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A Tavistock Anthology


The Foundation  and Development of the Tavistock Institute

by Eric Trist and Hugh  Murray




The Founding Tradition

Division Into Two Groups

Type C Organizations

Post-War Transformation

The Matrix

Three Research Perspectives

Achieving a Working Identity

The International Network


Type C Organizations

The experience of  building the Tavistock seemed to be relevant to a number of organizations  in one country or another that were engaged in pathfinding endeavors. The  Institute, in fact, had become a member of a new class of organizations  whose importance was increasing as the turbulent environment became more  salient. In addition to university centers engaged in basic research, and  consulting groups, whether inside or outside operating organizations,  engaged in applied research, there is a third type of research  organization whose mission is distinct from either and which requires a  different kind of distinctive competence.

There has been a good  deal of confusion about what this third type does - 'problem-oriented  research' has been a common label - and denigration of its worth. The  Institute has had to work out its properties in order more fully to  understand itself and to gain general recognition for the kind of work it  undertakes (Trist, I970).

The three types of organization, shown in  Table 3, have distinctive patterns and may be described as  follows:

Type A Centers of basic research associated with major  teaching facilities, located within universities as autonomous departments  undertaking both undergraduate and graduate teaching. Here, research  problems are determined by the needs of theory and method, and express a  research/teaching mix.

Type B Centers of professional social  science activity that undertake work on immediate practical problems,  located within user organizations or in external consulting groups. User  organizations require a means of identifying areas of social science  knowledge relevant to their interests and need social science  professionals in continuous contact with administrators. In such centers  research problems are determined by client needs. They express a research/  service mix.

Type C Centers of applied research associated with  advanced research training. They may be regarded as a resultant of Types A  and B and supply the necessary link between them. They may be located  either on the boundaries of universities or outside them as independent  institutes. They are problem-centered and inter-disciplinary, but focus on  generic rather than specific problems. They accept professional as well as  scientific responsibility for the projects they undertake, and contribute  both to the improvement of practice and to theoretical development. Their  work expresses a research/action mix.

These three types of  institution form an interdependent system. One type cannot be fully  effective without the others since the feedback of each into the others is  critical for the balanced development of the whole. The boundaries of A  and B can easily extend into C, and those of C into either A or  B.





Source of  problem

Needs of  theory and method

Specific  client needs

"General  ""field"" needs (metaproblems)"

Level of  problem




Activity  mix

Research/  teaching

Research/  service


Disciplinary  mix




Overall  pattern

Type  A

Type  B

Type  C


The Institute  is a Type C organization. It has had continually to face the dilemmas and  conflicts of needing to be an innovative research body at the leading edge  and an operational body to a considerable extent paying its own way. This  has been a condition of preserving its independence. To accomplish both of  these aims simultaneously constitutes a paradox fundamental to the  existence of such bodies.

Type C institutes are not organized  around disciplines but around generic problems (meta-problems or  problematiques), which are field determined. They need the capacity to  respond to emergent issues and to move rapidly into new areas. Sub-units  need to be free to move in and out. So do staff.

The experience of  fashioning the Institute showed that Type C organizational cultures need  to be based on group creativeness. This contradicts the tradition of  academic individualism. A group culture is inherent in projects that  depend on collaboration for the achievement of inter-disciplinary  endeavors. What gets done is more important than who does it. This affects  questions of reward and recognition. A very strong tradition of group  values had been inherited from the war-time Tavistock group. Appropriate  ways had to be found of reaffirming them. These have not always been  successful.

A difficult question arises regarding financial  stability. The funding pattern described in the discussion of optimum  balance is an ideal which the Institute succeeded in approximating only at  certain times. Two organizations with which it has compared itself - the  Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and the Work  Research Institute in Oslo - have been able to achieve financial stability  in ways unavailable to the Tavistock. In the first, the University allowed  the Institute to retain overheads which would otherwise have gone to the  University itself and staff to hold part-time faculty appointments which  were not at risk. In Oslo, the Norwegian government provided for a certain  number of senior appointments and assisted with overheads. The Tavistock  has never attained such conditions. A priority for any Type C institute is  continually to search for appropriate means of securing financial  stability.

