? It loses all of its essential properties. Analysis, in the second step, says: try to understand what each part does taken separately. What happens when you take the parts of a system separately? They lose their essential properties. And so the great discovery in the 50s was that you cannot understand the nature of a system by analysis. And that’s a fundamental revolution. Another method of thinking was required. And it was developed in the 50s. Not surprisingly, it became to be called synthesis. And it’s exactly the opposite of analysis.


In analysis, if this is a system we want to understand, the first step is take it apart. In the first step of synthesis we do exactly the opposite. Consider a university, for example. If you’re an analyst and you want to explain the university, you first say it consists of colleges, and colleges consist of departments, and departments consist of students, faculty, and subject. You know? You drive it all the way down to the element. And then you try to build it up again into an understanding of the university. If you’re approaching the university synthetically, the first step is the opposite of taking it apart. And that’s seeing the university as a part of a larger system: the educational system. It’s exactly the opposite.


In the second step of analysis, you try to understand each part taken separately. In the second step of synthesis, you try to understand the containing system, the larger system. Not the parts. In the third step of analysis, you try to aggregate the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole. In the third step of synthesis, you disaggregate the understanding of the whole into an understanding of the part by identifying its role or function in the system of which it’s a part.


Now, what analysis reveals about a system is how it works. If you want to know how an automobile works, you have to analyze it, take it apart, and see what each of the parts do. And if you want to repair it, you’ve got to analyze it to find out what part isn’t working. So the product of analysis of a system is know-how. Now, psychologists don’t like common language, so that became “knowledge.” But that’s not understanding. Knowledge is what’s contained in instructions, not in explanations. Understanding is what is contained in explanations. And what synthetic thinking does is tell you the role or function of the system in the larger system of which it’s a part, and that explains it and yields understanding. Analysis reveals structure: how it works. Synthesis reveals understanding: why it works the way it does.


For example: you all know the British drive on the wrong side of the street. Why? I’ll give you all the English automobiles you want and all the American automobiles you want. You can take them apart from now to doomsday and never get the explanation. Because the explanation doesn’t lie inside the vehicles. It lies outside them in their role or function which they perform. Now, I don’t know the truth, but there is a book that appeared recently explaining this. It said the knight in shining armor, riding on a horse down a road in England, was normally right-handed and wielded his sword with his right hand. What he was concerned about was an attack via highwaymen coming in the opposite direction towards him and he wanted to be in a position to defending himself. So he rode on the left so that his sword-wielding arm would face the oncoming person. And when the British developed their automobiles they simply followed the knight. Well, we didn’t have knights in shining armor when we designed the automobile. What we designed it for was a lot of right-handed people who preferred to shift gears with the right hand, not the left hand. So we moved them over to the other side. See, the explanation doesn’t lie inside, it lies outside, in the role or function.


The automobile was originally developed for six passengers. Why? You can take them apart from now until doomsday and you won’t tell. No amount of analysis will tell you: why leave it at six passengers? Why not seven, fifteen, nineteen, three? The answer lies in the fact that it was designed for the average American family, which happened to be 5.6 at the time. The reason it’s getting smaller is it’s now 3.2, so the car’s contracted. The explanations always lie outside. So: the Machine Age began to die when we gave up the principle of understandability and we substituted synthetic thinking for analytic thinking when we try to understand, not when we try to know. Systems thinking is the fusion of analysis and synthesis, depending whether our objective is knowledge or understanding. Now let’s look at the other consequences.


This says that if I want to understand the university, I’ve got to first understand the educational system of which it’s a part. So here’s the university, here is the educational system. Now, how do I understand the educational system? What’s the answer to that? Got to take the larger system that contains it, don’t I? Society. Now I’ve got to understand society. How do I understand that? Here we are in the same question we have with reductionism in reverse. See? Everything I try to explain depends on a larger system. Is there any end? Is there one system that contains everything? Now, be careful! This is your midterm exam. Is there one system that contains everything? How many of you there is? Well, you’ve got at least one, two brave people. How many think there isn’t? A few. Most of you are not thinking. The answer is: you’re both wrong. And it’s important to understand why.


