“The most important work on EA and applied System Theory today.”  “Makes EA more powerful, coherent and usable.”


The relationship of description to reality is curious, and has been debated by philosophers for thousands of years.

Countless philosophers have proposed countless philosophies – both overlapping and contrary.

Heinz von Foerster may have said we live in the domain of descriptions that we invented.

But that does not mean we live in a world we have invented.

Millions of years ago, animals evolved to conceptualise the world in their brains.

Animals also evolved to communicate concepts to each other - well enough.

To cooperate in a social system, animals must communicate by exchanging information.


You can see business systems as formalised social systems.

To cooperate in business processes, system actors must communicate by exchanging information.

They send and receive information in messages and store it in shared memory spaces.

And to succeed in communicating, actors must agree the meanings that are encoded in messages and memory spaces.


Once systems are described, they can be changed under change control from one generation to the next.

System architects are actors in a meta system that observes, envisages and describes changes to the business systems of an enterprise.

The meta system is sometimes called enterprise architecture.


In 2011, a “systems thinker” asked me what theory underpins enterprise architecture.

He said he couldn’t find any (other than the Zachman Framework - which we agreed was not a satisfactory answer).

I was surprised he didn’t know that general system theory underpins enterprise architecture.

And later, surprised to find how loosely the term "system" is used in much systems thinking discussion.

So, the work introduced here sets out to provide a stronger theoretical foundation for enterprise architecture.


System theory is good to know, good for the soul, and practically useful in all kinds of thinking about systems

Many could benefit from a deeper understanding of it.

Various puzzles are addressed and resolved in this work.

Much is owed to the biologist Charles Darwin and psychologist W Ross Ashby.

The work relates system theory to biology, psychology, sociology and the philosophy of science.


We shall see that social systems thinking emerged in the 19th century.

When general system theory emerged in the 20th century, social system thinkers sought to embrace it.

Later however, some threw off its constraints and set off in a different direction.


Certainly, seeing a business as a social entity is important; and is a primary responsibility of business managers.

The question here is whether classifying a social entity as a "system” has a useful meaning.

If every problem or situation is a system, if everything we name or point to is a system, then the term “system” is meaningless.

This work explores what means to call something (a hurricane, a human being, a society, a business, a radio) a system.

Also, how "general system theory" and "systems thinking" can differ, and even can be contrary to each other.


The work analyses the notions of system theory with reference to theories of description, types, communication and information

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".

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


Next: read The evolution of thinking.