A structural necessity is to allow a very high degree of  autonomy to subsystems and to tolerate wide differences of viewpoint. This  creates the need for a democratic system of governance such as that  constituted by the pre-war Tavistock organizational revolution that laid  the basis for future developments. The form of organizational democracy  that grew up after the war had become eroded when the division into two  groups occurred.
This failure points to the need for a Type C institute  to maintain the process side of its organizational life. In the rapidly  changing conditions of a turbulent environment fresh appreciations have to  be made frequently and staff conflicts worked through. If the organization  is to remain an open system in its environment it has to maintain an open  system within itself.

This concept of the Institute's basic  organizational character was strengthened when it became a member of an  international network. Beyond a certain stage innovative Type C  organizations need such a network. They cannot go it  alone.

Innovative organizations that come into existence in  response to critical problems in their societies can usefully continue  only so far as they remain capable of addressing further problems of this  kind. Some of the organizations in the Tavistock network have already gone  out of existence, but new ones have emerged. The London organization has  survived several crises, but is still, after 40 years, a transitional  organization. Though its member organizations may change, it is much less  likely that the network itself will go out of existence. The evolution of  the Tavistock enterprise has now reached a higher system level - that of  the network. Yet in time, many of the nodes are likely to become more  closely linked with other networks than the original set and to be  absorbed in the more general stream of the social  sciences.

                                           Three Research Perspectives

As  the matrix became established it became evident that most of the  Institute’s activities could be subsumed under three perspectives, called  in these volumes the socio-psychological, the socio-technical and the  socio-ecological perspectives. These emerged from each other in relation  to changes taking place in the wider societal environment. One could not  have been forecast from the others. Though interdependent, each has its  own focus. Many of the more complex projects require all three  perspectives.

The original perspective, which grew out of World War  II, is called the socio-psychological rather than the psycho-social, as,  in Institute projects, the psychological forces are directed toward the  social field, whereas in the Clinic it is the other way around. The source  concepts for this perspective are: the object relations approach, field  theory, the personality-culture approach and systems theory, especially in  its open system form. The Institute's contribution has been to bring them  together in a new configuration, which it has made  operational.

Experience during World War II had shown that  psychoanalytic object relations theory could unify the psychological and  social fields in a way that no other could. This was the reason for making  psychoanalytic training an essential ingredient of the capabilities  required to fulfill the post-war mission of the Institute. It soon led to  entirely new concepts: those of Bion (I96I) concerning basic unconscious  assumptions in group life, which he linked to Melanie Klein's (1948) views  on the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions; and Jaques's (I953)  theory on the use of social structure as a defense against  anxiety.

Field theory appealed to several of the Tavistock  psychiatrists who were impressed with Lewin's emphasis on the  here-and-now, the Galilean as opposed to the Aristotelian philosophy of  science and the theory of joint causation expressed in the formula B = f  (P, E). His work on group decision-making and on the dynamics of social  change, particularly as put forward in his two posthumous papers for the  first issue of Human Relations (I947), were found to be most cogent. His  dictum that the best way to understand a system is to change it gave prime  importance to action research.

In I933 Trist had attended Sapir's  seminar, given to his graduate students at Yale, on the impact of culture  on personality, the theme of his epoch-making international seminar the  previous year. To link personality and culture was foreign to the  structural approach in British social anthropology. While learning from  the structural approach, Trist (Vol. I, 'Culture as a Psycho-Social  Process') was led to a concept of culture as a psycho-social process which  could mediate between purely sociological and purely psychological frames  of reference, a combination of which was needed in action  research.

While on sabbatical at the Institute from Australia in  I95I, Emery alerted his colleagues to the significance for social science  of Von Bertalanffy's (I950) notion of open systems. This provided a new  way of considering individuals, groups, and organizations in relation to  their environments and foreshadowed the importance later to be attached to  Sommerhoff.s (I950, I969) theory of directive correlation. As time went on  the theoretical underpinnings of projects became an amalgam of these four  conceptual traditions. The socio-psychological perspective (represented in  Volume I) enables work at all system levels, from micro- to macro-, to be  covered within a single framework.

The socio-technical perspective  (represented in Volume II), was entirely novel. It originated in the early  mining studies (Trist and Barnforth, I95I). Numerous projects have shown  that the prevailing pattern of top-down bureaucracy is beginning to give  way to an emergent non-linear paradigm. The new paradigm is based on  discovering the best match between the social and technical systems of an  organization, since called the principle of joint optimization (Emery,  I959). The notion of one narrowly skilled man doing one fractionated task  was replaced by that of the multi-skilled work group that could exchange  assignments in a whole task system. This led to the further formulation by  Emery (I967) of the second design principle, the redundancy of functions,  as contrasted with the redundancy of parts.

