Introducing what follows

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 07/03/2018 22:43



The role of enterprise architects is to observe baseline systems, envisage target systems, and describe both.

So, you might assume it is universally agreed what a "system" is; but this is far from the case.

The work introduced here sets out to provide a stronger theoretical foundation for enterprise architecture.


General system theory. 1

Social systems thinking. 2

Enterprises as systems. 3

Description, reality and philosophy. 5

Conclusions and remarks. 6


General system theory

Can everything can be considered as a system?

Certainly, thinking about anything using system theory ideas can be helpful.

Especially, if the thing of interest is in fact describable and testable as a system.

However, calling something a system without applying any system theory ideas to that thing has no meaning. 

And naively imposing a theoretical system on a real world social entity can be harmful.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy was a biologist who promoted the idea of a general system theory in the middle of the 20th century.

His aim was to discover patterns and elucidate principles common to systems in every discipline, at every level of nesting.

He looked for concepts and principles applicable broadly, rather than to one discipline or domain of knowledge.


Theorists like Ashby, Checkland, and Ackoff all recognised that one discrete entity can be conceptualised as many different systems.

Different attempts to describe one thing using system theory ideas will yield different systems.

So, to agree an entity is "a system", we must share (in our minds or documentation) a description of its behaviors.


Most modern businesses depend on activity systems that are changed under change control.

Enterprise architects are concerned with the design and planning of those systems.

System design and planning presumes three things.

1) The state of an activity system may change.

2) The roles and rules of a system are fixed for a system generation.

3) Changing the roles or rules makes a new system version, or a different system.


Read introducing system ideas for 12 general system theory ideas

For more, read the papers under GENERAL SYSTEM THEORY on the "System Theory" page at

Social systems thinking

When applied to a human society, classical system theory is sometimes called “structuralism”.

Structuralists analyse a human society in terms of relationships between elements in a conceptual or theoretical system.

Human actors do often play pre-determined roles and communicate pre-determined types of information

And when something out-of-ordinary happens, they may invoke some kind of exception-handling procedure.


However, many systems thinkers are concerned with societies that cannot well be described as systematic.

Their focus is on social groups in which the actors are self-aware and regarded as having free will.

Suppose the actors typically create information, communicate it to others, and respond in ad hoc ways.

If little or none of their behavior can be described and tested against that description, in what useful sense is it a system?


What does it mean to call a church, a government or a business “a system”?

IBM (like the universe) is an ever changing entity in which stuff happens.

It surely manifests, instantiates or realises countless describable systems.

And in any week of the year, some of those systems will be changed.


Some would say this means IBM is a complex adaptive system of systems.

Does this have a meaningful, useful and testable meaning?

Can we measure IBM’s complexity, or its adaptations?

Do its systems join up efficiently and effectively in a holistic whole?

(These questions are pursued in a later paper.)


Like philosophers, socio-cultural essayists compare, contrast and criticise each other..

They invent classifications and neologisms like “stratified open system”.

They borrow words from general system theory like “emergent properties” but use them differently.

They present classifications as though they are scientific theories and make grand-sounding propositions.

“The role of theory in social science therefore is to interpret empirical phenomenon in terms of how observed events are the contingent outcomes of the interaction of unobservable processes.”

Meaning, we cannot see or define the processes of a system, or predict their outcomes.

So, all we can do is explain a selection of historical facts in terms of a classification or theory we made up? As Marxists do?


In short, much systems thinking is the stuff of a socio-cultural essayist rather than a scientist.


For more, read the papers under "SYSTEMS THINKING" on the "System Theory" page at

Enterprises as systems

In business operations, it may reasonably be argued that people matter more than systems.

Nevertheless, most modern businesses depend on systems that are designed and changed under change control

And enterprise architects are concerned with the design and planning of those systems.


The culture of an enterprise has a huge impact on which operational systems can be changed or introduced.

Culture also has a huge impact on the ability of enterprise architects to propose change in the first place.

Enterprise architects must be sensitive to cultures at both operational and strategic levels, and are influenced by them.

That does not mean that enterprise architects are employed to propose or design cultural change.

The social impacts of changes to activity systems are usually addressed in parallel, by a business change team.


Classical system theory gives us insights into a wide variety of disciplines.

It leads towards theories of information and communication.

It leads towards answers to philosophical questions about description and reality.

And helps us to make sense of what enterprise architecture is about.


Enterprise architecture is about:

·         Open (rather than closed) systems, which deliver services to consumers.

·         Designed (rather than natural) systems, which need analysis and design effort.

·         Purposive (rather than accidentally evolved) systems, which have measurable aims.

·         Information (rather than material) processing systems, which formalise messages and memories.


Notice the plurality.

Regarding the enterprise as single system is a vision rather than a reality, for reasons discussed in Introducing system ideas


Formalisation of messages and memories

Enterprises are social entities in which actors exchange information.

Business activity systems can be seen as formalised social systems.

The actors perform activities according to messages received and memories retained.

