Fred Emery

Frederick "Fred" Edmund Emery (27 August 1925 – 10 April 1997) was an Australian psychologist. He was one of the pioneers in the field of organizational development (OD), particularly in the development of theory around participative work design structures such as self-managing teams. He was widely regarded as one of the finest social scientists of his generation.[1] His contribution to the theory and practice of organizational life will remain important well into the 21st century, particularly amongst those who feel uncomfortable with hierarchical bureaucracy and want to replace it with something more human and democratic.


Emery was born in Narrogin, Western Australia, as the son of a drover. He left school as Dux of Fremantle Boys' High in Western Australia, aged only fourteen. He gained his honours degree in science from the University of Western Australia in 1946, and joined the teaching staff of the Department in 1947. He subsequently spent nine years on the staff of the Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, where he obtained his PhD in 1953. During 1951–52, he held a UNESCO Fellowship in social sciences and was attached to the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in the UK.

A psychologist by training, his academic appointment at Melbourne University was where he made significant contributions to rural sociology, CPA, and the effects of film and television viewing.

He left Australia in 1957 and went to London to join the staff of the Tavistock Institute, where the majority of his early work was then done. He had worked with Eric Trist on the recently discovered concept of sociotechnical systems in 1951–52 when he was UNESCO Research Fellow. This was where he wished to be and he returned to the Tavistock Institute to continue to work with Trist. He subsequently published 'The Characteristics of Sociotechnical Systems' in 1959.

Constantly drawn towards testing social science theory in field settings, he and Eric Trist, one of his closest intellectual collaborators, and other colleagues, established "open socio-technical systems theory" as an alternative paradigm for organisational design – field-tested on a national scale in Norway, in partnership with Einar Thorsrud.

After his return to Australia, he set about designing a new method to bring in jointly optimised sociotechnical systems, one designed for diffusion of the concept rather than proof that there was an alternative to autocracy in the workplace. That method is called the Participative Design Workshop and has been used in Australia and many other countries since 1971. It totally replaces the old 9 step method used in Norway.

Sociotechnical systems is one part of a comprehensive theoretical framework called Open Systems Theory (OST). Two of Emery's and Trist's key publications were: "The Causal Texture of Organisational Environments" (1965) — which became a citation classic — and "Towards a Social Ecology" (1972). These publications are the groundwork on which Fred Emery developed OST.

He returned to Australia in 1969, and went to the Australian National University (ANU). He was a senior research fellow there to November 1979, first in the Department of Sociology, RSSS, and then from 1974, at the Centre for Continuing Education. Fred has also been visiting professor in Social Systems Science at Wharton's Department of Social Systems Sciences and spent 1967–68 at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford.

He was awarded the first Elton Mayo award in 1988 by the Australian Psychological Society and received a DSc from Macquarie University in 1992.

At the ANU Emery continued his action research in industry and the public sector, and developed new tools for the diffusion of democracy in organisations and in communities. He also attended to a backlog of writing. Within the next 10 years he authored, co-authored, or edited 10 books for publication, and published around 30 papers.

In 1979 when his CCE Fellowship expired, efforts were made by some of his colleagues to find a permanent post for him at the ANU, but to no avail. Thus, long before their numbers swelled and their own association was formed, Emery became one of Australia's outstanding Independent Scholars. By 1985 he had published at least another 15 journal articles (a flow which continued to his last year), and governments, enterprises, students, universities, and many others, from this country and elsewhere, continued to seek his expertise, and later continued as a consultant. In this later period, he and Merrelyn Emery refined the Search Conference participative planning process (designed by Fred Emery and Eric Trist in 1958). In the final two years of his life, he co-edited the third and final volume of the "Tavistock anthology" being published by the University of Pennsylvania Press – The Social Engagement of Social Science.

Emery died at his home on 10 April 1997 at the age of 71 in Canberra, Australia.

Summary of his work

Emery had a prime interest in the nature of work and in particular in how people organised themselves and the machines and other resources with which they worked, to achieve their goals and maintain their ideals and values, in the face of what he recognised as often "turbulent environments". He made regular contributions to Business Review Weekly, consistently demonstrating his critical intelligence and willingness to challenge.