Efforts to bring about  changes in this new direction have encountered resistances of profound  cultural and psychological depth. These can be more readily understood  when their basis in unconscious processes is recognized, for they disturb  socially structured psychological defenses in management and worker alike,  and threaten established identities. The loss of the familiar, even if  beset with “bad” attributes, often entails mourning. The possibly 'good'  may threaten because it is untried. Change strategies have to allow for  the fact that working through such difficulties takes time. Moreover,  intensive sociotechnical change threatens existing power systems and  requires a redistribution of power.

The main developments as  regards operational projects took place in the I960s and I970s and are  still continuing. Until well into that latter decade the socio-technical  field developed largely in terms of projects carried out by members of the  Tavistock in a number of countries.

The importance of  self-regulating organizations has become much greater in the context of  the increasing levels of interdependence, complexity and uncertainty that  characterize societies at the present time. Beyond certain thresholds the  center/periphery model (Schon, I970) no longer holds. There come into  being far more complex interactive webs of relationship that cannot be  handled in this way. These changes in the wider environment prompted the  creation of the socio-ecological perspective (represented in Volume  III).

The coming of the new information technologies and the signs  of a transition to a post-industrial society pose new problems related to  emergent values such as co-operation and nurturance. Competition and  dominance are becoming dysfunctional as the main drivers of  post-industrial society. The value dilemmas created are reflected in the  conflicts experienced by client organizations and in higher levels of  stress for the individual. A first attempt to conceptualize the new  'probťmatique' was made by Emery and Trist (I965) in a paper entitled 'The  Causal Texture of Organizational Environments' (Vol. III). This introduces  a new theory of environmental types which arranges environments in terms  of their increasing complexity. The contemporary environment is said to be  taking on the character of a 'turbulent field' in which the amount of  disorder is increasing. In the limit is a 'vortical' state in which  adaptation would be impossible.

Turbulence cannot be managed by  top-down hierarchies of the kind exhibited in bureaucratic forms of  organization. These are variety-reducing, so that there is not enough  internal variety to manage the increase in external variety (Ashby, I960).  Needed are organizational forms that are variety-increasing. These are  inherently participative and require a substantial degree of  democratization in organizational life.

No organization, however  large, can go it alone in a turbulent environment. Dissimilar  organizations become directively correlated. They need to become linked in  networks. A new focus of the Institute's work has been, therefore, the  development of collaborative modes of intervention for the reduction of  turbulence and the building of inter-organizational networks that can  address 'meta-problems' at the 'domain' level. Projects of this kind have  led it into the field of futures studies - 'the future in the context of  the present' (Emery and Trist, I972/73) and 'ideal-seeking' systems  (Emery, I976). New process methodologies such as the 'search conference'  have been introduced (Emery and Emery, I978) to solve multi-party  conflicts, to improve social coherence and to envision more desirable  futures.

The socio-ecological approach is linked to the  socio-technical because of the critical importance of self-regulating  organizations for turbulence reduction. It is further linked to the  socio-psychological approach because of the need to reduce stress and  prevent regression. Primitive levels of behavior can only too easily  appear in face of higher levels of uncertainty. This is one of the  greatest dangers facing the world as the present century draws to its  close.

These three perspectives, all arising from field experience,  would appear to have general significance for work concerned with the  social engagement of social  science.