The contents of memories and messages are defined as data structures composed of business data types.


Change management

A meta system is one that observes, envisages or describes the roles and rules of another system.

An enterprise architecture function is a meta system for changing an enterprise's business systems

An enterprise architecture framework is a reasonably scientific approach to describing systems.

It helps architects describe operational systems in a way that can be tested and implemented – under change control.

The social impacts of changes are usually addressed in parallel, by a business change team.


Holistic optimisation

An enterprise architecture function takes a holistic view of business activities that create and use business data.

Architects take a cross-organisational and strategic view of the enterprise’s business systems.

They strive to standardise and integrate discrete business systems.


However, seeing the whole enterprise as one system is a vision rather than a reality.

Partly because different business functions/capabilities have their own domain-specific languages.

And partly because large businesses suffer the diseconomies of scale.


Generally, an enterprise is as many different activity systems as you are able to describe and test

Calling an enterprise a system without reference to a particular system description means next to nothing.

Not only can an enterprise be conceptualised as countless different systems.

But also, those systems may be nested, overlapping, disparate, duplicative, cooperative or antagonistic.


System description

Architects identify, design, plan and govern changes to business activity systems - under change control.

They describe a system in a way that can be used to test an operational system, and analyse the impact of changes.

They describe a system from several viewpoints:

·         External and internal views

·         Structural and behavior views

·         Logical and physical views.


For more, read the papers under "ENTERPRISES AS SYSTEMS" on the "System Theory" page at

Description, reality and philosophy

A system is a subdivision of the universe we can describe as a system.

A Darwinian explanation of description starts long before words.

It starts from the notion that organisms can recognise family resemblances between things.

And so recognise when a new thing is of a kind important to survival, or resembles a previously remembered thing.

Eventually, evolution led to humans, verbal language and our sophisticated creation and use of “types”.

Typification is fundamental to system theory

We describe system structures and behaviors by typifying them.


For more, read papers under DESCRIPTION AND REALITY on the "System Theory" page at


Philosophers have looked at description and reality in many ways – both overlapping and contrary.

Many people’s instinct is to divide the universe into mental and physical worlds.

The view taken today in cognitive science and psychology is that the mind has a physical biological basis.


First, one has to shake off:

·         the mental/physical dichotomy presumed in Cartesian Dualism (after Descartes)

·         a human-centric view of the universe

·         a language-centric view of philosophy.


Then acknowledge that:

·         describers are actors who have some intelligence about their environment

·         the ability of actors to describe the world is a side effect of biological evolution

·         the first description was a biological model of some kind, and brains evolved to retain descriptive mental models of perceptions

·         in natural intelligence, the mental world is physical – though the bio-chemistry of that is deeply mysterious

·         in artificial intelligence, the most notable ability is the ability to abstract descriptive types from observations of similar things.


And finally, acknowledge that:

·         descriptions include all signs, all models, all encodings of perceptions, private and public

·         mental, spoken, written, audio, visual and physical models are all descriptions

·         humans and their machines can translate a description of any kind into a description of another kind

·         describers and descriptions are themselves part of reality - and can themselves be described (if need be).


The philosophy here can be expressed in a triangle.


The nub of our philosophy

Descriptions (private & public)

<create and use>                   <idealise>

Describers     <observe & envisage>     Realities


The process of observing reality starts in perception.

The process of envisaging reality starts in dream-like or consciously-directed brain activity.

Both processes result in the creation of descriptive/mental models.

Describers translate descriptions from private to public forms, and back again.


Today, there is little debate about the existence of material realities.

Most presume that there is physical matter/energy out there.

The questions to be answered are rather the ones listed below.


·         What is the nature of description?

·         What is the role of a describer?

·         How to test things match their descriptions?

·         How accurately do describers describe or measure things?

·         What does it mean to exist?


For answers, read papers under "PHILOSOPHY" on the "System Theory" page at

Conclusions and remarks

The work introduced here sets out to provide a stronger theoretical foundation for enterprise architecture.

It turns out that, to provide that foundation, we have to explore wider questions and theories:

·         what it means to call something (a hurricane, a human being, a society, a business, a radio) a system

·         how "general system theory" and "systems thinking" differ, and can sometimes be contrary to each other


Some systems thinking discussion eviscerates the meaning of "system" until the term is a noise word.

This encourages people to discount system theory ideas, or never learn them in the first place.

Leaving those people ill-equipped to think about anything using system theory ideas to be discussed.


Later papers analyse the notions of system theory with reference to:

·         theories of description, types, communication and information

·         philosophical questions about description and reality - how they differ and relate.


The analysis leads towards a coherent and consistent understanding of these matters.

The findings and conclusions can help both authors and users of enterprise architecture standards.

They can help readers detect and resolve ambiguities and contradictions in "systems thinking".

They could help scientists in different disciplines to use the term "system" more consistently.

Moreover, they may provide food for thought for philosophers about the description/reality distinction.



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