The schism in systems thinking

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford.

One of about 300 papers at Last updated 24/05/2017 12:35


Some believe “systems thinking” approaches are a progression from, or advanced application of, general (cross-science) system theory.

The reality is that systems thinking approaches tend to depart from general system theory in one or more of the ways below.


General system theory (GST)

Can be contrasted with approaches that are




Specific to situations in which humans interact

About system roles and rules

About individual actors (especially people)

About systems

About meta systems

About describing testable systems

About solving a problem or changing a situation


This paper explores the first difference.


Two schools of thought 1

The ambiguity of “system” in sociological discussion. 3

The difference between social entities and systems. 3

How to reconcile SST with GST?. 4

Ambiguous terms. 5

General conclusions and remarks. 7

Enterprise Architecture and GST. 8

Enterprise Architecture and SST. 10

Footnotes leading to later papers. 11



Two schools of thought

David Seidl (2001) said the question facing a social system theorist is what to treat as the basic elements of a social system.

“The sociological tradition suggests two alternatives: either persons [think actors] or actions [think roles].”

It might be argued this division in social systems thinking was detectable the 19 century.


Gabriel Tarde (1843 to 1904) was a French sociologist who conceived sociology as based on small interactions among individual actors.

It is commonly assumed that actors perform activities to sustain themselves meet their higher level goals.

It is sometimes assumed that systems are homogeneous, meaning all actors of a kind follow the same rules (like geese in a flight of geese).

Special interests of this school include how interactions between actors may generate so-called “complex” or “chaotic” behavior at a group level.

And the possibility that actors may define their own roles and rules.


Max Weber (1864 to 1920) was a German sociologist who profoundly influenced social theory and social research.

He set out three essential principles for bureaucratic organisations, be they public or private:

1.      Roles: labour is divided between roles – defined by the required activities.

2.      Assignment of actors to roles: roles are performed by actors qualified and hired to play those roles.

3.      Hierarchy: regulations describe chains of command, describe both roles and the capacity to coerce others to perform roles.

Weber’s other principles included the supremacy of abstract rules in a social system.

In short, activities are determined by defined regulations, roles and rules (not by actors themselves).


This paper draws sharp distinction between actor and role-centric viewpoints:

·         Actor-centric view: A social entity is a group of physical actors - who communicate with each other.

·         Role-centric view: A social system is a group of logical roles - which need actors to play them.


The difference between actor and role-centric viewpoints is explored below.


Actor-centric socio-cultural systems thinking (SST)

This is about how individuals relate in social groups.

It is evident in some “management science” or “organisation theory”.

It is actor-centric; its puts individual actors (usually people) first.

In SST, a system is a set of actors who each have their own purposes, motivations, goals, values.

It is usually a human “organisation”, be it a nation, society or business.


Role-centric general system theory (GST)

GST emerged after the second world war; it is generic, meaning cross-science.

It focuses on deterministic systems that repeat behaviors.

It is activity-centric; a core principle is the primacy of behaviour.

It emphasises the behavior of the whole (holism).

In GST, a system is a set of roles and rules for acting, exchanging and remember information

Orderly or deterministic behaviors are performed by structural actors/components playing those roles.


It is common to describe GST and SST as sitting at different ends of a spectrum.

But that is not satisfactory, partly because that implies there is an optimal middle position.

And partly because GST and SST are different tools, usually applied by different people in different contexts.


Some assume modern “systems thinking” is progression from, or advanced form of, general (cross-science) system theory.

This paper presents it instead as a shift away from science towards “scientism”.

And away from a general approach to a variety of specific approaches related to situations in which humans interact.

And away from thinking about systems towards thinking about meta systems.


The ambiguity of “system” in sociological discussion

Boulding and Ackoff were management scientists who sought to merge SST and GST.

Unfortunately, both blurred the distinction between actor and role-centric views of systems.


Kenneth Boulding (1956) regarded individual actors as the units of a social system.

In the same paper he suggested that, instead, the units could be seen as roles.

A role is defined by the actions to be performed in the role.

What realises a defined role is not an actor; it is an actor’s performance of the actions expected in that role.

Social system

Abstract system description


Concrete system realization

Assignments of actors to roles


In other words, a system unit is that tiny part of an actor’s time and energy dedicated to performing activities needed in the system of interest.

What an actor does outside their defined system role is not a part of that system, but might be part of another defined system.

E.g. a person’s singing is irrelevant to their role in a tennis club or poker school, but vital to their role in a choir.