Ackoff, R.L. and  F.E. Emery. I972. On Purposeful Systems. Chicago: Aldine  Atherton.
Adorno, T.W., E. Frenkel-Brunswick, D.J. Levinson and N.  Sanford (Editors). I950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York:  Harper and Row.
Alcock, T. I963. The Rorschach in Practice.  London: Tavistock Publications.
Ashby, W. R. 1960. Design for a  Brain. London: Chapman & Hall.
Balint, M. I954. “Training  General Practitioners in Psychotherapy." British Medical Journal, I:  II5-20.
Bion, W.R. I948-50. “Experiences in Groups.” Human  Relations, I:3I4-20, 487-96; 2:I3-22, 295-303; 3:3-I4, 395-402;  4:22I-27.
_____. I96I. Experiences in Groups and Other Papers. London: Tavistock Publications; New York: Basic Books.
Bott, E. I957. Family and Social Network (2nd edition, I97I). London: Tavistock  Publications.
Dicks, H.V. I970. Fifty Years of the Tavistock  Clinic. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
_____ I972. Licensed Mass  Murder. New York: Basic Books.
Emery, F. I959. Characteristics of  Socio-Technical Systems. London: Tavistock Institute Document  527.
_____. I967. “The Next Thirty Years: Concepts, Methods and  Anticipations.“ Human Relations, 20:I99-237.
_____. I976. Futures We Are In. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
Emery, M. and F.  Emery. I978. “Searching: For New Directions, In New Ways ... For New  Times.” In Management Handbook for Public Administrators, edited by  J. W. Sutherland. New York and London: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Emery, F.  E., E. L. Hilgendorf, and B. L. Irving. I968. The Psychological  Dynamics of Smoking. London: Tobacco Research Council.
Emery, F.  and E. Thorsrud. I969. Form and Content in Industrial Democracy. London: Tavistock Publications.
_____. I977. Democracy at  Work. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
Emery, F.E. and E.L. Trist. I965.  “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” Human  Relations, I8:2I-32.
_____. I972/73. Towards a Social Ecology. London/New York: Plenum Press.
Friend, J.K. and W.N. Jessop. I969. Local Government and Strategic Choice. London: Tavistock  Publications.
Friend, J.K., J.M. Power and C.J.L. Yewlett. I974. Public Planning: The Inter-Corporate Dimension. London: Tavistock  Publications.
Higgin, G.W. and W.N. Jessop. I963. Communications in  the Building Industry. London: Tavistock Publications.
Hill, J.M.  and E.L. Trist. I955. “Changes in Accidents and Other Absences with Length  of Service.“ Human Relations, 8:I21-I52.
Hill, P. I971. Towards a New Philosophy of Management. London: Gower  Press.
Jaques, E. I951. The Changing Culture of a Factory.  London: Tavistock Publications. Reissued I987, New York:  Garland.
_____. I953. “On the Dynamics of Social Structure.” Human  Relations, 6:3-24.
Klein, M. I948. Contributions to  Psycho-Analysis I92I-I945 . London: Hogarth Press.
Laing, R. D., H.  Phillipson, and A. Lee. I966. Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a  Method of Research. London: Tavistock Publications.
Lewin, K. I947.  “Frontiers in Group Dynamics.” Human Relations, 1:5-41,  I43-53.
Menzies Lyth, I. and E. Trist. I989. In I. Menzies Lyth, The  Dynamics of the Social. London: Free Association Books.
Miller, E.  and A. K. Rice. I967. Systems of Organization: Task and Sentient  Systems and Their Boundary Control. London: Tavistock  Publications.
Pincus, L. (Editor) I960. Marriage: Studies in  Emotional Conflict and Growth. London: Methuen.
Rice, A.K. I965. Learning for Leadership. London: Tavistock Publications.
Schon,  D. I970. Beyond the Stable State . New York: Basic  Books.
Sommerhoff, I950. Analytical Biology. Oxford: Oxford  University Press.
_____ I969. “The Abstract Characteristics of Living  Systems.” In Systems Thinking, edited by F. Emery. Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books.
Stringer, J. I967. “Operational Research for  Multi-Organizations.” Operational Research Quarterly,  I8:I05-20.
Thorsrud, E. and F. Emery. I964. Industrielt Demokrati. Oslo: Oslo University Press.
Tomkins, S. I962. Affect, Imagery,  Consciousness. New York: Springer.
Trist, E.L. I970. “The  Organization and Financing of Social Research.” In UNESCO. Main Trends  of Research in the Social and Human Sciences. Part I: Social Sciences.  Paris: Mouton.
Trist, E.L. and K.W. Bamforth. I95I. “Some Social and  Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal-getting.” Human Relations, 4:3-38.
Von Bertalanffy, L. I950. “The Theory  of Open Systems in Physics and Biology.” Science,  3:22-29.
Wilson, A.T.M. I949. “Some Reflections and Suggestions on the  Prevention and Treatment of Marital Problems.” Human Relations,  2:233-52.
Winnicott, D.W. I965. The Maturational Process and the  Facilitating Environment. London: Hogarth.