A new look at systems thinking, and how we know what we know
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It is tempting to relate thinking about human society to system sciences such as graph theory, cybernetics and system dynamics. Many have done it. The challenge is to avoid scientism (misapplying scientific ideas and practices to matters of human social and political concern), creating debatable analogies between different ideas, and obscuring the original meaning and value of the scientific terms and concepts. This book distinguishes social entity thinking from activity system thinking, and then relates them in a harmonious relationship, rather than superimpose one on the other.
The book started as a discussion of where systems thinking ideas apply to the work of enterprise architects (EA) and business architects (BA). It turned out the scope of the field is so broad that most EAs and BAs, and even many systems thinkers, need first to be briefed on ideas found in systems thinking. The result is a book divided into four parts with overlapping audiences.
The first three parts present systems thinking in a new light. They disambiguate terms, analyse concepts, compare and contrast approaches. They are aimed at those wanting to understand when and where those concepts and approaches apply to the work of enterprise and business architects, business analysts and management consultants. They are relevant also to teachers of computing, and system or software engineering.
Alternative ways to read the book
A systems thinker may find it best to read the first three parts in sequence.
An EA or BA might skip part two to begin with.
Those interested in the evolution of intelligence and communication, psycho-biology, mathematics or philosophy, should read part four.
An alternative approach is to start with the chapters called “Ideas you should know” at the start of parts one two and three, then proceed as you choose.
Part one: General system theory
The first general system theorist, Bertalanffy, looked for principles and patterns common to systems in different sciences. Other influential theorists include Ashby, who popularized cybernetics, Forrester, who devised a way to model a system’s dynamics at a very abstract level, and Meadows, whose primer for systems thinking is one of the most popular books on systems thinking. Those three thinkers and their ideas are discussed in the first part. The principles of cybernetics and system dynamics are good to know, and understanding them helps to explain what can and cannot be achieved by systems thinking approaches.
Part two: Systems in management science
This part reviews ideas from more “social” systems history, ending with some analysis of what people call complexity science. It is something of an antidote to some of what you may read today under the heading of “systems thinking”. On first reading, it may upset some systems thinkers; on the other hand, it clarifies the role of social entity thinking with respect to EA and BA, and may strengthen their hand when it comes to contributing to it.
Part three: Systems in enterprise architecture
Look at any business, and you will see actors performing activities to meet some agreed aims. To a greater or lesser extent, the actors are organized and the activities are systemized. This raises a question that has hung over discussions of society since the nineteenth century. At the centre of our thinking, do we put the actors or the activities? As David Seidl has said "The first decision is what to treat as the basic elements of the social system. The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons or actions."
Abstracting activity systems from the entities that realize them is what Ashby and Forrester (also “soft systems” gurus like Ackoff and Checkland) urged us to do when modelling a real-world human activity system. It is, any case, what every enterprise, business and software architect does. This part reviews what every systems thinker should know, it shows how distinguishing activity systems from social entities leads to a more consistent and coherent view of the whole systems thinking field. It divides systems thinking into two broad schools. It distinguishes agile systems from agile system development. It discusses “self-organization” and a way of approaching “wicked problems”.
Part three defines the core terms and concepts of business architecture in EA, in the context of a process for designing business activity systems. However, it is not so much a “how to” method as an exploration and explanation of where systems thinking ideas are best used in and alongside any framework or method you already know, such as TOGAF or BIZBOK.
Part four develops a philosophy of systems thinking by stepping to up to a higher level, considering how we know what we know, and describe things by typifying them in memories and messages.
Parts one and two discuss cybernetics, which is about the storage and transmission of information, in memories and messages, to describe and direct the state of things. Cybernetics stands independent of any physical form or medium. Information can be stored and transmitted using electric pulses, sounds, words, smells, dials, gestures, pictures, sticks arranged in a pattern on the floor, radio waves, or any other structure of matter or energy that can be organized or encoded by an actor to hold some information or meaning, and later decoded by the same or different actor.
Part four is about how our intelligence, social cooperation and civilization depend on the storage and transmission of information, in memories and messages. It stands independent of how the biochemistry in a brain works, or what language we use. It explores the ideas that “knowledge is a biological phenomenon” (Maturana) and that to describe something is to typify it (Ayer). With the help of a new epistemological triangle, it explores some implications of those ideas for those who present other views of description and reality.
In addressing questions about how we acquire information, verify it and share knowledge, part four answers questions about description and reality in ways that underpin systems thinking, and favor some philosophical positions over others. It rejects the “relativist” or “perspectivist” position (taken by some who read von Foerster’s “second order cybernetics”) that all descriptions of reality are purely subjective and therefore equally valid.
What does this book do?
Any effort to advance system architecture frameworks and systems thinking approaches, separately or together, has to expose and resolve ambiguities. In doing so, this book pursues several lines of thinking, related to EA and BA, more general system thinking, and even more general views of human cognition and philosophy. This book:
· relates modern EA and BA techniques to scientific foundations, for example in cybernetics and Lean manufacturing
· resolves half a dozen ambiguities in the terminology of modern EA and BA frameworks
· resolves many more ambiguities in 50 years of systems thinking discussion
· reconciles "self-organization" with activity systems thinking
· challenges pseudo-scientific uses of system theory terms and concepts
· counters the narrative of systems thinking as a kind of socio-cultural movement
· advances a type theory that may be used to settle some philosophical debates.4
This book is underpinned by five new or newly presented ideas.
2. Classifying causality into four kinds helps us to characterise what makes social entity thinking different.
3. Representing “change” as a three-dimensional phenomenon helps us to think more clearly about what it means to model and design changes to systems.
4. Separating meta system from system – allowing one actor to play a role in each - helps us to reconcile activity system theory with “self-organization”, and gives us an alternative to second order cybernetics.
5. Using an "epistemological triangle" to distinguish models from what they model, and relate information to the phenomena it corresponds to, gives us a practical and useful alternative to the classic semiotic triangle.
There is a lot to take in. Some readers find the writing style is dense or terse. But if you stick with it, your patience will be rewarded. Readers have said: “The most important work on EA and applied System Theory today” and “Makes EA more powerful, coherent and usable.”
Compiling the reference list will be the last step. Many of the works listed below can be found on the internet. This book clarifies, compares, contrasts and positions ideas expressed in these works, and relates them to EA. Some (notably Jackson and Meadows) provide more detail about associated techniques.
“Introduction to Cybernetics” (1957)
“Principles of the self-organizing system” (1962).
“Towards a system of system concepts” (1971)
“Re-Creating the Corporation - A Design of Organizations for the 21st Century” (1999)
“On The Mismatch Between Systems And Their Models”. (Ackoff 2003)
In the first third of this article, Ackoff says a few things disputed later
“Language truth and logic” (A J Ayer)
“Diagnosing the system for organisations” (Beer 1985).
(Links to these have proved fragile, but you can probably find them.)
Some interesting notes I don't entirely agree with:
“What is Management Cybernetics? (Barry Clemson and Allena Leonard, 1984)
”Creative Holism” (2003, Michael C Jackson)
“Thinking in Systems: a Primer” (2009, Donella Meadows)
“Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic social systems” (2001, David Seidl, Munich Business Research).
Other authors mentioned include Capra, Checkland, Churchman, Forrester, Midgely, Ostrom, Senge, Snowden and Von Foerster.