Russell Ackoff (1971) contradicted himself about the nature of systems.

“Different observers of the same phenomena [in this context, people doing stuff] may conceptualise them into different systems” Ackoff

In other words, one named social entity = many systems (or indeed no system at all).


“A church, a corporation or a government agency is a system”. Ackoff

In other words, one named social entity = one system regardless of any conceptualisation.


Today, discussion of systems still confuses the two viewpoints that Seidl distinguished in 2001.

And attempts to merge GST and SST tend to obscure what each has to offer.

Much of SST might more accurately be called “Social Entity Thinking”.

The difference between social entities and systems

This paper draws the following distinction between a social system and a social entity.


A social system (say a tennis club, a choir or a poker school) is a set of logical roles, which need actors to play them.

All the actors who play its roles can be replaced.


A social entity is a collection of physical actors who communicate with each other.

The same actors can play unrelated roles in (say) a tennis club, a choir and a poker school.


Pointing to a social entity and calling it a system does not make it a system.

A group of people doing things is not a system just because people call it a “system” or an “organisation”.

The US economy, a church or IBM is not a system.

It is as many different systems as system describers can successfully describe and test.

Some of those systems may conflict with each other, or undermine each other.

With no system description, to assert that IBM is a system conveys no meaning (beyond saying it exists as a named social entity).


In casual conversation, a choir or poker school can be seen from either actor or role-centric perspectives.

When speaking of a named entity, people flip from one view or another within the same conversation.

However, social entities and social systems are different things, and they are related in a many-to-many association.

One social system (set of roles) can be realised by many social entities (e.g. many beehives, choirs and football teams).

One social entity (set of actors) can act in several social systems (e.g. its members can play unrelated roles a choir and a poker school).


(Whenever a social entity’s actors follow given roles and rules, then that group acts as a social system.

Honey bees do this when they follow rules (they inherit) to watch another bee’s dance, read the message and find the pollen.

If you could persuade the same bees to follow different rules, the same social entity would act as a different social system.)


How to reconcile SST with GST?

The “primacy of behaviour” is a fundamental principle (even the principal innovation) of GST.

However, it is important to distinguish three kinds of process.


The processes that sustain a system

A biological organism is sustained by the processes of life: sensation, respiration, digestion etc.

GST primarily addresses systems with such regular, repeatable processes.


The process that is the lifetime of a system

A biological organism is transient, it follows a process from birth to death.

Every system described according to GST has a finite life time.

It is a transient island of stability in the ever-unfolding processes of the universe.


The processes that replace one system generation by the next

Biological processes replace one generation of transient organisms by the next (slightly different) generation.

Note that the natural selection process of evolution applies outside of biology, to commercial enterprises for example.

Any system designed according to GST principles may be changed from one generation to the next.


Complexities arise when the three processes above are entangled in the description of a system.

The processes of life in an individual organism are very different from the cross-generational process of evolution.

To maintain the integrity of the system concept, a general system theory may better separate

·         The operational processes within a system (S) that sustain S or meet its goals

·         The evolutionary processes in a meta system (M) that changes S from one generation to the next.


And allow an actor to switch between roles in S and M.

The idealism triangle

The roles and rules of S

<define and change>                  <idealise>

Meta system M     <observe and envisage>      System S


Enterprise Architecture is a meta system that transforms system S from a baseline generation to a target generation, under change control

This change control requires there to be an abstract system description that is agreed by stakeholders.

E.g. consider the migration plan in EA frameworks like TOGAF; or the daily stand up meeting agile methods like SCRUM.


When actors change the roles and rules of a business or other social entity they work in, then they create a new and different system.

The name of the social entity remains the same, but the system changes.

There is a transition from system version N to version N+1.

Ambiguous terms

Scientists need a well-defined vocabulary both to communicate effectively and to produce testable system descriptions.

Scientific language helps shape thinking and provides the means for constructing new theories and test cases.


GST is supposed to be about terms and concepts that are common to different domains of knowledge.

However, specific domains of knowledge have their own specific terms and concepts.

And SST tends to uses words with meanings that are specific human social systems.


SST discussion often users scientific-sounding terms like “non-linear”, “chaos”, “complex”, “adaptive” and “entropy”.

But is it not clear that these words mean the same as in mathematics or relatively hard sciences.

Taking a word from one science to mean something else in another science can be misleading.


This table shows some systems thinking terms that have different meanings in different contexts.

