Organizations in the 21st Century:
Knowledge and Learning—the Basis for Growth

Nov. 16-17, 2001 at the Social Science Research Center (WZB), Reichpietschufer 50, 10785 Berlin

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"Organizations in the 21st Century: Knowledge and Learning—the Basis for Growth" was held Nov. 16-17, 2001 at the Social Science Research Center (WZB) in Berlin, sponsored by the Gottlieb Daimler- and Karl Benz-Foundation.

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The conference also celebrated the 60th birthday of Prof. Meinolf Dierkes, The WZB’s first president and now Director of the research unit on Organization and Technology. A tribute to Dierkes was delivered by Prof. Ariane Berthoin Antal. Among other qualities, she praised his ability to combine scholarship with friendship, saying that, rather than focus on competition as others might, Dierkes has built on collaboration.

A Tribute to Meinolf Dierkes

Ariane Berthoin Antal

Dinner speech on November 16, 2001

If I were to ask each of you why you are here in Berlin tonight, I wonder how many of you would reach all the way back to the 1940s for the real reason. Obviously, we are here because of the conference, and the conference is taking place because we have completed a big, hefty Handbook.

As scholars, managers and politicians, of course we all pride ourselves on working at the cutting edge of academic and social issues. So we look at immediate reasons that bring us to talk together here. Aren’t we all fascinated by the topic of organizational learning? Surely we would all like to work in organizations that value, stimulate and use our knowledge effectively and generously. As professionally responsible as these reasons are, this is, as Jim March would admonish, a myopic view. It is not enough to seek the reasons that lie in the short term. The roots reach much further back.

You could answer that since we are celebrating the completion of our hefty Handbook at this conference, I am probably leading you back to find the reason for our being here today to some 20-30 years ago. That is when the field of organizational learning is said to have started to sprout. The topic of organizational learning has been germinating for a while in various academic disciplines—it did not spring onto the agenda of scholars, managers or international conferences like this one overnight. Friends who know me well will right now be checking my math. I am sure that Camilla Krebsbach-Gnath is already trying to signal to me that once again, I have miscalculated. 20-30 years of research relating to organizational learning does not take us back to the 1940s. I know that. So why do I insist that the real reason lies in the 1940s?

The fact is we are here because in 1941 in a little town in Germany, Meinolf Dierkes’s red face made its first appearance. In other words, the seeds for our all gathering here together tonight were sown fully 60 years ago. What we all have in common here this evening is a bond of friendship with Meinolf Dierkes. So we are at this dinner tonight not only to share the relief and pride we feel at seeing over 900 pages of print between the two covers of the Handbook. We are here to mark together what our Asian friends call “the beginning of the second half” of Meinolf’s action-packed life.

Meinolf was in sunny California on the real day, September 24, during his annual stint of teaching in Berkeley. This conference has offered the opportunity to celebrate the birthday with many friends and colleagues from around the world. It is your job now to compensate for the lack of sun in Berlin in November, by bringing your personal warmth to this special occasion.

Let us look back to see how Meinolf’s life has led up to this event.

There is nothing in Meinolf’s name to suggest the international path his life would take. In fact, most of us non-Germans have probably often wished his family had chosen a different name for him back in 1941, because figuring out how to spell Meinolf remains a cultural puzzle. If Meinolf had collected all the extra “h”s that have been donated to linking the “Mein” and the “olf” of his name over the years, he could have set them end to end to serve as a rail connection between the Continent and England. Or maybe he would have preferred to use them like an erector set to build a bridge from Germany to Sweden in order to speed his trip over to Bergkvara these past 20 years.

Looking back at what Meinolf has done with his life so far, I think his mother should have called him Schum. That would be short for Schumpeter. The creative entrepreneurial spirit that Schumpeter valued has been characteristic of Meinolf in all his spheres of activity. He proudly recounts how he sold more bananas at a horrendous price on a single day in his family firm than had ever been sold before or since then. Very recently Friedhelm Neidhardt, a former president of the WZB, coined a new label for Meinolf to describe his entrepreneurial orientation to research: ein Wissenschaftsunternehmer, an academic entrepreneur, a nice tongue twister for non-Germans, ein Wissenschaftsunternehmer.

Rob Coppock remembers a good example of this approach in practice:

“His work on corporate social accounting is classic Meinolf. At Battelle in Seattle in the early 1970s he reworked some poorly articulated ideas (it was called social auditing until then and was much more limited methodologically), threw in some pertinent empirical evidence, and created a potent brew that caught the attention of businessmen, politicians, and academics alike. The idea that corporations do things that are socially responsible and might benefit from documenting and publicizing them was at the time both completely alien to most businessmen and viewed with suspicion by most academics. Now, nearly 30 years later, it is almost universally recognized that corporations must address the needs of different stakeholders as well as make a profit. After I joined Battelle in Frankfurt, we spent hours figuring out how to create a market for corporate social accounting in Germany and the rest of Western Europe.”

This is how a Wissenschaftsunternehmer operates.

