March 1, 2015
Interview with Russell L. Ackoff
by Carole Novak
Russ Ackoff has been described as a Renaissance Man: an architect, city planner, doctor of philosophy, behavioral scientist, university professor, trailblazer in the fields of organizational operations and systems theory, best-selling author, world travelereven a humorist. He is founder and chair of Interact: The Institute for Interactive Management, a Philadelphia-based firm dedicated to education, research, and consulting. At 81 years of age, he maintains a vigorous travel and consulting schedule, counting among his clients Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit institutions, and government agencies in the United States and abroad. Ackoff's early pioneering studies of operations research set him on the path of thinking of organizations as systems in which all the essential parts are interrelated, and any change that is made to one part will inevitably change the rest. He is author of more than 200 articles and 22 books, including Ackoff's Best (Wiley, 1999) and Re-Creating the Corporation (Oxford, 1999). Since 1986, he has been Anheuser-Busch Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania. In his honor, the university's School of Engineering and Applied Science has established the Ackoff Center for Advanced Systems Approaches (A-CASA), a think tank dedicated to education, academic research, industry research and consulting, and outreach programs in the field of systems approaches. TECHNOS caught up with Ackoff at the Arthur Andersen Learning for the 21st Century Conference in April 2000.
You mentioned in your presentation that you finally found a university that would tolerate your antics.
It did, until the administration changed, and then it got so bad I resigned. It was taking so much of my time fighting the administration that I left so I could do what I wanted to do outside the university. What I do now is exactly what I did inside the university, except I do it without the administration sitting on top of me. There's a certain loss. I don't have exposure to large numbers of graduate students, which I had when I was teaching at the university. I still do a lot of teaching, but it's mostly of more senior people who are in management instead of students.
I'd like to get your take on the difference between the two. When was the last time you were in a university classroom as a faculty member?
And did the young people take to your ideas and methods?
Oh, they're great. We had a program at the university that I created and ran in which there was no curriculum, no classes, no examinations, no admission requirementsonly exit requirementsin which the students designed their own education, not only the content but the process of it, and by the criteria that the university employed, we were the most successful department in the business school, Wharton. Because we had the largest number of doctoral candidates, the largest number of job offers when they graduated, and they went out to high salaries. And yet we broke all the rules. And that was a threat. In the university, the worst thing you can do for the long run is to be successful while breaking rules. You can fail as much as you want to, as long as you follow the rules. Then they can't blame you, because you're following the rules. And if you succeed following the rules, they'll tolerate that. But what they won't tolerate is your succeeding by breaking the rules, because that's a challenge to the validity of the rules. It's a threat to the status quo, and they don't want to change. So the easiest way to handle that is to get rid of the thorn in their side.
In the university, the worst thing you can do for the long run is to be successful while breaking rules. . . . that's a challenge to the validity of the rules. It's a threat to the status quo, and they don't want to change. So the easiest way to handle that is to get rid of the thorn in their side.
You've said that leaders aren't necessarily pleasant people to have around because they cause a lot of trouble.
For people who want to preserve the status quo, yes.
Some people are saying that access to informationor the lack of access to information on the part of some peopleis a problem, but you contradict that. You say it's the overabundance of misinformation that is a problem.
Yes, I think that's a bigger problem. The overabundance of irrelevant information is a bigger problem than the shortage of relevant information, because it requires more time to filter through the mass of information that's available to find out what's relevant.
The overabundance of irrelevant information is a bigger problem than the shortage of relevant information.
I'm interested in the idea of self-directed learning that we've been hearing about at this conference. It sounds like a wonderful thing, but to me it often seems like the problem in the classroom is that teachers are almost afraid to let kids direct themselves in their learning, to access information. Maybe they don't trust them enough?
That's just because they don't believe they can learn anything that's not directed. But that's not a question of trust. That's a question of what they believe about the capability of the kids. See, I don't believe that an automobile can get me somewhere I want to go at 300 miles an hourbut that's not a matter of trustI don't say I don't trust the automobile. I just don't believe it will get me there. Trust is a personal thing.
