about Systems Thinking

by Tony Gill

Systems thinking involves 'seeing' inter-connections and relationships, the whole picture as well as the component parts. Water, with the property of wetness, is very different from the gases of oxygen and hydrogen of which it is composed. It is this understanding of the system with its emergent properties and characteristics that facilitates insights when managing change or problem solving in organizations. Systems thinking approaches provide key insights for the management of complexity.

A number of notable systems thinkers have emerged during the 20th century. There are significant differences in the approaches that they have developed but they all view the issues being studied in a systemic way. We are referring to the works of such people as Gregory Bateson, Norbert Weiner, Heinz von Foerster, Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask, Russell Ackoff, Jay Forrester, Geoffrey Vickers, Peter Checkland, John Warfield, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to name a few. We are indebted to these people for providing us with approaches to manage the complexity we face in our everyday lives.

What do we mean by complexity? There are four types of systems that we may observe: fixed systems (eg the position of the computer relative to my desk is fixed); periodic systems (eg, the planetary systems - the movement of the component parts relative to each other is known during a given time - past movements can be extrapolated into the future); chaotic systems where long term behaviour of the system cannot be predicted; and complex systems that lie (or even oscillate) between periodic and chaotic systems. More recently the notions of chaos and complexity theory that have emanated from the Sante Fe Institute are providing a rich language that reinforces the systems thinking concept of non linear dynamics. Complexity at the edge of chaos is currently enjoying a considerable amount of attention. This area is characterised by the degree of uncertainty and level of agreement about the system-in-focus. Generally, systems thinking approaches assume that to some degree we are able to 'manage complexity' and we are not about to enter the area where the system becomes chaotic.

While many of the systems thinking approaches have been in existence for several decades, their application has only recently begun to be recognised as making a serious impact on business performance. As global competition and the use of technology intensifies, people in all types of organization are being forced to recognise and comprehend increasing complexity in the market place and their own organizations. The holistic nature of systems thinking, as opposed to the more traditional reductionist approaches used in the West, enables people with these skills to handle more complexity and generate more creative and insightful options for action. A richer understanding of the key relationships that drive the dynamics or behaviour of their organization in the context of its market place enables these leaders continuously and successfully to fine tune their strategy and tactics.

Systems thinking often involves building models to facilitate understanding and communication at the level of both the individual and the larger group or team. As individuals we all view the world differently. This is to be expected since we are conditioned over time by our cultural traditions, personal experiences and education. While such diversity has a latent value, it can also be the source of misunderstandings and increased complexity in our social systems because of the assumptions we unwittingly make in our communication with our fellow workers and citizens. We are referring to the 'soft' issues of the work place - the complex web of value systems, understanding and human relationships that forms the 'real' organization, ie, social systems.

Social systems are about people in organizations in both the public and private sectors, communities of people living, playing and working together in a shared environment. Social systems are about people having thoughts; articulating these thoughts; communicating these thoughts to others; people listening to the communication; understanding the communication and responding appropriately. People in social systems are observers of the system; they engage in conversations through the use of a shared language. It is this ability to share language that leads to shared mind-sets, values and beliefs. Systems thinking enriches this ability to language and problem solve which leads to more effective team working, empowerment and where practised participative management.

A typical visual output of system thinking approaches is a model or series of models which attempts to explain the workings of the system under investigation. Accepting the principle that there is generally no single, linear cause and effect sequence (life is not that simple), the value of these models lies in their ability to help us view complexity from the position of numerous interlinked cause and effect situations. As a consequence, we may perceive the unintended effects of our actions or strategies which are often counter intuitive. This is frequently the source of significant personal and organizational learning brought about by the sharing of mental models.

Phrontis has developed expertise in several systems thinking approaches. Papers will be posted on the following:

Management Cybernetics - the study of effective organization; about communication & control in social systems

Soft Systems Methodology - a way to understand complexity form a specific viewpoint

System Dynamics - a way to model, understand and simulate system behaviour over time

Viable System Model - a way to understand 'how organizations work'



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