Interview: Business Consulting in the Jungle of Systems

Published by on 18. May 2016 in category Concepts, Newer System Theory
Interview: Business Consulting in the Jungle of Systems

On the occasion of the current issue of the Agora42 Magazine, the editorial has asked selected persons a few questions regarding the topic “SYSTEMS”. In this blog article, you will find the answers provided by Robert A. Sedlák, Guest Professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai.

Nowadays, abstract complex formations are easily referred to as systems, without actually knowing what it means. Multiple sciences explore their origin, development, influence and impact. What benefits do we get from thinking about systems?

In our work, we first differentiate between trivial and non-trivial systems. A trivial system, e.g. an engine – although complex – can be processed according to the classic cause-effect principle. Through the use of an error analysis causes for an unwanted condition or an undesired result can be determined and then be fixed.

We see non-trivial systems as complex and operationally closed systems that are not visible from the outside and cannot be changed. An undesired condition cannot be eliminated in a direct way, but can only be addressed with communicational interventions within the system. However, the outcome of an intervention is not predictable. Even by repeating the same intervention it cannot be assumed that equal results will be achieved.

The non-trivial systems include biological, psychological and social systems, which are self-organizing. The psychic system of a dog, for instance, is unpredictable. If you accidentally step on a dog’s tail, it may result in many different reactions. The first time, the dog can run away. Next time, it can bite you. In this context, we see organizations as complex social systems which are – like psychic systems – unpredictable.

This fact makes me very humble, when it comes to accompany changes in organizations. Since change can only occur from within the system, it has major impact on my intervention repertoire as a consultant.

How do you notice systems in everyday life? Have you come across a system once in your life? Did you have difficulties with it or did you even experience some support? How did you deal with it?

As I already said, it depends on which systems are meant. In consultancy, we particularly deal with organizations, which we see as a special form of complex systems. In family businesses for example, we also focus on the family, shareholders as well as on the advisory board. They are all social systems with different logics. Once different system logics come together, we are dealing with paradoxes, which need to be managed well.

According to my understanding, the basic element of these social systems is communication. In organizations, decisions are the most important communicative event. My role as a consultant is to observe how communication takes place and how decisions are made.
From my perspective, one of the greatest achievements of a consultant is to support a management team to become and remain capable of making smart decisions, which in the end are also implemented. A decision is only a genuine decision when subsequent decisions are based on this taken decision.

Perspectives and opinions of young people are hardly considered in systemically-relevant decisions – may it be politics, economy or science. Yet, they are particularly affected by system-induced crises (unemployment, national debt, pension loss, destruction of the environment). What advice can you give this generation?

The young generation is well-advised to deal with the different system logics and to form their own opinion of what is good or bad.

Only through a personal opinion and positioning it is possible to initiate or to support necessary interventions. Starting from the social benefit that functional systems like politics, economy and science should offer, the next generation has to decide, whether they want to accept the established structures and the respective results. In my generation, we were very critical about the educational system. Still, we haven’t managed to reach real system-changes so far. However, the upcoming challenges will force change and here, each young person should decide, which expectations s/he has towards these systems. This will be the prerequisite to support the right interventions and the matching programs to influence the upcoming requirements for change according to individual needs.

Seit Since Luhmann’s systems theory, nobody believes in individuals being able to change social systems any longer. Nonetheless, discomfort regarding systems, such as the economy or state system, grows. A utopian question: Can there be a system-free future?

According to my understanding, there will always be systems, which make and have to make a contribution to our society. Otherwise, the supply for 10 billion people or more would not be possible any longer. Since social systems are self-organizing systems, we would be well-advised to look closely at whether the systems make the contribution they should make. If it’s not the case, we should feed the need for change into the social communication system and support decision processes that allow change. Looking the other way cannot be the solution – the personal commitment of each and every one is demanded when it comes to shaping the future!

About the person: Guest Prof. Robert A. Sedlák

Robert A. Sedlák is Guest Professor at the East China Normal University (ECUN) in Shanghai and co-founder and director at the ECNU-S&P Research Center for ICT-enabled systemic changes and innovations in Shanghai. Furthermore, he is founder and CEO of the SEDLÁK & PARTNER International Consulting Group.

Since 1987, Robert A. Sedlák has been operating as an independent consultant for DAX listed companies as well as for medium-sized businesses, particularly family-owned companies. Due to his longstanding activity in Asia, with focus on China, he has gained a deep understanding of the differences between the Western and Asian culture for bridging intercultural differences. Based on the newer systems theory, he deals intensively with the self-reference of organizations and, together with renowned scientists in the field of Newer System Theory, he has developed the concept of the self-renewal of organizations.

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