System theory and thinking: references and pointers to approaches not addressed


What I don’t know far outweighs what I do know.

The work-in-progress table below contains some ideas for further reading, including some sociological/anthropological views that are not addressed in this work. I have read only some of these references.


Engineering perspective



Publication and Notes

Principles of the Self-Organizing Dynamic System.


William Ross Ashby

Journal of General Psychology (1947). volume 37, pages 125–128.

First order cybernetics


Norbert Weiner


Design for a Brain: Esp. sessions 2 and appendix 1.


William Ross Ashby

Chapman and Hall

Organism as a machine. Adaptation as stability. State-determined systems.

Introduction to Cybernetics


William Ross Ashby

Chapman and Hall

Law of Requisite Variety

System Dynamics



The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions (1985) by Donella Meadows and J. M. Robinson

Kirkwood’s 1998 introduction to system dynamics

Thinking in systems: A Primer.


Donella Meadows




Deming et al.

John Seddon popularised.

Biology /  socio-technical perspective



Publication and Notes

General systems theory Foundations, Development, Applications,


von Bertalanffy, L.

General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (1969) by Ludwig Von Bertalanffy

New York: George Braziller, revised edition 1976 ISBN 0-8076-0453-4

Systems Theories: Their Origins, Foundations, and Development


Laszlo and Krippner

Published in: J.S. Jordan (Ed.), Systems Theories and A Priori Aspects of Perception. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 1998. Ch. 3, pp. 47-74.

A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity


Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts

Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 5:115-133.

Autopoiesis and Cognition


Maturna and Varela

Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Paperback, 1991.

The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987) by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela

Viable System Model


Stafford Beer:

John Walkers version

Ackoff's Best: his classic writings on management.



John Wiley & Sons: New York

Toward a Social Ecology.


Emery and Trist


Soft Systems Methodology


Peter Checkland

Peter Checkland and John Poulter


Human Systems Are Different (Paperback)


Geoffrey Vickers


Sociology /anthropology perspective



Publication and Notes


Durkhiem, Marx, Weber, Tarde, Pareto, Habermas, Parsons, Jerry Weinberg

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity


Bateson, G.

Hampton Press. ISBN 1-57273-434-5.

(Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences)

"Chris Argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning,"


Mark K. Smith

Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice (1996) by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon

See also John Seddon 2010 paper (WhynotallWorkingforL)

The Reflective Practitioner, How Professionals Think In Action


Schön, D.

Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-06878-2.

Peter Senge popularised reflective practice: "the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”

Social communication



David Seidl 2004 summary of ideas


Below are some hasty notes on a few sources.

Nice academic overview and review. It suggests some concern about whole notion of a GST.

Many have set out to equate concepts in different schools. Serendipity has led to many cross-disciplinary advances.

But vacuous generalisations are of limited help, and setting out with a determination to shape one discipline using ideas from another could be more problem than solution.

This recounts the historical failure of attempts to shape one discipline using ideas from another.

It tells us engineering methods have failed when applied to human organisations.

Engineering principles are mostly irrelevant to its recommendations for tackling social problems.

It is far from clear that “bounding” a problem domain, agreeing what is included and excluded, turns it into a “system”.

For some human organisations, the terms "system" and "systemic" seem inappropriate.

This is very impressive, but it doesn’t tally with my feeling that human organisations – in so far as they can be described as systems at all - are simpler than complex man-made machines and software systems. Biological things are more complex still.

And the human mind is the most complex system we know.


Fifty_years_of_systems_thinking_for_management” (link formerly here now broken)

Jackson has promoted an approach for “interventions” called Critical Systems Thinking. Jackson’s references include the kind of works that might appear in an MBA course.


·         Jake Chapman, System Failure: Why Government Must Learn to think Differently (Demos)

·         John Seddon, Freedom from Command and Control (Vanguard)

·         ODPM, A Systematic Approach to Service Improvement :

·         Evaluating Systems Thinking in Housing

·         Patrick Hoverstadt, The Fractal Organization (Wiley)


Our "Systems Theory for Architects" does not address this end of the systems thinking spectrum.