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Past President of the Society for General Systems Research (now the International Society for the Systems Sciences), 1987.
I consider the invitation to write a few paragraphs about my great mentor and dear friend Russell L. Ackoff an honor. Having known Russ and worked with him for more than thirty years I assumed it would be an easy task for me. I was soon to discover, once again, how difficult it is to develop an appreciation of Russell Ackoff as a whole person. The particular intricacies of his genius, the shear magnitude of his contributions, and the complexity of his personality make a “whole system” understanding of Russ a staggering challenge even for his long-time admirers. His unique depth and breadth defy total discovery. His multidimensionality defies conventional wisdom.
He is forceful and yet kind; caring but not compromising; fearsome but dependable. For the uninitiated, he appears to be paradoxical; yet for his colleagues and devoted students Russ is the epitome of wholeness, bringing fighting opposites into a harmonious whole.
As a friend he is both unforgiving and empowering. To be accepted as a friend by Russ, is to become the subject of his incisive and unrelenting critique. He seems merciless in making you confront your weaknesses, expecting and accepting nothing but the very best from his friends. While at the same time, he is equally tireless in promoting you as nothing but the very best. As a mentor he is a lifetime challenge and yet as a colleague you can count on his patronage to be always there rock solid.
Ackoff is a people's person without being populist, a minority of one with genuine beliefs in democratic principles: Russ's notion of liberty implies choice driven by competence. He exemplifies a novel notion in political philosophy that, considers loss of individuality and colorlessness as the same threat to social sanity as the tyranny of majority. For Russ freedom without choice, and choice without competence is meaningless. Competence is a condition for self-determination and precondition for independent action.
As a systems thinker he is an icon and iconoclast sparing nobody even himself. Russ is the founding father of two distinct paradigms in systems thinking. With Operations Research he deals with the notion of interdependency in the context of “mindless systems.” But at the peak of its success, he destroys his own creation by claiming that “ the future of OR is past” and thus converting an army of dedicated followers into staunch enemies. With purposefulness he faces the dual challenge of interdependency & choice in the context of “multi-minded systems.”
With this Herculean leap he left his contemporaries twenty-five years behind. And at the same time with shear excellence and hard work he defies the conventional wisdom that being ahead of your time is more tragic than falling behind. Despite being ahead of his time, all the time, Russ has not only managed to stay relevant but indispensable for serious thinkers.
After a most colorful career, RUSSELL L. ACKOFF is now in private practice as an educator, lecturer, consultant, and author. He is the Anheuser-Busch Professor Emeritus of Management Science, the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and the Chairman of Interact, the Institute for Interactive Management.
Russ is, first and foremost, an educator. His pursuit of excellence in education has resulted in many innovations in pedagogy and program design culminating in the Social Systems Sciences (known as S3) program at the Wharton School. From 1974 to 1986, S3 was the largest Ph.D. program at Wharton with well over 100 students. During most of that period it was the only Systems program that enjoyed the status of a formal Department in a major university. It was a student-run program. The faculty were not teaching but educating. Students and faculty learned together, a topic they chose together, in “Learning Cells” and went after new knowledge in “Research Cells.”
Born on February 12, 1919, he received a B. Architecture in 1941 and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science (1947) from the University of Pennsylvania. He served in World War II from 1942 to 1946. Prior to retirement from Wharton in 1986 he was Chairman of the Social Systems Science Department and Director of the Busch Center for Systems Research. He authored twenty-two books many of which have been translated into several languages (list included). He has also published more than 200 articles in books and journals. A charter member and former president of the Operations Research Society of America, founding member and former vice president of the Institute of Management Sciences, and former president of the Society for General Systems Research (now ISSS). He has received six honorary degrees and a number of medals. He has been elected a member of both the Academy of Natural Sciences for the Russian Federation and The International Academy of Management. Recently (2001), the Ackoff Center for the Advancement of Systems Approaches was established at the University of Pennsylvania.
His work in research, consulting, and education has involved more than 350 corporations and 75 government agencies in the United States and abroad. He has served as a visiting professor at The National Autonomous University of Mexico, The University of Birmingham (UK), Lisbon University and Washington University (St. Louis)
More than 150 in a variety of Journals.
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