Thursday, May 3, 2012

Innovation in Structures - Open Systems

We are now aware that the changes that we encourage in people, to be able to keep up with the global challenges, need to be followed by changes in structures, of all types. If we do not make such a move, we will constrict ourselves in a world that will squeeze us so tight, that we will either rebel or give up. Both would be a destructive approach to change. Yet, there is an alternative, namely, an evolutionary approach that is inviting those that assume leadership, and those that follow, to seriously reconsider the positions of power, the catalysts of innovation, values and visions, and especially the purposes they serve with the results of their actions. We all need to take a deep breath and see how, why and with what kind of consequences we do what we do; how we co-operate, co-create, and co-exist. Today I would like to share with you a story of “open systems” in the eyes of  Dr. Merrelyn Emery, an Australian woman that has devoted her life to systems that care. I hope it reaches out to you and encourages you to make a step.

V: Who is Merrelyn Emery?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
Briefly, she is working on the development of an ‘at risk’ test for mental illness, which can be used in normal populations in organizations. This is part of the overall effort to combat the global epidemic of depression and to restore people to health in innovative, productive organizations through democratization. In the longer term, she has two research projects. The first of these involves research and the development of practical strategies for organizations and communities to more effectively address the cause and effects of climate change. The second will result in a book documenting the need for science to move from closed system frameworks and reductionism to acknowledging the reality of our world and our people as open systems.

Merrelyn Emery obtained her first class honours degree in psychology from the University of New England in 1964 and her PhD in marketing from the University of New South Wales in 1986, which was actually about the neurophysiological effects of television. She has worked in psychology, education research and continuing education, mainly at the Australian National University. Since 1970 she has worked specifically to develop open systems theory and is currently an adjunct professor in Applied Human Sciences at Concordia University. She has published numerous articles together with a host of institutional research reports as well as 15 books, the latest of which is The Future of Schools. She has just finished a monograph on the latest wave of social change which started in Tunisia and is still developing through Syria and the Occupy movement.
V: Whose work inspires you in your own work?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
Many people have inspired me, from my dad onwards who broke all the rules by, for example, dragging me out of bed in the middle of the night when I was a little kid to see a faint comet that had just appeared in the sky – “We have a visitor from outer space” he said – enough to excite any kid’s imagination. Because I was an isolated kid in the bush, most of my learning about the world came from books which I begged, borrowed and stole. My early heroes were the seafarers and explorers, particularly those who risked everything to learn about extreme environments like the Australian interior and Antarctica. Later, I read about scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo and Wegener who also risked everything by standing by their observations in the face of orthodoxy and vested interests. I also read huge amounts of fiction and sci-fi and realized that imagination and creativity are our greatest gifts, ones to be used wisely. Amongst my favourite authors are Xavier Herbert who wrote Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country, devastating portraits of the destruction of Aboriginal culture and Australian culture in general. Perhaps the most influential author was Henry Handel Richardson (who was a woman, Ethel) who wrote the “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony”, a novel which is actually a picture of the slow deterioration of a person with paranoia.

V: What about that book?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
I found it riveting when I first read it, but it was only after several years of psychology that I appreciated how acute her perceptions were. That book also made me realize that it is not just academics that search for ‘the truth’: but acute observers like artists of all sorts who perceive the reality beneath the surface and communicate it in powerful ways. Scientists such Carl Jung and Erich Neumann understood this. The gap between science and art is an artificial one. All healthy people are searching for meaning, I would suggest.

Photo: Violeta Bulc, Dr. Merrelyn Emery, Kaja Rangus
Source: Vibacom, EMCSR 2012, Vienna

V: Any other inspiration?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
Another major inspiration in my life was living on a remote Aboriginal reservation as a child where I learnt the language and leant how to look ‘properly’ and thereby learn about the physical environment in which I lived. I could never see the world in the same way again. It has shaped my life ever since. Indigenous peoples are also acute observers and scientists. But I must reserve the greatest inspiration in my life for my mate Fred Emery who never ceased to amaze me with the depth of his insights and his total dedication to his work – his desire to learn about, and to right, the world. He too was a great explorer and an uncompromising defender of the significance and priority of evidence over the entrenched interests of the status quo.

V: How do you perceive the role of innovation in a modern society?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
Innovation and its prior condition, creativity, are vital characteristics and signs of health in every society. Everybody has the potential to be creative, but many live and work in conditions, which inhibit creativity.