He knew that being ahead of one's time can be difficult: "I am inclined to agree with Max Born, the German physicist, who reckoned that the acceptance of a new quantum theory would occur only with the passing away of the old physics professors. The acceptance will await a new generation that starts off with a question mark."[2]

One story which illustrates this (and perhaps explains some of the reluctance to grant tenure at ANU) was in 1975 when Fred and Merrelyn Emery [then both at the Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University] published a book which, among other things, discussed the neurological effects of television viewing.[3]
In response to a press article about the book in a university publication,[4] six professors and heads of departments (zoology, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, neurobiology, behavioural biology) wrote a letter[5] which strongly criticised the book and abused the authors.
The six professors outlined what they considered to be "the current limits of scientifically acceptable investigation of the nervous system" and after criticising the Emerys and their work concluded that the article about the Emerys' book "reflects upon the standards of brain research done in this University by those who are in it for the sake of finding out how a nervous system really works rather than for the support or refutation of a particular social issue". It would seem that the professors' case rested primarily on their collective prestige, since not only had they not read the Emerys' book, but their specific criticisms did not stand up to scrutiny.[6]

The three books that perhaps best convey his thinking are Toward a Social Ecology from 1972 with Eric Trist, On purposeful systems from 1972 with Russell Ackoff, and Futures We're In from 1977. He also edited for Penguin two volumes of readings called Systems Thinking (the initial volume was reprinted six times), which will long remain a staple resource on the origins and development of open systems thinking throughout the life sciences.


A list of Emery's more important publications.[7] Books:

  • 1969. Systems thinking. (Ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  • 1969. Form and content in industrial democracy. With E. Thorsrud, London: Tavistock.
  • 1972. On Purposeful Systems: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Individual and Social Behavior as a System of Purposeful Events. With Russell Ackoff. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
  • 1973. Hope within walls. With M. Emery. Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University.
  • 1976. Choice of futures: To enlighten or inform (Part III). With M. Emery. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • 1976. Democracy at work. With E. Thorsrud, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • 1977. Futures we are in. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • 1978. Emergence of a new paradigm of work. Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University.
  • 1980. Domestic market segments for the telephone. With M. Emery, PA Consultants.
  • 1981. Open systems thinking. Volumes I & II. Penguin.
  • 1989. Towards real democracy. Toronto: Ontario QWL Centre, Ministry of Labour.
  • 1991. Attitudes towards Centres for Professional Development at the University of New England. With M. Emery. Lismore: UNE.NR.

Papers and articles, a selection:

  • Emery, F. & Trist, E. (1965). The causal texture of organizational environments. Human Relations, 18, 21–32.
  • Emery, F. (1972). "Research and higher education". In G. S. Harman and C. Selby-Smith (Eds.), Australian higher education. Melbourne: Angus & Robertson.
  • Emery, F. (1975). "Continuing education under a gum-tree". Aust. J. of Adult Education, 17–19.
  • Emery, F. (1978). "Youth-vanguard: Victims or the new vandals?" In F. E. Emery (Ed.), Limits to choice. Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education Australian National University.
  • Emery, F. (1978). "The fifth wave? Embarking on the next forty years". In F. E. Emery (Ed.), Limits to choice. Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education Australian National University.
  • Emery, F. (1980, Autumn). "Communications for a sustainable society". Human Futures, 1–7.
  • Emery, F. (April 1992). "The Australian experience". Paper presented to Tusiad Symposium national Participation and Consensus, Istanbul.


  1. Alastair Crombie (1997) "Emery, Frederick Edmund (Fred) (1925–1997)" in ANU Reporter, 21 May 1997, p 7.
  2. Fred Emery (1992) in: Business review weekly Vol 14, Nr. 34-37. p. 64.
  3. Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery, A choice of futures: to enlighten or inform, Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, 1975.
  4. Anon, "CCE study: television socially, physically dangerous", ANU reporter, 6, 22 August 1975, pp. 1, 4–5.
  5. S. A. Barnett et al., letter, ANU reporter, 6, 26 September 1975, p. 11.
  6. red Emery and Merrelyn Emery, letter, ANU reporter, 6, 26 September 1975, p. 11.
  7. His collection of over 700 unpublished papers and letters is held by the Australian National Library.
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