Meinolf only deserves half the Schumpeter name however, because I do not see any evidence of the second half of Schumpeter’s concept—I could not find any examples of the “destruction” that Schumpeter says needs to go along with creativity in entrepreneurship. Meinolf has been too busy creating new organizations, setting up new ventures and projects to attend to creatively destroy old ones. He will have to settle for being called “Schum” for the time being.

All of us value Meinolf for being different and innovative. Yet he is nevertheless a child of his times. Around the time Meinolf was born, Kurt Lewin, who laid so much of the groundwork for our understanding of organizations and change, was doing quite a lot of thinking and writing. Meinolf must somehow have absorbed very early on that, as Lewin said, “You cannot understand a system unless you try to change it.” I think that “change” is Meinolf’s secret middle name. He grabbed onto Lewin’s idea while he was still supposed to be lying innocently in his cradle. And has been running with it ever since.

Anyone who has read the management literature of the 1950s, Meinolf’s second decade, remembers two letters: x and y. McGregor told us that the world had been dominated too long by Theory X, and it needed to operate according to Theory Y. Theory X holds that people basically hate work and they are motivated by fear or desire—so managers have to inspire fear or offer something desirable in exchange. Simple carrot and stick stuff.

By contrast, Theory Y holds that work is something people are intrinsically motivated to do. Managers, according to this theory, cannot motivate people. What they have to do is give people opportunities to do good work. Those of us who have had the experience of being in Meinolf’s team know that his capacity to give us opportunities to do good work is unbounded.

Peter Knoepfel, who worked with us in the 1970s before returning to Lausanne, captured this theory in practice particularly well when recalling his experiences with Meinolf, and I would like to share with you Peter’s wording, although I cannot reproduce the Swiss German accent:

„Zwei zugelaufenen Jünglingen unter dreissig ohne Erfahrungen im Forschungsmanagement (wie Helmut Weidner und ich damals waren) ein VW- und DFG - Projekt zu einem damals recht riskanten Thema (Implementation der SO2-Luftreinhaltepolitiken in verschiedenen europäischen Regionen) mit einer Fördersumme von einer halben Million anzuvertrauen, braucht Mut, Vertrauen und Grosszügigkeit. Genau das zeichnete schon den jüngeren Di aus. Unvergesslich bleiben mir seine Begeisterungsfähigkeit, seine Kunst, in jüngeren WissenschaftlerInnen Selbstvertrauen zu wecken, seine pfiffigen (handgeschriebenen) Randbemerkungen, mit denen er - umgehend - die Papiere der IIUG-MitarbeiterInnen versah und seine stets offene Bureau-Türe. Diese Art der Nachwuchsförderung ist mir bis heute ein Vorbild geblieben.“

Meinolf continues to put trust in young people so that they can undertake daringly big projects, with his support and detailed feedback—although even he would admit that his handwritten notes have become ever less legible over the years.

Looking back over the decades since McGregor wrote about theories X and Y, I think that maybe Meinolf figured out something that was better than the carrot and we should give him credit for introducing a new management approach. Michelle Williams, one of the graduates he brought to Berlin from his class in Berkeley, has captured it for posterity, providing us with a typical description of how what I would now call “Theory D” works:

“Herr Dierkes has a knack for making one feel a valued member of the team, and he goes out of his way to elicit opinions, to share information, to offer opportunities for professional growth, and generally to make work an enjoyable and enriching experience. Of the many images that remind me of his generous and giving character, I smile when I think of him hard at work on a Saturday morning at his ‘retreat’ in Sweden, busily preparing breakfast for three or four of his junior colleagues, all of them still tired from a late night of work and talk. The sleepy lot arrives at the carefully laid breakfast table, there to be met by the gregarious and ever-jovial Meinolf, ready and eager to conquer the new day.”

If you think back to the big ideas in the 1960s and 70s, Meinolf’s third and fourth decades, you will remember the work of the Club of Rome, which made us recognize that there are “Limits to Growth”. At least, most of us were persuaded by their arguments. Meinolf, however, continues to defy this principle. He does not understand the concept of limits. As Gerry Feldman pointed out nicely when he described the range of Meinolf’s contribution to the program at UC Berkeley:

“No one knows exactly what his field is because his field is everything, and it is fantastic to have him with us for his innovative ideas and wonderful energy.”

Those of us who have worked in Meinolf’s team can attest that he succeeds in getting budgets to grow and grow, in order to match the scope of multiple project ideas. As a result, his research unit has consistently been among the largest at the WZB, no matter what the officially designated institutional size of research units was.

I think that Meinolf is disappointed he did not think of inventing a magically expanding building with Jim Stirling and Michael Wilford, so the limits to our research unit’s growth are imposed by the number of rooms available for us to work in. But that has not been a real barrier to growth because Meinolf has organized WZB-wide projects like the Future of the Automobile. Remembering this experience, Uli Juergens, who works in a different part of the WZB, wrote:

„Deutlich und ausgesprochen ansteckend war seine Lust an der Konzipierung neuer Projekte, an der Planung der großen Linien. Von Beratungen mit ihm kam man aufgebaut, ermutigt zurück, auch schwierige Ziele in Angriff zu nehmen, „groß zu denken“.