Can we train teachers to believe that kids can direct their own learning?
Training is the wrong word to use. Training is imparting a skill. The question is, can you educate teachers? Training has to do with know-hownot with knowledge or wisdom. You don't train people to understand things or to be wisethat's education. It's possible through education but it's usually not enough. The institutional and environmental conditions under which teachers teach are major influences on their attitude toward their jobs. They do what they think is expected of them by authorities that are responsible for their salaries and their work stability. So all those things have to change as well.
One of the arguments against letting kids direct their own learning is that some of the information they can stumble upon, especially accessing the Internet, can be damaging to them.
One of the things they have to learn is how to evaluate the source of information. If it's in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they can be fairly certain that it's reliable; but if it's in an ad by an automobile company, they can be pretty sure it isn't. They're going to have to learn the difference between the two. What's the source of the information? What's the evidence in support of it?
Very often the teachers coming out of the universities don't know enough to ask those questions themselves.
I'd eliminate colleges of education.
If you could change the way teachers are educated in the colleges of education in our universitiesyour idealized design for those collegeswhat would you do?
I'd eliminate colleges of education.
And in their place?
The university consists of faculty, none of whom have ever gotten a degree in education, except the people who teach education. As long as you believe that the way for a student to learn is to be taught, you have to teach people how to teach. But now what we want to do is have the adult in the classroom act as a resource who encourages and facilitates learning, rather than who teaches. That requires a very different kind of education, and I don't think that's what an education college is capable of providing.
Let's just say we got rid of all the accredited colleges of education in the country. What would we replace them with? Or would we have to replace them?
How do you pick a professor in the university? You don't ask him what college of education he went to. You pick him by how much he knows about a subject, and by your estimate of his ability to get others to learn from him. Unfortunately, it's still a teaching model. But the senior professors at a university do very little teaching; they mostly do research, and the students learn from them by apprenticeship.
So, what I want to know about someone who's going to go into the classroom is not how good a teacher they are, but how good a learner they are. Because, if they don't know how to learn, then their students aren't going to learn how to learn from them. And you don't learn how to learn by having it taught to you, but by being inspired and encouraged and facilitated.
So many people spend their lives doing things they don't want to do. . . . The best kind of life is one in which the difference between work and play is zero.
Peter Drucker's comments this morning about rewarding achievement rather than focusing on errors are along the same lines of what you're saying.
That's one way of motivating somebodyto let them know what you think they're doing well and encourage them to do better. So if you find a kid that's got an artistic skill, you encourage him to do more art. If you find out he's not particularly good in mathematics, you don't punish him for it, because you don't expect everybody to be a mathematician, nor do you expect everybody to be an artist. What you want to do is develop the abilities that each person has, and abilities are combined with desire. What do they want to do?
We don't ask that question very often, do we?
No. So many people spend their lives doing things they don't want to do, and they have to depend on their leisure time for doing things they want to doand that's a pretty miserable kind of life. The best kind of life is one in which the difference between work and play is zero.
The critical thing about education is that it's a subsidized activity and as a subsidy, it's more concerned with satisfying the people who subsidize it than the people whom it serves.
Let's talk a little bit about the privatization of schools. What do you think about that in terms of changing education?
Well, it may or may not do good. There's nothing holy about privatization. In some cases, privatization has improved performance; in other cases, it's hurt it. So that's not the relevant characteristic. The critical thing about education is that it's a subsidized activity and as a subsidy, it's more concerned with satisfying the people who subsidize it than the people whom it serves. So it's not consumer focused. To make it consumer focused would mean it must be made into a system whose income comes from the people whom it serves rather than from the people who subsidize it.
