Dr. Russell Ackoff’s list of antisystemic (sub-optimising) methods – part 8/8 – dissecting Groupware (Collaboration Software)

This is part 8 of the series of blog posts that is elaborating on some of the methods in the list of managers’ panaceas [1], a list of anticipated antisystemic (sub-optimising) methods that Russell Ackoff brought up in the middle of the 1990s. Today’s blog post will dissect Groupware (Collaboration Software).

Collaborative Software [2] is application software designed to help people involved in a common task to achieve their goals. It was originally designated as groupware and this term can be traced as far back as 1978 when Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz coined the term groupware; their initial definition of groupware was, “intentional group processes plus software to support them”.

In the early 1990s the first commercial groupware products were delivered, and big companies such as Boeing and IBM started using electronic meeting systems for key internal Projects, where Lotus Notes appeared as a major example, when internet still was in its infancy.

The complexity of Collaboration Software development is still an issue. One reason for this is the socio-technical dimension of it. Collaboration Software designers do not only have to address technical issues (as in traditional software development) but also consider the organisational aspects and the social group processes that should be supported with the Collaboration Software application.

Problems with organisational aspects and social group processes can be divided into two parts:

  1. Most of the organisations’ way of working of today are not following our set of principles, meaning it is very hard for a new implementation of Collaboration Software to claim another more efficient and effective way of working than the standard ones for today’s companies.
  2. The Collaboration Software follows the rules of a popular framework and/or methods with inherit non-collaborative sub-optimising properties, which will make the organisation decrease its efficiency. An example is the current transformation wave on-going, turning silo companies into Agile companies. The sub-optimisation done in the traditional silo organisations are turned to another sub-optimisation when Agile is introduced, especially at scale, or in worst case the latter one is added as another separate flow (IT) as input to the former one (business), see this blog post. Banks, government institutions and insurance companies are unfortunately often end up with this setup, especially when implementing larger scaling frameworks that are prescriptive.

But, for both cases above, we now have our set of principles, so we know what to do in order to make our organisation flourish.

Asynchronous conferencing: Email

Synchronous conferencing: Instant Messaging, Web conferencing, Telephone conferencing, Videoconferencing

To some aspect Collaboration Software can help us solving problems, and that is by giving structure, to the activities that need to be solved, for example JIRA, etc.

On the other hand, regarding the actual problem-solving, which actually is the hard part, Collaboration Software cannot help us, and the danger is when we think that it can help us. But to meet today’s market need, problem-solving is to a great extent unknown and unknowable interactions that cannot be planned in neither time nor between whom.

Or, when we adapt our way of working to the functions that the Collaboration Software is offering, because if the collaboration functions within the CS, is not coherent with our set of principles, we can in fact introduce a worse way of working then we had from the start.

No existing Collaboration Software so far, is following our set of principles, which means that they risk the introduction of more sub-optimisation in a company, or just continue with the same level of sub-optimising.

Of course, Collaboration Software can be helpful in collaboration over great distances, and in that way make the collaboration possible, as if the team members or team of teams are close to each other, but then of course not to the better, only to the existing way of working in the company. Also, to structure the work so all team members can see their activities or the interdependencies between the teams.

Even though telephone and video conferencing as Collaboration Software, make it easier for companies spread at different locations, to have better collaboration today, they were not part of the Groupware that Dr. Ackoff meant. And regarding other Collaboration Software, it is no proof that they will make collaboration easier. But a video conference system definitively is a step in the right direction, and when really high-quality transmission can be done in the future, the collaboration will be as close to reality as possible.

Dr. Ackoff                                           Panaceas
7                              –                              0

As we can see, Dr. Ackoff had a great understanding of anti-systemical methods, and their lack of systemic acting in the organisation.

And as Dr. Ackoff stated, to be able to have a better result than a failure, systemically changes also needed to be done in the organisation, meaning root causes needed to be solved as well, making the organisation more awesome by following our set of principles.

This was all for this series of blog posts.

The next “chapter” according to the Reading proposal tree is The first trembling steps to our methods blog post series.

C u soon again.


[1] Ackoff, Dr. Russell Lincoln. Speech. “Systems-Based Improvement, Pt 1.”, Lecture given at the College of Business Administration at the University of Cincinnati on May 2, 1995.
The list at 03:30 min. Link copied 2018-10-27.

[2] Collaboration Software. Wikipedia. Link copied 2018-12-25.

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