Meinolf continues to get us all to “think big.“

Possibly the only area in which Meinolf has consciously experimented with limits to growth over the years is his stomach. At the office we are intermittently informed about how much he had to eat and drink with potential future project supporters in ministries and companies. “Ich habe wieder mal meine Leber fuer die Wissenschaft eingesetzt” he says, with an accompanying pat on his resulting increasingly round belly. And then we have gone through many phases of being updated on rapid loss of kilos and loose pants.

We cannot talk about the 60s and 70s without remembering the wild times, the social experimentation, and yes, the sexual liberation as well. Meinolf spent some of this time on the West Coast of the U.S., and this, too, appears to have left its imprint on him, in ways that surprised some of the German academics he recruited when he arrived in Berlin. Achim Fietkau, a WZB colleague, recalled his astonishment:

„Dem Elfenbeinturm der Universität entronnen und frisch am WZB war dies eines der ersten Dinge, die ich von Meinolf Dierkes, meinem Direktor, lernte: "Wissenschaft kann 'sexy' sein". Worum ging es? Es ging um die Suche und Beurteilung von Forschungsthemen. Neben wissenschaftlicher Stringenz galt es eine Forschung zu betreiben, die für Öffentlichkeit und Politik interessant war. Eine solide Forschung, die zugleich 'sexy' ist: ein Markenzeichen.“

It is striking how many people I asked included the word “sexy“ in describing Meinolf’s research strategy.

Such a sexual orientation to research is bound to have consequences. Christiane Neumann, the administrative director of the WZB recently made a startling public revelation. She wrote in a publication destined for all three of the communities in which Meinolf is active, academics, business and politics, that “Meinolf Dierkes und ich haben ein gemeinsames Kind.” Before going any further, I will translate the quotation into English, to be sure that our non-German speaking colleagues can share the surprise. She wrote “Meinolf Dierkes and I have a child together.” That exciting bit of news took many of us, including Sigrun, I think, aback. Fortunately, Frau Neumann explained a bit more about this child:

“Es heißt CHOICE Mobilitätsproviding GmbH, ist die erste Ausgründung oder Tochterfirma des WZB und ein fröhlicher, wilder, phantasievoller, schwer erziehbarer Sproß. Wie alle Eltern sind auch wir unermüdlich davon überzeugt, daß unser Kind wirklich genial ist und ihm eine glanzvolle Zukunft gehört.“

Christiane Neumann was reporting about the joys of parenting the WZB’s first subsidiary, Meinolf’s brainchild.

If we look at the 1980s and 1990s, Meinolf’’s fifth and sixth decades, the picture gets really messy and confusing. As Richard Pascale has illustrated beautifully on multicoloured graphs, the speed with which the management field was generating new concepts became unhealthy. And it is very difficult to relate them to anything in reality. Michael Porter, one of Meinolf’s least favorite management gurus, published his five forces model in the 1980s, a model that is supposed to explain the sources of competitive advantage. However, this all-encompassing model offers us no insight into the sources of Meinolf’s own competitive advantage.

I suggest that there are two very powerful forces in Meinolf’s model for success. One of Meinolf’s great strengths throughout these years is that he has been ahead of the field in identifying interesting research questions, and he has pursued a number of issues throughout his career, independently of current fads.

So we could even say that, to his credit, he has become increasingly out of step with the times. Instead of jumping from one topic to another, as would have been fashionable in this period, Meinolf’s strategy has been to concentrate over the last 10 years on pursuing long-term research in several related areas. The 5-year Daimler Benz Kolleg and the Handbook we are celebrating at this conference exemplify such a long-term commitment to research programs.

The second force in Meinolf’s model is his ability to combine scholarship with friendship. He has an extraordinary way of finding and bringing diverse people together. Americans, Germans, Israelis, British, Chinese, Italians, French, Finns, Canadians, Japanese. People who would not necessarily gravitate to one another, such as economists, historians, sociologists, and engineers. Managers and academics, politicians and labor union representatives. People who might not usually take time to listen to each other, old and young, men and lots of women.

In other words, rather than focusing on competition, as Michael Porter does, Meinolf has built on collaboration. He draws together and excites very diverse types of people to think together and work together.

Keith MacMillan from Henley Management College captured the essence of this combination well:

“Meinolf is an exceptional scholar and an exceptional friend. And he brings the same blue-eyed intensity to both roles. To be subject to his interrogation is stimulating and flattering--if at times slightly unnerving. But the outcome is always creative, supportive and energizing. And a whole lot of fun!”

Please join me now in toasting Meinolf for all the fun we have had together and all the fun we will continue to have in the coming years!

Revised: 11/13/02. All contents copyright 2001 by Steve Barth, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB), and individual authors. All rights reserved. For more information, please contact the Webmaster. Photographs by Peter Hinsel.