Reg Revans and Elliott Jaques

The book chapter that I mentioned the other day is coming along in spite of the interruptions from present exchange, holly and ivy things, and other 'holiday' (aka Christmas) stuff. It's wonderful how much I'm learning by writing the chapter, so I'm finding it an enjoyable process at this point.

As my chapter is on the history of organizational development (though I'm still getting stuck on is it organization development, organizational development, organisation development, or organisational development and am using all forms indiscriminately) I've been looking at information on the early years of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. Established in 1947, today it is

engaged with evaluation and action research, organisational development and change consultancy, executive coaching and professional development, all in service of supporting sustainable change and ongoing learning.

Reg Revans, who pioneered action learning, was associated with the Institute, and if there was a UK Hall of Fame for Organization Development people he would be in it. I read his obituary which, at one point, made me laugh.

Revans made no attempt to conceal his low opinion of most business education – "Moral Bankruptcy Assured" was his interpretation of the MBA initials, and he cuttingly remarked that his ideas were so simple that it took at least 10 years for management academics to misunderstand them fully.

He sounds just the sort of person I'd enjoy having dinner with and I'm sorry I didn't get to meet him before his death in 2003.

Revans himself explains action learning in a delightful paper Action Learning: Its Terms and Character.
In this he points out that

If conditions are changing more rapidly than the organism (organization) can learn (or adapt), it will fail; it may even die, or cease to exist. Those who underrate their competitors (perhaps by idolizing their own successes of the past) may … whether individuals, industries or even nations … well invite calamity; those, on the other hand, who respond vigorously to competition may not only master it, but also improve upon their own standards of performance. We may give this argument a veneer of logic in the two statements:

When change is faster than learning the organism fails
When learning is as fast as, or faster than, change the organism survives and is likely to grow.

Oddly Elliot Jaques, a founder member of the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, where he worked until 1951, died a month after Revans. He too would go in the OD Hall of Fame. Like Revans he was somewhat of an outsider to established management thinking. Much of his work in organisation design and development focused on the nature of hierarchy. As one writer says:

[Jaques' work] spans half a century and is based on extensive field data on how people behave at work and how they feel about their roles. [He] argued that organisations, no matter how complex, should have seven levels of hierarchy, each corresponding to a different managerial time horizon. Jaques's theory has come to be known as RO (requisite organisation).

His obituary points out that

Jaques maintained his controversial status to the end, refusing to abandon the primacy of hierarchical accountability in establishing socially just and productive organisations. Undistracted by human resource fads, leadership gurus or the dotcom bubble, he continued to develop his concepts in "real" organisations. Although ignored by many academics, his ideas are widely used by consultancies and organisations across the world.

I think I read somewhere that they knew each other and they were both associated with the Tavistock Institute – but I can't find the reference right now. What's curious about the two men is that they both refused to participate in mainstream thinking or media hype about their thinking. But maybe media hype didn't exist when they were cutting new ground in the way that it does now. Would Revans and Jaques have accepted speaking slots at the TED conferences? What would they have said about them?

Were they pleased to know that each has one of their books mentioned in the The Ultimate Business Library: The Greatest Books That Made Management, 3rd Edition, by Stuart Crain, published in January 2003 just before they died?

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