Russ Ackoff, Modern Management, And You The Analyst

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Russell Ackoff (1919-2009)

One of my (many) writing assignments this semester is to write a biosketch of a prominent information systems theorist. 

I am finding a lot to respect in Russ Ackoff, my figure. I chose him because an assigned paper of his resonated with me, and because he had spent some time teaching at Case Western Reserve.

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An overarching theme of Ackoff’s work is how to use the scientific method to actually help managers. Rather than construct equation-friendly problems, Ackoff insisted that his work tackle head-on the issues faced in the real world, in all its messiness.

Likewise, A mission for this blog is to help recent grads and others become more comfortable with data and Excel. Data literacy is crucial to today’s career management.

But just knowing Excel isn’t enough — it needs to be put in the context of career management. That’s why my courses are on “getting hired with Excel,” “networking as an analyst,” and so forth. 

That’s where an Ackoff paper really got me thinking. 

In a 1994 paper entitled “Systems thinking and thinking systems,” Ackoff presents the three tasks for the modern manager. “Until they are fulfilled, we are not going to get the quality of output to which we aspire,” Ackoff declares.

His vision of management is prescient, refreshing, and things to consider in your own career management. 

“The first is to create an environment in which our subordinates do as well as they know how, Ackoff writes.

Ackoff takes this to the extreme, even suggesting job descriptions be done away with: “We will have to get rid of job descriptions [emphasis added]. They limit what people are allowed to do at work and prevent them from using all they know in what they do. Furthermore, the descriptions are based on the assumption that those who prepare them know better how to do the job than those who have to do it.”

Career development comes next. “The second fundamental responsibility of managers is to develop those for whom they are responsible. Managers must become educators because education is the means to development. Quality can be improved more by education than it can by supervision.”

Managing relationships is the third role. “The third fundamental function of managers is to manage 1. the interactions of those for and to whom they are responsible, 2. the interactions of their units with other units of the organization, and 3. the interactions of their organizations with other organizations in their environments.”

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What does all this mean to you the analyst?

Can you notice the patterns in Ackoff’s thought? Delegating, development, relationship-building. 

I know many of us spend 80% of our time in spreadsheets (and half of that time preparing data), but Ackoff shows us how good management can make work more productive — and meaningful.

See your work as a creative act. Just because your manager wants something done one way, suggest it be done another. A good manager won’t pretend at a specific job description. 

But what if your new way makes mistakes?  Ackoff’s second role fits in brilliantly here. A good manager is more educator than quality supervisor. This does not mean an inaccuracy free-for-all. 

This does mean that you are not a report-building robot. That you need time to rebuild and play with data. 

Lastly, notice relationships with other departments or analysts.

People often get so busy with their own routines that there is little cross-training or communication. Maybe you can break this up with the goal of education and development. Start a user group or suggest a working session.

I know these things are easier said than done. As an analyst you don’t need the time or clout to implement them. This is the role of management, after all. 

But at the least you can look for these in your next position. People switch jobs like never before, and the competition is becoming more intense. 

But I believe just a basic understanding of data and Excel puts you in the upper echelon of talent. You deserve a job where management follows Ackoff’s commandments. 

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