V: What is your understanding of the open system concept? What is the difference between your view and the view of Ludwig von Bertalanffy?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
The basis of Open System Theory is of course, the open system in environment and at the heart of open social systems are purposeful people. Our open systems social science has a clear purpose and some well established means towards it. The big picture rests on some solid building blocks.
We need a social science that accurately describes and explains the reality of human
Von Bertalanffy’s formulation of an open system was a brilliant step forward and probably still covers the great mass of animate creatures on Earth. He is rightly called the Father of Open Systems but his conceptualization deals only with people as bodies. There can be little doubt that we are physically adapted to our planet but when we contemplate consciousness, it becomes obvious that we must go beyond von Bertalanffy.
existence. To achieve such a social science, the conceptualization of the social environment must be added to Bertalanffy’s concept of the open system.

V: How did you get involved in open systems?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
I was dissatisfied with many academic approaches and theories that didn’t work in practice, and have been looking for something that was both scientific and did work. I met OST when Fred Emery returned to Australia at the end of 1969 and I realized it was just what I was looking for.

“Ludwig Bertalanffy describes two types of systems: open systems and closed systems. The open systems are systems that allow interactions between its internal elements and the environment. An open system is defined as a “system in exchange of matter with its environment, presenting import and export, building-up and breaking-down of its material components.” Closed systems, on the other hand, are held to be isolated from their environment. ”Source: Wikipedia
V: Could you share an example of the open system that inspires you most?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
Many things inspire me, but probably those ancient cultures that respected all life, that were acute perceivers and researchers, and that kept the planet in great shape for many thousands of years.

V: Which are the factors that encourage organizations to become more open? Which are the key elements for success?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
This really deserves a complex answer. It depends on which era you are talking about. In the 1970s and 80s in Australia and elsewhere, organizations went into OST because they wanted to be the best of the best. Today, it is more likely that they have tried everything else and it didn’t work and now they are desperate. It has not been the flavour of the month since economic rationalism became the dominant economic theory. But in the last few years, more and more people are waking up to the fact that neo-liberalism and autocracy are destructive, and they want to change not only their organizations and communities; but also want to help reverse the trends we are experiencing towards a more destructive culture. We have a global climate crisis, and we also have a global epidemic of depression and mental illness. Our societies are racked by maladaptions: they are sick. People are organizing to deal with this and increasingly, they are ringing us. You can’t put good ideas down!

The real tricks to success are:
  • people must have a conscious conceptual knowledge of what is involved, and how it can be used
  • they must make, and take responsibility for, their own plans for their own future, and
  • they must design their own sections of their organizations
  • in other words, we must return people to their rightful status as open purposeful systems, and stop treating them as dumb, unreliable and irresponsible.
V: Why do people change their minds? How do we explain this phenomenon?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
  When we see people arguing about the meaning of what happened yesterday or when we document social change over time, there can be little doubt that we also stand in some state of adaptation to a world of our own making; a world of ideas, ideals and values. We know the physical world not only directly, but also through our ideas about it and how we value it. And all aspects of this world of ideas, ideals and values change over time. Without a conceptualization of that world, there is no answer to the question of what people are adapted to. For the human being, von Bertalanffy’s conceptualization is effectively closed.

Merrelyn Emery, February 2012
Source: Paper presented at the EMCSR 2012 in Vienna

V: Do you know any example of open system project that failed? 
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:
Failure, like success is subject to definition but I know of many democratized organizations in the early days, which could not be sustained because we had not yet learnt how to legally sustain them. We know how to do that now.
Similarly, I know of many cases where the process designers and managers (practitioners) made fundamental mistakes and the processes consequently failed. People have to know their theory and be thoughtful and careful in doing OST work. There are no recipes.
But when practitioners know what they are doing and the preparation has been done adequately, I know of no case where the project did not fulfil its objectives.

V: What do you see as a long term impact of open systems?
Dr. Merrelyn Emery:

  • Organizations that serve human as well as financial ends. “the product of work is people”.
  • ‘Communities’ that are actually communities, not aggregates of isolated and/or dissociated individuals and families.
  • Mentally (and physically) healthy people who show all their potential for creativity and ideal-seeking.
  • Social change that restores sanity and stability to our world and hopefully starts to heal the planet, if we still have time.

THANK YOU Merrelyn. 

Violeta in Kaja

Ps: We talked to dr. Merrelyn Emery in Vienna at the EMCSR in April 2012.

Additional links and publications:

•    4th InCo Meeting: »InCo discussion about intuitive management«
•    Recommended reading: Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe: Practical Wisdom, The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

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