Look, you’ve given up the notion that the universe can be understood. Now, given that the universe cannot be understood, if there were one whole that contained everything, you could never know it. Because if you did, you would understand the universe. And if there isn’t, how do you ever prove that there isn’t? Now, the fact is that this, then, scientifically, becomes a meaningless question. Scientifically, but not psychologically. So you don’t have to be ashamed of having raised your hand. Because people feel very uncomfortable. When Eddington wrote the book that proclaimed the so-called expanding universe, there were almost riots in England at its reception because people believed firmly one way or the other.


It’s interesting that, in the 1960s, when these ideas began to emerge, a very interesting phenomenon occurred. And let me get to it by reviewing an incident that occurred to me a while back. In 1968 we were having a sit-in at the University of Pennsylvania. There was no use hanging around doing nothing, so I went to visit Berkeley. My colleague, Churchman, was there, and so I went out to see him, and I arrived on the morning that their sit-in broke out. So we spent all the time sitting in the faculty club chewing the rag, and among the people who were there was the faculty member who was chairman of the board of the University of California bookstore, which is the largest university-based bookstore in the world. Because, you know, it’s about 60 branches that are all over the place. In the middle of lunch he turns to me, he said, “Russ, what do you think is the largest-selling book in the bookstore of the University of California?” And I thought for a moment and I said, “The Bible.” He said, “No, no. The Bible’s a big seller but it’s not the biggest by any means.” He said, “Try again.” So I thought a little more and I said, “A dictionary.” “No,” he said, “that’s a big one, but it’s not the biggest. Try again.” I said, “Look, I’ll take one more shot at it, and that’s the end.” I said, “Rand McNally road maps.” He said, “No, that’s another big one, but it’s not the biggest.” I said, “What is?” Now, the amazing thing that happens, he told me, there was a book I had never heard of. Now, here I am, a professor at a major university in the 1960s, and this book being most read by students was one I never heard of! It was called the I Ching. A lot of you recognize that. What was it about? Zen Buddhism. Why, all of a sudden, did the 60s generation turn to Zen Buddhism? Remember the Beatles? What did they do? They ran off to India to meet the guru and spend a couple years with him. Why? Because the first generation born after World War II into systemic thinking were disturbed by the incompatibility of the concept of a god distinct from the universe who created it as opposed to one that was the universe. And so they looked for a relation in which the conception of God is God as the universe, as the whole. And where did they find it? In Eastern religion. And so we get the tremendous emergence of interest in Eastern religion.


You see, the interesting thing about that concept is: in the Machine Age view, you are distinct from God. You are a creature of God. But in this view, you are a part of God. Very different. Your stomach is not something you created. You didn’t create your brain, or your liver, or your pancreas. You are your stomach, liver, pancreas. And so this view of God was conceived that way as consisting of the whole, and if you wanted to sense your participation in that wholeness you needed a new way of doing that, which was what? Meditation. That’s what the whole meditation movement was about. How a person could lose his self-consciousness and awareness of the whole of which he was a part. That was what the effort was.


So what we get is a doctrine of expansionism instead of reductionism who say: to understand anything you have to get to larger systems. You will never reach a complete explanation or understanding of everything, but your understanding increases the larger the system that you comprehend. Now, your knowledge increases the smaller the element that you comprehend. Knowledge goes from the whole down to the parts, and understanding goes from the whole up to larger wholes. So expansionism comes. Now what happens to the rest of it?


The story of what happened to cause and effect is, in many ways, the most interesting part of the transformation, but it’s also the most technical. So I’m going to have to give you a feeling for it. The man who was, to the best of my knowledge, first responsible for this transformation was a remarkable young man by the name of Edgar Arthur Singer Jr. who, in 1898, graduated from Harvard. He had been the assistant of William James, a professor of psychology and philosophy. He was an unusual young man because he got his first degree in civil engineering, his second in psychology, and his doctorate in philosophy. He got an appointment in Penn and came there as an instructor in 1896, and in 1898 published what has subsequently been seen as the most revolutionary article in science in the last hundred years. What he showed was: science has been cheating for a hundred years. How?


