Louis Klein

Louis Klein

Louis Klein

is a leading expert in the field of social complexity, a dedicated scientist and an international management consultant. His focus is with complex projects, and systemic change management on a global, cross-cultural stage.

Louis studied management sciences, cybernetics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, politics and economics at universities in Germany and the UK. He holds a PhD in sociology with a focus on systems theory. During the years after the German Unification he worked in the economic transformation of the former GDR centering on the changes in accounting and controlling standards. His further career brought him as a director and project manager to banking, advertising and new media. Following this he joined Daimler Benz as an internal consultant.

In 2001 Dr. Klein founded the Systemic Excellence Group as an independent think tank for leading practice (www.SEgroup.de). Today SEgroup operates globally in change management and project performance issues. Large scale change projects are also part of his schedule, as in-depth field research resulting in a long list of academic publications.

He is currently Board Director of the World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics (www.wosc.co) and focus group chair at the International Center for Complex Project Management (www.ICCPM.com). Prior to that, he was Vice President of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (www.ISSS.org). Parallel to his work he has taught at Universities in Switzerland, the UK and at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership (www.Berlin-School.com) as well as at the ESCP Europe Business School (www.escpeurope.eu). Additionally he served as Head of Project Studies at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance (www.Humboldt-Viadrina.org).

In 2010 Dr. Louis Klein was awarded the Inaugural Research Prize of the International Center for Complex Project Management for his work on social complexity in project management.


What fascinates you about your field of research?

Let us start with a bold statement: if complexity is a problem, systems thinking is the answer. In many fields, systemic thinking becomes more and more recognised. Still the possibilities for multi-disciplinary thinking and practice based on a systemic mind-set is only starting to open up as a field for research, entrepreneurial endeavours and as basis for global responsibility in practice. Coming from the field of systemic change management and research, I would like to contribute to the discourse of creating a praxeology of applied research, based on a systemic perspective.

Where do you see or would like to see the field heading?

Systemic practices have always called for a more holistic and integrating attitude. For this, the communities working towards global responsibility of human action acknowledge them. What could the contribution of systemic practitioners to globally responsible practices look like? To act on this question we started three initiatives in 2014:

  • SystemicPM
    From its nature and origins, project management (PM) intends to reduce complexity instead of following Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety and looking for ways to enhance its inner complexity to cope with the complexity of today’s projects. Failing rates up to 70 per cent suggest a shift towards this paradigm by bringing together the state of the art in systems sciences and project management.
  • Systemic Consulting
    Since the world is learning about systemic problems, the idea of providing systemic solutions in consulting and advisory became some extra public attention. Yet, what are we looking at today if we revisit systemic consulting?

Systems sciences as such have taken a few paradigmatic turns over the years. How was this reflected in the disciplinary set of models, methods and instruments of systemic consulting? What are the trends? Where does the community of practice go?

  • GRAC
    We may want to start with a simple question. What is Global Responsibility in Advisory and Consulting Services (GRAC)? That is the question we raise together with the United Nations Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI). There are no quick answers. The first reflexes were looking at codes of ethical conduct, by a, if we may say so, Hippocratic oath for consultants. We can think of the accreditation of practices or the certification of people and companies. However, do we really need another declaration, manifest or charta? The reflection needs to be broader and deeper at the same time and innovative as to overcome the pitfalls of expecting new results from old thinking

Is there an author / thinker, whose work inspires you in your own work?

That is a rather long list, but let’s give it a shot:

Starting with scientific frames of reference, it had been all cybernetics and systems theory in the beginning. Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems can be marked as a founding stone of SEgroup research. This opens up a sociological perspective onto the dynamics of organisations. And links into an epistemological tradition of constructivism, especially Watzlawick and Heinz von Foerster. Management cybernetics in the tradition of Stafford Beer created a good counterbalance and served as a bridge into management sciences. Chaos theory based on Gleick and debating complexity, however, called for a critical systems perspective as it was brought forward by Jackson and Flood. And although over the years new frames were added to the focus on cybernetics and systems theory they served reliably as a scientific centre for the SEgroup research in change.

Exploring the conditions for the possibility of social systems to emerge and support their viability over time an additional set of scientific frames came into the play. We are looking at discourse theory, critical theory, epistemology and anthropology and ethnography.

Discourse theory relating to the works of Foucault, Bourdieu and Derrida allows for a thorough analysis of the world-view and the paradigmatic embedment as a specific context of a specific social system. This goes hand in hand with Berger and Luckmann’s insights in the social construction of reality. In a certain sense this links back to constructivism, yet discourse theory puts that into a broader context.

Critical theory is often used synonymous with the Frankfurt School and its five leading protagonists: Macuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and Fromm. It is however not the general critical perspective on society as brought forward in the Frankfurt School which make critical theory so valuable. Especially seen from a systems perspective, critical theory provides the ground to counterbalance the conservative tendency of the processes of emergence. Emergent systems are conservative by nature and due to operational closure, it is difficult to generate a critical perspective from the inside. A counterbalance of this view can be provided by the perspective of the critical theory. The second generation of the Frankfurt School, especially Jürgen Habermas and even more so the recently brought forward theory of conventions, allow based on critical theory, for a calculus of values. Especially in times when value-driven management is highly rated yet poorly operationalised, critical theory puts the debate back on its feet.

Epistemology in the tradition of Ludwig Fleck, Thomas Kuhn and Georgio Agamben may have been put first in the list of additional scientific frames of reference yet what makes them so valuable for the research is not only looking at the scientist’s paradigm but much more at the ecology of paradigms that is used in the field to give rough answers to communities of practice. The intriguing inside that comes along the notion of ecology of paradigms is, that for example managerial practices should not be thought of as being homogeneous. Different cultural means and different activities within a practice are heterogeneous and may relate to each other in ways which go all along the scale of ecological coexistence from conflict and competition on the one side and symbiosis on the other side. This feeds the notion that the paradox in organisational practices is the rule and not the exception.

Anthropology and Ethnography are listed last but not least. Understanding cultures remains a difficult exercise if I only refer to the latter works of Trompenas and Hofstede. The key to understanding cultures rather lies with the anthropological classics of Norbert Elias, Bronislaw Malinowski, Johan Huizinga and Marcel Mauss. Likewise valuable are the ethnographic works of Harold Garfinkel. Especially for the cultural dynamics of self-observation and self-description of social systems anthropology and ethnography serve as a strong frame of reference.

What fascinates you about “Systemic Excellence Group “? In your own words: Why should people go there?

The SEgroup learning journey had been a radical one. Promoting change in organisations makes it difficult to shy away from your own development. On the contrary, if this is your passion, you are inclined to try it out yourself first. And this path of continuous change and innovation has not always been a straight one. Like a market curve, the development has been fluctuating, but the trend has been steady: What started as a small Limited in Berlin is now a global cooperative with Consortial Partners from San Francisco to Sydney and from Shanghai to Cape Town. And what for the moment looks like a satisfactory end will turn out to have been just another milestone on an on-going learning journey.


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