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Frederick Edmund (Fred) Emery (1925–1997)

by Richard Bawden

This article was published online in 2022

Frederick Emery, by Heide Smith, 1992

Frederick Emery, by Heide Smith, 1992

National Library of Australia, 20016847

Frederick Edmund Emery (1925–1997), social scientist and independent scholar, was born on 27 August 1925 at Narrogin, Western Australia, second son and middle child of Indian-born Thomas Patrick Emery, labourer, and his Western Australian-born wife Lillian Mary, née Exley. Thomas was later a drover and shearer, and Fred viewed his working-class family background as foundational to his being ‘oriented to the left’ (NLA Acc05.142); it probably also contributed to his lifelong respect for work and to his forthright manner. He attended Fremantle Boys’ School and was dux of the school during his Junior certificate year (1939), an early indication of his prodigious intelligence. Yet he left school that same year, aged fourteen, to help support his family and worked as an office boy and draftsman in the State Department of Mines. He studied by night at Perth Technical College, and in 1943 entered the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he studied psychology (BSc Hons, 1947).

At university, Emery became secretary of the Labor Club, and in 1944 joined the Australian Communist Party. His honours thesis was ‘A Psychological Study of the Prejudice of White Children towards Natives.’ Following a graduate assistant appointment at UWA, in 1948 he became a lecturer in psychology at the University of Melbourne (PhD, 1953). On 30 August 1948 at St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, he married Frances Elizabeth Ryan, a schoolteacher. He spent a sabbatical (1951–52) as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization fellow at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London. The institute’s action research orientation towards addressing real world issues matched his marked disposition for integrating theory with practice, and the synthesis of concepts from the natural and the social sciences. On return to Melbourne his doctoral research in the Mallee town of Woomelang led to his first book, Social Structure and Personality in a Rural Community, co-authored with O. A. Oeser (1954). Growing ideological doubts and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 resulted in his leaving the Communist Party.

In 1958 Emery returned to the Tavistock Institute as senior social scientist. His extraordinary creativity was nowhere more apparent than in his work with Eric Trist and other colleagues on the characteristics and evolution of open socio-technical systems (STS), concerning how organisations interact with their wider environments. The joint article by Emery and Trist ‘The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments’ (1965) was extensively cited. Emery focused his research on the joint optimisation of workers’ well-being with productivity and participative work design structures. In contrast to the linearity of prevailing theories of management that emphasised hierarchical ‘command and control’ work structures, the new STS paradigm stressed systemic interrelationships within groups of participating workers and between them and technology, and between such systems and their often turbulent environments. His research into British coalminers helped to establish that small and semi-autonomous work teams encompassing a broad range of skills were more productive than autocratic work structures that assigned a single repetitive task to each employee. They also resulted in lower incidences of accidents and absenteeism. To Emery, his work at the institute was ‘a marvellous opportunity to apply social science in a practical way and it began to look like science … instead of anthropology’ (James 1992, 72). His subsequent research in Norway led to similar findings.

Although Emery considered himself ‘a man before his time’ (James 1992, 72), this greatly understates the adoption of his insights during his lifetime, albeit in the face of strong opposition from more traditionalist scholars and managers. His ideas gained quicker acceptance among such leading European and North American companies as The Proctor & Gamble Company and the IBM Corporation than in his homeland. On returning to Australia he held senior research fellowships in the sociology department of the Research School of Social Sciences and the Centre for Continuing Education at the Australian National University, Canberra (1969–79). In his ambitious Futures We Are In (1977) he developed scenarios for Western and other societies. His idealism and restless energy ‘did not always make him an easy companion’ (Heller 1997, 1211), and his ANU contract was not renewed. Further appointments included a professorship in social systems science at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business (1982–84), before he returned to Canberra and became an independent scholar and paid consultant to major corporations, particularly those based in North America. Yet his open systems theory has remained unfamiliar to advocates of contemporary systems approaches beyond a small global cadre. There was nonetheless wide appreciation of his other research arising from his eclectic range of interests, including the deleterious effects of alcohol, smoking, and television watching.

Frances died in 1972, and that year Emery began living with Merrelyn Butterfield, a social scientist specialising in organisational design who was his close collaborator and whom he subsequently married. As ‘the management theorist who has probably done more than anyone else during the past two decades to transform the way business is managed’ (Uren 1992, 10), his many honours included the inaugural Elton Mayo award from the Australian Psychological Society (1988), and an honorary doctorate of science from Macquarie University (1992). Yet Trist observed that Emery’s intellectual ‘powers of an exceptional order’ frequently ‘did him no good with most of his colleagues’ (Trist 1986). Emery was tall and, with age, weather-beaten in appearance. Class pride probably played a significant role in his dedication to liberating human potential and democratising work. He died on 10 April 1997 in Canberra and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery, survived by his wife and the son and two daughters from his first marriage, and the daughter from his second. Two years later, the Australian and New Zealand Systems Society inaugurated the Fred Emery oration in recognition of his seminal contributions to the systems movement, which he had dubbed ‘a quiet revolution’ (Emery 1978, 149).

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Bawden, Richard J. ‘Fred Emery Oration: Systems Thinking (and Action) FROM the New Millennium: Learning from the Future.’ The Proceedings of the 17th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society and 5th Australian & New Zealand Systems Conference: Systems Thinking for the next Millennium: 20-23 July 1999, Wellington, New Zealand, edited by Robert Y. Cavana (Albany, NY: System Dynamics Society, 1999)
  • Crombie, Alastair. ‘Committed Workplace Democrat.’ Australian, 22 April 1997, 17
  • Emery, Fred. The Emergence of a New Paradigm of Work. Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, 1978
  • Heller, Frank. ‘Frederick Edmund Emery.’ Human Relations 50, no. 10 (October 1997): 1211–14
  • James, David. ‘Fred Emery: The Man Who Reformed the Workplace.’ Business Review Weekly (Melbourne), 4 September 1992, 72
  • Juddery, Bruce. ‘A Life in Pursuit of Workplace Ideals.’ Canberra Times, 30 April 1997
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 618
  • National Library of Australia. Acc05.142, Papers of Fred and Merrelyn Emery, 1942–1997
  • Trist, Eric. ‘Fred Emery: A Brief Overview.’ Unpublished manuscript, [1986]. Papers of Richard Trahair relating to Fred E. Emery 1933–2012, MS 10243, box 1. National Library of Australia
  • Uren, David. ‘Editor’s Note.’ Business Review Weekly (Melbourne), 4 September 1992, 10

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Citation details

Richard Bawden, 'Emery, Frederick Edmund (Fred) (1925–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 24 June 2024.

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