He said, “Consider an acorn and an oak.” He said, “Is the acorn the cause of an oak?” He said, “Clearly, it isn’t.” Why not? Well, although an acorn is necessary for the oak, it’s not sufficient. That’s easy to demonstrate. How? Throw an acorn in the ocean, you don’t get an oak tree. Throw it in the desert, you don’t get an oak tree. In an iceberg—you don’t get an oak tree. It’s necessary but not sufficient. Now, science knew that. This was no discovery of Singer’s. And in the late nineteenth century, science began to be concerned with that type of relationship and gave it a special name. They call this relationship either probabilistic causality—this was the foundation of statistical mechanics—or non-deterministic causality. These two terms were used.


Now, what Singer did: he showed that these are contradictions. If a cause is defined as something which is sufficient for the effect—if the cause occurs, what’s the probability of the effect? One, and it can’t be anything else. Therefore, non-probabilistic causality is a contradiction, that’s to say that the causes are not sufficient. So it’s not causality. Non-deterministic. See, causality implies determinism. That’s what we saw. Now, the first law of logic according to Aristotle is, if in an implication you deny the consequence, you must deny the precedents. Therefore, non-determinism implies non-causality. It’s a fundamental law of logic. So if I say that all men are moral and then say you are not moral, then it follows: you’re not a man. So Singer said this is a different relationship. And he gave it a name. He called it producer-product. A producer is necessary but insufficient for its product.


Now, let me just say a word by way of a footnote. This was written in 1898 and was completely ignored. Nobody saw the significance of it until 1954 when, in the context of cybernetics—a cybernetician in Europe, Gerd Sommerhoff at Oxford—published a book called Analytical Biology, in which he rediscovered exactly the same thing, but gave it a different name. So you may see it in the literature under a different name. He called it “directive correlation,” but it was the same thing.


Now Singer said, “Let’s look at the world through producer-product instead of cause and effect. What happens?” Well, a series of things happen. First of all, if I want to explain this oak which I have over here, what I do is look for the acorn which produced it. Now I found it. Do I have a complete explanation for the oak? Of course not. Because it’s not sufficient. Well, what else is necessary to become sufficient? Well, what is? I need a certain amount of moisture, right? A certain kind of soil with nutrients, and so on. I have a list of the other necessary conditions. The sum of these is called the what? That’s the environment. Low in the hole. All explanation now requires the environment. We have an environment-full (not an environment-free) theory of explanation. Nothing can be understood independently of the environment.


Boy, what a shocker this was! See, as a child I learned there are lots of universal laws, and the first one I learned is: everything that goes up must come down. That’s not true. It’s true within the gravitational pull of Earth. But go out beyond it and it’ll go up ad infinitum. Every law is constrained by the environment within which it applies. There is no such thing as a universal law. They’re all environmentally relative. That was the first consequence of producer-product thinking.


The second one is very technical. It’s what happened to determinism, and I can’t take you through that argument, but I want to give it to you by analogy. Have you ever gone abroad and seen a fruit or a vegetable you never saw before? Most of you are shaking your heads—you have. I remember the first time I saw a kiwi many years ago when I visited Australia. I’d never seen one before. Or a mango, or a papaya—it’s happened to many of us, at least if you’re my age. Imagine this: somebody from a strange part of the planet visits you and, while visiting you, walks into your dining room table where you have a bowl of fruit on it. And he looks at the fruit and he points at one, and he says, “My God, what’s that? I’ve never seen one of those before.” And you look at him in complete surprise and say, “That’s an orange.” He says, “I’ve never seen one. What do you do with an orange?” You say, “We eat it. It’s a fruit.” He says, “Well, what’s it like?” You say, “Wait a minute. I’ll show you.” So you go to the kitchen, you get a knife, take your orange, slice it, cut it in half—and what does he see? Here’s what he sees. You now have two circles with a white strip down the middle and the orange segment on both sides. Hold it up to him. Now, at just about that point in time, your spouse or whoever else occupies your house with you enters your room, and they do something that’s characteristically annoying. They say, “What are you doing?” And you say, “He’s never seen an orange before and he asked me what it’s like, so I sliced it to show it to him.” Then he or she says, “Why don’t you slice it the other way?” Well, after the profanity is over you figure that, for the sake of peace in the household, you either get another orange or you take the two halves, put them together, and slice the orange the other way. And now what happens? What I see is this. Same orange, but they’re two entirely different views of it.