System term

One meaning

Alternative meaning


A logical boundary chosen by observers

A physical, spatial boundary (e.g. of a farm, or human being).


A state change made by system processes

A rule change made to a system description by a designer


The self-sustaining nature of a biological entity

The self-organising nature of human groups


The biologists Maturana and Varela characterised living entities as being different from others by being autopoietic.

This means self-sustaining; an autopoietic organism manufactures its own body parts from primitive edible chemicals.

Some now speak of autopoietic social or business systems, meaning something different.

For example, some mean self-organising, mean that people can change the aims, variables or rules of the business they work in.


The table below shows some of the words that mean different things in different discussions of systems.


In describing social systems as per GST

In describing social entities as per SST


A named collection of roles and rules.

A named group of interacting actors.


A role which is constrained by definition

An individual who may act outside any defined role.


A structure connecting roles in processes

A structure connecting actors in a command hierarchy


Actors perform activities.

Actors change their roles and rules.


Unpredictable (meaning the opposite of linear)

Random (meaning the opposite of orderly)


The measurable complexity of a system description.

The un-measurable complexity of a system’s operation.


Changing state to achieve “homeostasis”

Changing its own roles and rules (“continual evolution”)


A social entity (a group of interacting actors) is often called a "complex adaptive system."

In GST terms however, if its roles and rules are little or not at all defined, then it is barely a system or not a system at all.

An ever-changing entity cannot be tested as conforming to a system description, and might better be called an ongoing ever-unfolding process.

General conclusions and remarks

The universe and human existence are ever-unfolding processes in which we perceive discrete entities.

We regard some of those entities as systems; but what makes an entity a system?


The terms “systems thinking” and “system theory” sound as though they refer to the same thing.

But not far down the road, one reaches a fork between what this paper calls SST (about social entities) and GST (about systems in general).


GST is about abstract system descriptions that can be realised or instantiated by concrete actors in a testable operational system.

SST is about social entities (groups of communicating actors) with less regard to roles and rules.


Much casual systems thinking discussion boils down to: "It is useful to think of some part of the world as a set of inter-connected things.”

GST says more; it asserts that different sciences share many more general ideas about “systems”.

Read system properties for a list of properties generally ascribed to systems, with links to explanations of them.


How far does SST share GST ideas?

It turns out that the two schools have different views of what named system properties mean.

Both are about whole-to-part thinking and part-to-whole thinking, connecting parts so they work together.

But after that, they have divergent views of what a system is, and what its elements and its properties are.

Giles Dalton suggests you might think of the two schools as wave theory versus particle theory.

The table below draws some contrasts between them.

Social system thinking

Social entity thinking

A system is a collection of roles and rules.

Actors are assigned to roles

Activities are ordered to given ends.

Discrete state changes.

Discrete generation changes.

A system has a name and generation number.

A system is a group of actors (usually human).

Actors choose their roles.

Activities may be ad hoc, to ad hoc ends.

Continuous state changes.

Continuous role and rule changes.

A system has a name only; there are no discrete versions


Using terms with various meanings undermines the notion of a general system theory.

Enterprise Architecture and GST

TOGAF says “An architecture defines a system” and “Enterprise architecture regards as the enterprise as a system...”

What does it mean by “system”?

Enterprise architecture started when GST and cybernetics were more widely recognised than they are today.

A touchstone for enterprise architects is GST.

“Systems concepts include: system-environment boundary, input, output, process, state….”  Principia Cybernetica


How EA frameworks apply GST

To apply GST is describe a system abstractly, then test a real system against the abstract description.

This approach is applied all over the world every day in the design of government, business, human and computer activity systems.

TOGAF applies GST to Enterprise Architecture (EA).


In TOGAF phases A to D, architects observe a baseline system and envisage a target system

Architects form an abstract description (e.g. architecture definition) of system roles and rules.


In phases E and F, architects and others plan system changes.


In phase G, architects govern projects delivering the new system.

The system’s actors/components are bought, hired or built.

The system’s operation is tested against the system description.

If there is a discrepancy, the system or the description is changed.


In phase H, architects govern change, and maintain system descriptions in line with system change.

System change requests are tested against the system description.

If there is a discrepancy, the system or the description is changed.


How EA frameworks document system concepts

“The method proposed by systems theory is to model… multiple interacting components by abstracting from certain details of structure and component.” (Laszlo and Krippner)

TOGAF is built around three comparable general principles:

1)      An enterprise is composed of interoperating building blocks (components, functions, organisation units, roles, actors, nodes).