Suppose you define an area for any school, and you say, Any child who lives inside this area can go to this school without any problem. But every parent of every child gets a voucher, which is worth a certain amount of money. When they elect to go to this school, they turn in a voucher; the school turns the voucher over to the government and then receives money. Now, a child who lives in this area may decide to go to another school, so she applies at the other school. Two things have to happen. This school, if it's going to accept vouchers from people living outside of its area, will have to do so at random. That means it cannot use any kind of racial, religious, or sexual discrimination. This eliminates the need for busing, the first thing. Second thing is: School A doesn't like the idea of somebody going to School B in another area, because it's lost income. But now suppose I make School A pay for the transportation costs of that student?
I hope it would make that school try harder to retain its students.
It's going to make that school worry about satisfying its students, not the people who are supplying money. Now, suppose it's a lousy school. And parents start to send their kids increasingly to other schools in a different area. What will happen to School A? It'll go out of business, which it ought to do. The trouble right now is, bad schools continue to survive indefinitely, and good schools don't grow. If School B is a good school, and it can get a lot more students than it can fit into the building, what it can do is add on so more students applying from outside can be acceptedand you get growth of the good schools. But they're good not because they get the best students but because they do the best things with the students they get.
What about the funding of the voucher system, as you've described it? Would every citizen pay a specific amount into an education account, rather than a property tax?
However you get the money, that's a separate issue. The government has a bunch of money for education. What it does is give every parent a voucher for the education of their kid; and if you have two kids, you get two vouchers. The voucher is worth a certain amount of money. When your kid goes to a school, whichever one it happens to be, you turn the voucher over to the school, and the school cashes it inlike food stamps.
This is the Feds, as opposed to my local government.
I don't care which one it is. That's irrelevant to the system. It really isthat's a separate question. It's a good question, but it's not the question of education. It's a question about taxation and the government. As long as the voucher comes to the parent, I don't care, for educational purposes, where it comes fromit could be the state, the local government, or the federal government; it won't make any difference. It does make a difference in other issues, but not the education issue.
. . . I would not allow any religiously oriented school to receive vouchers. I think that's a distortion of the Constitution and the separation of church and state.
And it doesn't matter where the voucher ends up? Whether it's a parochial school, or a public school?
Yes, it does matter then. At least it does for me. I do believe in the separation of religion and the state. And therefore, I would allow the vouchers to be used for private schools. The private school could set its own tuition, and if the parent wants to send a kid to a private school that has a larger tuition than the voucher is worth, the parent will have to pay the difference. But I would not allow any religiously oriented school to receive vouchers. I think that's a distortion of the Constitution and the separation of church and state.
At least one private enterprise will be launching a system of teacher colleges, and it's occurred to me that that's exactly the sort of thing that would happen, if the public begins to feel that the teachers coming out of our universities now aren't ready to educate our kids properly. Do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing for teacher education?
I think the problem is that parents don't feel that way. They are satisfied with what the teachers are doing now, and that's the problem. In general, they feel that the education their kids are getting is satisfactory. So they don't take an active role in trying to change the schooling that their children are subjected to. In some cases, they think it's okay; in other cases, in poor neighborhoods, they frankly just don't care.
We haven't had an educational leader in this country since John Dewey, who produced the concept of liberal education in the 1920s and '30s. We need someone of that staturea national figure.
So it probably won't matter to them about teacher education, one way or the other.
Teacher education is a separate issue from that of vouchers. The impact with vouchers is that the number of students that a school will get will be the extent to which the education they provide meets the parents' expectations and satisfies the kids, so it at least makes the school more responsive to the children and their parents. But the children's parents are not, at the present time, looking for radical change in the educational system. By itself, the voucher system as I've described it will not improve the quality of education in a quantum way. What it will do is provide current education in a better way.
It would be a transitional thing . . .
No, it's not transitional. That's a separate issue. How do you change from this to the kind of education that was described at today's session? It's not a matter of vouchers. You're talking about a revolution in our concept of education and society.
You said that in order for such a change or revolution to take place, you have to have a crisis or catastrophe.
Or you need leadership.
Yes, the leadership, and a mobilizing idea.
We don't have either.
Well, you're a leader.