Now, Singer showed—and this was in his life work—is that cause and effect is a way of looking at reality. There are an infinite number of ways. Because reality isn’t two-dimensional, it’s multi-dimensional. And every slice through it will give you a different view. And therefore, producer-product is not an alternative to cause and effect, but it’s complementary. This is Bohr’s principle of complementarity. It’s another way of looking at the universe. And it turns out that when you look at it this way, free will, purpose, and choice are compatible. And so he developed a teleological view of the universe, a purposeful one. Versus the deterministic one. And they’re completely compatible. They’re simply two different perspectives on the same thing. The question is: which one is the more useful for what type of research?


So there we are. Every fundamental belief of the Machine Age has been going through a transformation. It’s still not widely conscious, but we’re gradually catching up with it. And we now see the world differently than we did before. We don’t see it as a machine. We’ve come to recognize that even the machine is a system. But it’s a particular kind of a system. A machine is a system which has no purpose of its own. It has a function, which is to serve the purposes of something external to it—its god. Now, the universe was seen that way. But so were early businesses. Who was the god of the early business? The owner who created it. He was present and all-powerful. He could do any damn thing he wanted. There were no labor laws, no restrictions, no registration. He was God! And the business existed to serve his purposes. It had no purpose of its own. And his purpose was what? To make a profit. And so Milton Friedman, who was always behind times, comes out and says the only legitimate business of business is business. That’s a complete mechanistic view of a business. It’s a machine. And as a machine the business is an instrument of its owners, and the only responsibility of a business is to maximize the value of the machine to its shareholders. So Rapoport and Friedman go off on maximizing shareholder value. A machine is a system that has no purpose of its own, and therefore, neither do its parts.


When von Bertalanffy came along and began his papers in 1930—but they’re written in German, so they didn’t get known on this side of the Atlantic until the 50s—he said the organism is a very different kind of a system. It’s a system, but it’s different. Because an organism has purposes of its own. What’s the principal purpose of any organism? Survival. Right. That’s its purpose. And in order to survive it must grow. So we now have a system which is survival-seeking, or viability, and growth is seen as necessary for it. Now, what about its parts, its organs? They don’t have any purpose, they have a function. See, your heart doesn’t have a purpose of its own, your lungs, your stomach, and your pancreas. They have functions, but not purposes And this exists in an environment that’s a passive receiver of the output of this and its waste, and the supplier of the resources. But you don’t have to worry about the environment, it takes care of itself in the biological view.


It’s interesting that, through time, we go through the history of the concept of an enterprise, and you see it went through this transformation right after World War I for a very interesting reason. Up until World War I, most enterprises in the United States were owner-managed, and there were owned either by an individual or a family, and he was god. Unions were just beginning to appear to challenge the power of the owner. But several important things were occurring, like the education of the workforce. In 1900, the average educational achievement of an American worker was three years. They were barely literate. By World War I, they’d gotten up to eight years because of public education and so on. But the critical thing that occurred that produced this transformation in the way we looked at an enterprise was the fact that our economy was so healthy that the opportunities for growth exceeded the amount of growth, and enterprise could achieve even by reinvesting all of its profits. That’s important; let me say that again.


It says if an enterprise took all of its profits and reinvested in its own growth, it still could not grow as fast as possible. And therefore, the fundamental problem confronting the owners of enterprises in this country in the 20s was: do I retain exclusive control? Do I remain God and constrain growth? Or do I share control with other contributors of capital and unconstrain growth? Now, the corporations that survived, the companies that survived, you know what they did. They went public. So Ford went public, General Motors went public, all the big corporations went public to raise the additional capital so they could grow. And in that process God disappeared.


