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Applying Ackoff's rules of system interdependency, Part I

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Anyone familiar with my systems side knows that I treasure Russ Ackoff, whose three rules of system interdependency are never far from hand when approaching any system, human, natural, or mechanical. Any analysis of our own or of an opponent's system calls for them as they immediate flag disconnects and suboptimization. I summarize Ackoff’s rules of interdependency as:

  • Rule One: If you optimize a system, you will sub-optimize one or more components
  • Rule Two: If you optimize the components of a system, you will sub-optimize the system
  • Rule Three: The components of a system form subgroups that obey Rules One and Two

They show why a system can be so maddeningly complex, especially when its parts are examined in isolation to others and to their environment. It is Rule Three that so often brings an expression similar to that of the Sheriff Brody in the film, Jaws, when he turns from the shark to say, "We need a bigger boat." Indeed we do.

Ackoff corrects our commonly held view that a system is the sum of its parts. Instead a system is the product of the interactions of those parts: "…the essential properties that define any system are properties of the whole which none of the parts have." Ackoff likes to cite the automobile's essential property is to transport us from place to place, a property that no single part of the car can perform, i.e., once a system is dismantled, it loses its essential characteristic even if we retain its parts.

Ackoff zeroed in on the need for understanding (of a system or anything else) in "Mechanisms, organisms and social systems":

"One can survive without understanding, but not thrive. Without understanding one cannot control causes; only treat effect, suppress symptoms. With understanding one can design and create the future ... people in an age of accelerating change, increasing uncertainty, and growing complexity often respond by acquiring more information and knowledge, but not understanding."

See Gharajedaghi, J., & Ackoff, R.L. (1984). Mechanisms, organisms and social systems. Strategic Management Journal, Vol 5: 1-15. Note: Few of Ackoff's writings are on the web.  Find its abstract here.

Ackoff extended the DIKW model (data, information, knowledge, and wisdom) to:

  • Data: symbols
  • Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to "who", "what", "where", and "when" questions
  • Knowledge: application of data and information; answers "how" questions
  • Understanding: appreciation of "why"
  • Wisdom: evaluated understanding.

Ackoff believes that of the five, only wisdom deals with the future (an ability to construct a future vision) whereas the others deal with what is known, e.g., things in the past. Ackoff rightly notes that wisdom is not free and requires one to move through the earlier categories. My preference for that progression is the Berlin Wisdom Model.

See Ackoff R.L. (1989) "From Data to Wisdom" Presidential Address to ISGSR June 1988, Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, Volume 16, 1989 p 3-9.

On to Part II

Gordon Housworth



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