Steven F. Freeman

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Social Systems Sciences

page last modified: 02/26/2013

Social Systems Sciences ( “S-cubed") operated as a department of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania from the early 1970s through the mid 1980s organized around the work and writings of Russell L. Ackoff and Systems Thinking. Ackoff had been a prominent academic at Case Western University prior to coming to Wharton in 1964. He co-authored the textbook Introduction to Operations Research (1957), a pioneering work that helped define a field. However he became increasingly critical of Operations Research’s reliance on specific mathematical techniques, and advocated multi-disciplinary, functional approach to problem-solving (or preferably problem “dissolving"). At Wharton, Ackoff worked with his former philosophy professors Tom Cowan and Operations Research co-author C. West Churchman as well as other prominent researchers such as Fred Emery and Eric Trist to develop such multi-disciplinary methods. As Social Systems Sciences developed, it also became associated with several other principles including synthetic (as opposed to analytical) reasoning, broad stakeholder participation in decision making, and idealized design. The program came to an end as an academic department in the late 1980s after Ackoff, Cowan and Jamshid Gharajedaghi left to form a consulting company, Interact.

My experience with S-cubed began as a senior at Penn completing a BS 1984-85. Although I originally studied electrical engineering and physics, even worked several years designing electrical circuits, I could not bring myself to complete an EE degree, and left school for a time. When I returned, it was to study Philosophy because I wanted to see the bigger picture. That was educationally satisfying, even edifying, but what would I do with a degree in Philosophy? Well, it turned out that there was this strange group of Philsophers! I attended S-cubed classes, including a seminar led by West Churchman, matriculated into a PhD program in the fall of 1985. At the end of my first year in April 1986, S-cubed was left rump when Ackoff, Gharajedaghi and Cowan left to form Interact. Since I had come to learn from them, I went to work there, taking a few remaining courses to obtain an S-cubed M.S.

Interact eventually blew up -- like so many, Ackoff was far more inclined to advise organizations than actually running one. I went out on my own, and since have formed several companies and worked in several professional positions (Here is my complete CV.) In 1993, I matriculated in a doctoral program at MIT, where I studied Systems Dynamics and Organization Studies, earning a Ph.D. in 1998.From MIT,

Many of us have recreated much of the “S-cubed" heritage at the University of Pennsylvania within the University's Organizational Dynamics Program with establishment of the Ackoff Collaboratory for the Advancement of the Systems Approach (ACASA), the inclusion of several systems thinking classes, and an infusion of  systems thinking throughout the curriculum.


Systems Thinking:

Systems Thinkers: A global network of systems thinkers (Yahoo Discussion Group)

Question Everything: Blog with systems perspective: Have we the wisdom to find a balance between our own desires and the good for the whole earth?

Related: System Dynamics (ciow workshop: Introduction to System Dynamics - MIT's Systems Approach to Creativity)

Key Concepts from "The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organizations.” (html)

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