Now, there’s a marvelous passage in the early work of Peter Drucker who recognized all of this. He said God has disappeared. It’s become an abstract spirit out there. And we have created an institution to facilitate communication between man and God. We’re not the shareholders in the abstract spirit. How, though, do the clergy—called managers—know the will of God? By revelation. But the interesting thing that happens is the whole language of business became biological. The chief executive of a new firm, the senior manager, got to be called the what of the firm? The head, right. Head is a biological concept. You never talk about the head of a machine. Stafford Beer wrote two wonderful books that I’m sure many of you have read. One’s called The Brain of the Firm and the other’s called The Heart of the Enterprise—biological analogy. The firm was seen that way. “Firm” got to be called a “corporation,” not a company. What’s the stem for corporation? Corpus. What’s corpus? Body. Biological.


In World War II, we went through another transformation for a series of reasons. The principal one was this: the bulk of the American workforce was drawn into the military; they were drafted. Voluntarily or not, and I can attest to that. At a time when we demanded greater productivity from our industrial machine than we ever had in the past—which means we had to get substitutes. So who did we get to substitute for the men who were drawn into the service? Tilly the tailor, Rosie the riveter. You want to have fun, go back and look at the movies of World War II. What were they about? They were all about the feminine heroine who picked up the welding machine to fill the spot that her boyfriend left when he went to fight the war and kill the enemy, and he eventually returns, and they reunite, and she goes to her suburban house. There was a whole mythology of the war; was women were drawn into the workforce, elderly people, and the young. And that was the first time in the history of enterprise that the workforce was not primarily motivated economically. Why?


Well, you see, when we were inducted in the army, our pay—well, you wouldn’t believe it. $21 a month. Now, you couldn’t support a family on $21 a month, even in 1942. But you didn’t have to, because you got an allowance for each dependent. So your dependents could live above the poverty level but not luxuriously while you were in the service. You didn’t have to worry about them and they didn’t have to worry. So the people who went to work in the workforce did not have to work in order to survive. And it was the first workforce that didn’t. And therefore, it had a different attitude towards work. They said, “If you want me to work, you’re going to have to pay attention to me. I am not a machine that you can use as you see fit and discard when I don’t serve your purposes. Because I’m here because of patriotism and loyalty to a national cause, and you better pay attention!” And for the first time, management had to begin to think of the workforce as human beings.


That was augmented in several ways. What kinds of curious things broke out at the end of the war? Here’s the corporation, here. Or society. Or a hospital or a school. It’s a system. Now, what happened were two movements. One is: parts of systems began to organize to protest the way that the system was affecting them; the system of which they’re a part. They said, “Look, I’ve got purposes of my own. And I want you to pay attention to them. And if you don’t I’m going to screw you up.” See? You recognize this? Of course you do. This was the race movement, where minorities protested the way society was serving their interests. It was women’s liberation, where people differentiated by sex were protesting the way society served their interests. It was the generation gap problem. It was the alienation from work problem. A whole series of problems that go under the name “humanization,” which had to do with the fact that society was becoming aware of the fact that the employed people are human beings with purposes of their own.


Simultaneously, groups who were forming outside were protesting the way that the organization is affecting them and saying, “You start to serve my purposes better or I’ll mess you up.” You recognize them? Of course you do. That was the ecological movement and the consumerist movement. All of a sudden, managers of systems found themselves confronted with three different levels of purpose. The purpose of the organism itself, the enterprise, the purposes of its parts, and the purposes of the larger system of which it’s a part, and the other systems in that environment. And in none of these levels were the objectives compatible. The nature of management went through a fundamental change. We haven’t caught up with that yet. That’s the problem that confronts management, because they’re still managing biological organisms. They’re still acting as though the corporation is an organism.