I don't have the leadership for this. That's not my job. I don't devote my life to trying to change the educational system. I've written about it, but that's not my main task. We haven't had an educational leader in this country since John Dewey, who produced the concept of liberal education in the 1920s and '30s. We need someone of that staturea national figure.
Teaching obstructs learning.
It would take the kind of person who wants to be president or a senatorand the trouble with most of the people with good ideas, is they want to use them; they don't want to be standing outside talking about them. It would take somebody in either a major position or a person who is like an Einstein, who is listened to by everybody.
You said, Education, as it exists today, obstructs learning.
I said, Teaching obstructs learning.
Because the teacher needs to be a learner, to learn from the student?
No, that's not what I mean. You learned your first language without anybody teaching it to you. You never learned a second language in school well, despite the fact they tried to teach it to you.
So, if you want to learn a second language, you go live in the community that speaks that language, and in a very short time, you'll learn it. You do not learn effectively by having stuff taught to you. You learn by use in a situation where it's in your interest to learn, where you're motivated to learn.
When you were growing up, who were your heroes, the people you looked up to?
When I was very young, it was my father, my maternal grandfather, and my maternal uncle. Those three men were all models for me. They were wonderful to me, and I adored them. My grandfather was a butcher, a highly intelligent and self-educated man. He spoke several languages and traveled extensively. He and my grandmother emigrated from Russia in about 1880, and they had their family here. All three men placed a very high value on learning.
You do not learn effectively by having stuff taught to you. You learn by use in a situation where it's in your interest to learn, where you're motivated to learn.
And you have a degree in architecture . . .
Because of my uncle, who was an architect. I spent a couple of summers as an office boy in his firm, and I loved it, so I did the architecture for a short while, but then I had the opportunity to go into the philosophy of science, and I found that when I did, that was something I wanted to do even more than architecture, so I wound up doing that. And that led me into systems work.
Why did you make the switch?
Doing philosophy was an opportunity to learn something new. I expected this to be an adjunct to my practice of architecture. But it turned out the other way. It turned out that the philosophy of science gave me the opportunity to design social systems, and I was more interested in people-oriented systems than in buildings. They were both design, but different kinds of design. I like creating things.
How do you feel about incorporating the arts in K12 education? So often, when money needs to be saved at the local level, it's the arts that are cut.
I think the question is wrong. What you assume to start with is that the arts and humanities and sciences are separate things. You're saying, Should they be brought together? That's like asking me, Should I assemble Humpty-Dumpty after he's fallen? You can't. What you have to do is prevent him from falling. You don't let art get out. So you don't ask the question, Should I bring it back? It's got to be an integral part of education already.
It's like the disciplines. If you let education organize itself along disciplines, you never get it back together again. Everybody tries thatyou can't do it. It's like reassembling Humpty-Dumpty. So you have to design an educational system that is not organized around disciplines, but one that's organized around outputs, not inputs. We've got to keep asking ourselves, What are we trying to do?
The goal is facilitating the student's learning, as opposed to producing an artist on the way out.
Well, if a student really wants to be an artist, you certainly want to help him be an artist. But an artist who doesn't understand anything except how to draw is not going to be a very good artist.
Looking over your work life, is there any one social system or design that you are particularly proud of?
I've worked in over 400 corporations and 75 government agencies . . . but there isn't really one that stands out.
. . . you have to design an educational system that is not organized around disciplines, but one that's organized around outputs, not inputs. We've got to keep asking ourselves, What are we trying to do?
Then, are you satisfied with the body of work?
Oh, to a large extentnot every one has been successful, but enough of them have been to make it encouraging.
When it's all said and done, how you do you want to be remembered by your family and your colleagues?
As far as my children are concerned, I want them to remember that I let them do what they wanted to doI didn't try to tell them what to doand that I facilitated their pursuit of their own objectives. As far as my work is concerned, there are people who have carried on what I've done, and extended it and applied it.
Black & White photo courtesy of Oxford University Press.