Interview with guest prof. Robert a. Sedlák

Organizational consulting in the jungle of systems

The editors of the Agora42 magazine have asked a few questions to selected people about the topic “SYSTEMS”. Robert A. Sedlák, guest professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, was one of their interview partners.

Abstract complex entities are nowadays quickly referred to as systems, without knowing exactly what is meant by this. Whole sciences investigate the origin, development, influence, and manipulation of systems. How does thinking about systems help us?

In our work, we initially distinguish between trivial and non-trivial systems. A trivial system, such as an engine, is complicated, but can be handled according to the classical cause-and-effect principle. By means of an error analysis, the causes of an undesirable condition or an undesirable result can be determined and then eliminated.

We see non-trivial systems as complex and operationally closed systems that cannot be seen or changed from the outside. An undesirable state cannot be eliminated immediately, but can only be approached through communicative interventions within the system. However, the result of an intervention cannot be calculated beforehand. If the same intervention is repeated, it cannot even be assumed that the same result will occur. Non-trivial systems include biological, psychological, and social systems that exist in a self-organizing manner. For example, the psychological system of a dog is unpredictable, because if you accidentally step on its tail, there are many different ways it can react: the first time it might run away but, when repeated, it might firmly bite you on the leg. In this context, we understand organizations as complex social systems which – like a mental system – are unpredictable.

This insight has made me very humble when it comes to accompanying change in organizations. Change can only come from within the system, which has a great impact on my intervention repertoire as a consultant.

How do you notice systems in everyday life? Have you ever encountered a system in your life, have you bumped into it or even been supported by it? How did you deal with it?

As already mentioned, it depends on which systems are meant. In management consulting, we particularly encounter organizations which we see as a special form of complex social systems. In family businesses, for example, we also have to deal with the family, the shareholders, and the advisory board, which we can also observe as social systems with a very different logic. When different system logics come together, we have to deal with paradoxes that require proper management.

In my understanding, the basic element of these social systems is communication. In organizations, the decision is the most important communicative process. As a consultant, I see my task in observing how communication takes place and how a decision is reached. In my view, one of the greatest services a consultant can provide is to support a management team in becoming or remaining capable of making decisions and making smart decisions that are then implemented. Because a decision is only a decision if there are subsequent decisions that follow the decision.

The perspectives and opinions of young people are hardly taken into account in system-relevant decisions - be it in politics, economics, science, etc. However, they are particularly affected by system-induced crises (unemployment, national debt, pension shortfalls, environmental degradation). What advice do you give this generation?

The younger generation is well advised to deal with the different system logics and to form their own opinion whether they consider the things they observe to be good or bad.

Only by forming a personal opinion and positioning is it possible to initiate or support necessary interventions. Based on the societal benefits that the functional systems of politics, business and science should offer, the next generation must decide whether or not to accept the established structures and the results achieved with them. Even in my generation, we had a lot to criticize about our education system – but we have not yet managed to make any real systemic changes. The challenges ahead will, however, force changes, and here every adolescent should decide for him or herself what expectations he or she has regarding these systems. This is then the prerequisite for supporting the right interventions and the appropriate programs to influence the upcoming need for change in the direction one personally prefers.

Since luhmann's systems theory, nobody believes that social systems can be changed by individuals. Nevertheless, there is a growing uneasiness about systems such as the economic system or the state system. To ask an utopian question: can there be a future without systems?

As I understand it, there will always be systems that make and have to make a contribution to our society. Otherwise, it would not be possible to provide for 10 billion people and more. Since social systems are self-organizing systems, we would be well advised to look closely at whether the systems are making the contribution they have to make. If this is not the case, we should feed the need for change into society’s communication system and support decision-making processes that make system change possible. Looking away cannot be the solution – the personal commitment of each individual is needed when it comes to shaping the future!

Robert A. Sedlák

Robert A. Sedlák is Senior Executive Consultant, Chairman and CEO at S&P Consulting International Consulting. Since 1987, he has been working as an independent management consultant for DAX-listed companies as well as for medium-sized businesses. One of his consulting focuses is the topic of “Foresighted Self-Renewal”. This method, developed with leading organizational scientists of the Newer Systems Theory, enables organizations to recognize signals for change early on and to use them specifically for a self-renewal process. In addition, it deals intensively with the question of how organizational and personal learning processes can be optimally interlinked within the framework of change processes.

Since 2013, Robert A. Sedlák has been a guest professor at the East China Normal University (ECNU) Shanghai and, for over 25 years, has been a member of the Bundesverband Deutscher Unternehmensberater BDU e.V. (Federal Association of German Management Consultants). He is also a CMC certified management consultant.