Because, you see, what happens is, there are systems that are machines. There are systems that are organisms. And there are systems that are social systems. You can treat a machine as an organism. If you do, it would be stupid. You don’t treat an automobile as though it has as its objective survival and growth. But you do treat organisms as though they’re machines. We do it all the time. So what we do is: we have a tendency to treat organisms as machines, and even social systems as machines. Now, it has a certain usefulness. But it’s not nearly as useful as looking at a social system as a social system. And the way to look at an organism and a person is not as a social system, but as an organism. And the way to look at a machine is as a mechanical system. That’s one of the things we’re learning.


One last point, and then let me open the floor for discussion. The Machine Age had the Industrial Revolution as its counterpart. What’s the technological counterpart of the Systems Age? It’s fascinating, because it goes back to about 1850. Remember the definition of work: the application of energy to matter so as to transform the nature of matter. About 1850, we began to use electricity as a source of power for the first time. Electricity was known for at least 100 years, but it had been used as a toy. You remember Benjamin Franklin used it with kites to goose himself, but… he never tried to use it productively. But in the middle of the last century we did. When we started to use it we had the problem of measuring it. Now, it turns out that you need to know how much electricity is flowing through a wire, and you can’t see it. Turns out you can feel it, but that’s quite dangerous. So we had to develop devices which would measure it for us. So what you get is ohmmeters, ammeters, voltmeters—you know, all that stuff.


The interesting thing about those instruments were: they were not machines. Why not? They had nothing to do with the application of energy to matter to change the nature of matter. But nobody recognized it. We called them machines. So let’s just accumulate that. What we have are instruments which do not do work. What do they do? Well, what they do is—when a human being does it, we call it observation. So that the gas gauge in your car looks inside the tank and tells you how much gas is there. Believe it or not, when I was a little boy and my father bought his first car and he wanted to know how much gas there was, I had to get out, go back, take the cap off, and look in. Great technological advance came a couple of years later when they gave us a wooden stick that I could put in and read the wet mark. Observation is symbol-generation. They were devices which generated symbols. But we thought they’re a machine.


Very shortly thereafter, the telegraph was invented. Then came the telephone, then the wireless, then radio and television, and then the laser. You know that. They weren’t machines. What do they do? They don’t apply energy to matter. What they do is transmit symbols. So they’re symbol-transmitting devices. We have a name for that. What do you call it when a human being transmits symbols? Communications. So these were observing, these were communicating. Now, for 100 years, these two sat around being treated as though they’re a part of the Industrial Revolution, and it wasn’t until 1946 that we recognized that something fundamental had happened.


What we were doing in effect is building a whole new culture on an arch that had three stones. We put observation in on one side, then communication, but we didn’t have a keystone until 1946. Now, some people who come from Boston argue that it was here in 1944. That’s not true. It was at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. And it was called the UNIVAC. The first electronic digital computer, which was not a machine. What is it? It’s a symbol-manipulating device. But it manipulates symbols according to rules, and that’s called logical. So it’s a logical symbol-manipulator.


We have a word for that, too, but it’s not quite as obvious unless you happen to know John Dewey. Because John Dewey wrote a book before the computer about the logical manipulation of symbols. You know what he called it? How We Think. And so it came to be called a thinking machine. It was a machine, but of thought.


A very remarkable young lady—remarkable, first of all, because she was a lady and second because she was a professor of philosophy—observed that we had three technologies out there that had one thing in common. What was it? They all had to do with the manipulation of symbols in one way or another. Her name was Susanne Langer and her book was called Philosophy in a New Key. And she turned attention to the processing of symbols. Now, remember: synthetic thinking was beginning to emerge, and so for the first time people began to ask what happens when you put things together instead of taking them apart? When you put these three things together, what do you get? Lo and behold, what you get is a mind! See, the first Industrial Revolution was about muscle, about the application of energy to transform it. Here’s a whole new technology which is a substitute for mind. Because it communicates, it observes, and it can think. And so automation, rather than mechanization, becomes the key concept of the Postindustrial Revolution, or the Systems Age.

Now, I don’t want to take any more time, but it’s easy to show that the interest in design, and quality, and learning all derive from the same transformation in our concept of the nature of reality. Thank you.

Russell Ackoff

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