Saturday, November 14, 2009

Russ Ackoff's Split Personality

I read Russ Ackoff's obituary on Veteran's Day in the Wall Street Journal with great interest. The management guru died at the end of last month, so the notice was a little late.

The Journal's review of Ackoff's professional accomplishments was downright reverent. They discussed Ackoff's legendary "big picture" view, his rule-breaking graduate program at the Wharton School, and, of course, his big life-long meal ticket, the Anheuser-Busch account relationship.

It seemed odd to me that, in three columns spanning half the height of the page, there was absolutely no mention of the two things for which I feel Ackoff was justly famous.

First, he was generally acknowledged as the first practitioner of "management science," in that he ran around corporate America in the 1950s successfully and effectively applying the "80/20" rule.

If that is what various pundits mean by his big picture focus, so be it. But as I heard it explained by some refugees from his original Busch Center at Wharton (more on that in a bit), he got a lot of managers in the early days of the professionalization of the field to address the things that accounted for 80% of their problems or opportunities, and not sweat the 20%.

The other, companion accomplishment, was his co-founding, with C. West Churchman, of the first operations research department at Case Western, then Case Institute of Technology. I actually met and, mercifully briefly, worked with a guy who claimed to hold the very first PhD in OR from that program. And thus, he alleged, the first operations research PhD in the country.

Regardless of that detail, Ackoff's initial signal contribution was in operations research.

I knew several people at the Wharton Applied Research Center, where I worked while completing my MBA, who were escapees from Ackoff's Center. There had been a major philosophical schism, and one of Ackoff's bright young disciples, a former McKinsey consultant named Jim Emshoff, had bolted with a handful of staff and students to found the competing WARC.

One of my close friends and fellow student/employees at the center related the major flaw of what Ackoff's degree program was then called, Social Systems Science.

As Dave put it, after hearing Ackoff wax eloquently on the holy grail of multidisciplinary approaches to business problem-solving, he'd ask how to solve some particular problem.

He related that Russ would then reply that you would use (depending upon the nature of the problem) various existing functional approaches, e.g., stochastic modeling, statistics, EOQ modeling, etc.

Ackoff's big money client, and substantial underwriter of so much of his work, was, indeed, Anheuser-Busch. But at Busch, Ackoff was known mostly for advertising efficiency work. Not some puffed-up 'systems' solution.

And Ackoff's Center's staff and students were, according to the WARC people who had fled the group, known for management approaches and theories which couldn't be very easily implemented.

One has to wonder how ultimately useful and valuable an holistic approach to management, per Ackoff's Center, has been, if, after some 40+ years, it still is largely unknown among major business graduate programs.


susan said...

You have many inaccuracies in your post and hopefully someone with the time and inclination will dispute them. I'll just say that "unknown among major business graduate programs" is perhaps something Ackoff would be proud of. The dusty academia that produces piles of journal articles and books which are read only by other academics. There was nothing split about Russ Ackoff's personality; perhaps if you had ever had the chance to work alongside him you would have discovered that and many other useful things.

C Neul said...


I'm inclined to view your comment as very prejudiced and suspect.

You claim there are "many inaccuracies," but can't identify any.

I had colleagues and friends who did work along side Ackoff, and that's why they fled to WARC.

I'll bet that as much, or more of Ackoff's later, post-OR work has become part of "dusty academia" as a control group of other academic writing.

Finally, I find it to be more than curious that you believe Ackoff would find the relative anonymity of his graduate program to be a mark of success.

Doesn't it strike you as relevant that most large organizations are poorly managed, while the most vibrant areas of business management of the recent decade have been more quantitative, data-oriented tools? For example, Google's approach to search and advertising?