2)      An enterprise architecture is an abstract (conceptual, logical) description of building blocks, their interactions and behaviors.

3)      The generic meta model is: required behaviors <are assigned to> logical structures <are realised> physical structures.


This table shows different names are given to the same general concepts, often at different levels of abstraction, formality or granularity.


Behavior elements names

Structure element names

External view

Service, Service Contract

Interface, Boundary, Service Portfolio

Internal view

Process, Value Stream, Scenario

Building Block, Component, Function, Organisation Unit, Role, Actor, Node


Core terms can be defined in a way that is general to TOGAF and ArchiMate.

Structural elements (persist between behaviors)

·         Interface: a collection of services requestable by a client; one way to specify a building block, component or other structural node.

·         Building block: an active structure, a performer of required activities, which interoperates with other building blocks.

·         Component: a building block defined by the one or more services it offers to clients.

·         Function: a logical component that clusters cohesive behaviors by some cohesion criterion other than sequence; a subdivision an organisation’s capability (cf. a capability).

A node connectivity, communication or value network diagram can relate structure elements of any kind by the exchange of flows or services.


Behavioral elements (run from start to end over time)

·         Service: a discretely requestable behavior that encapsulates one or more processes; it is triggered by an event or service request and produces a result of value; and is definable declaratively in a contract.

·         Process: a behavior composed of steps in a sequence; it is triggered by an event or service request and leads to an interim or final result.

A process, activity or sequence diagram can relate process steps to structure elements.


The TOGAF meta model can be tabulated thus:



Required behaviors

are assigned to

Logical structures/building blocks

are realised by

Physical structures/building blocks


Business Services


Organisation Units



Information Systems

IS Services

Logical Application Components

Physical Application Components


Platform Services

Logical Technology Components

Physical Technology Components


Implicit in TOGAF are the equations: function = logical business component, and organisation unit = physical business component.

The abstract/logical building blocks cluster behavior types that concrete building blocks can be nominated to perform.

The concrete/physical building blocks are nominated to realise or perform instances of those behavior types.

Read Building Blocks and Services for more detail.


This table generalises how different frameworks describe GST concepts.

GST system constructs

Business in BIZBOK®

Business in TOGAF®

Applications in TOGAF®

Software in UML

Abstract system structure: the network in which nodes interact

Capability/Outcome Network, Flows between Capabilities.

Node Connectivity Diagram, Flows between Nodes

Application Communication Diagram , Interface catalog (flows between applications)

Class Diagram: relationships between classes

Abstract structure node groups required activities


Function, Role

Logical application component


Concrete structure node is nominated to perform activities


Organization unit, Actor

Physical application component


Response or output required from activities


Business Service

IS Service

Output parameter

Abstract behavior sequences activities

Value stream

Scenario, Process

Use case, PAR diagram

Interaction, Operation

Abstract action is an atomic activity


Elementary Process/Function




Every flow between concrete structure nodes delivers something of value to the receiving node.

The last flow in an "end to end" stream/scenario/process/use case delivers the value wanted by the end customer/client/user node.

Enterprise Architecture and SST


Where an EA framework might apply SST

What this paper calls SST may be useful to enterprise architects in the course of their work.

A traditional system design method proceeds along these lines.

1.      Define Customers – external entities that need outputs to meet their goals

2.      Design Outputs - that customers need from the system

3.      Design Inputs – that the system needs to produce the outputs

4.      Define Suppliers - entities in the environment that will supply the inputs

5.      Design Processes - step-by-step processes to produce outputs from inputs

6.      Define Roles - in which actors will perform process steps.

7.      Hire and/or make Actors - to play the roles

8.      Organise, motivate, deploy and manage the actors – to perform roles in processes.


The organisation must be designed to perform the required behaviors.

An ITSM organisation deploys and manages the operations of computer actors.

A business management organisation deploys and manages the operations of human actors.

SST may be useful in the latter.

Management consultants use these tools to make "interventions" in management structures and other social aspects of a business.

However, the management of human actors is not usually seen as a matter that EA addresses.


How EA frameworks apply SST to the meta system that is EA

EA uses SST ideas not so much in defining business systems as in defining the meta system that is EA itself.

E.g. Ackoff’s attempts to align SST with GST and classify systems may be questionable.

However, his more practical “socio-systemic view of organizations” can be seen in the methodologies used by architects in the meta system like TOGAF.


Ideas that Ackoff and Checkland might recognise in TOGAF include

·         Start with the business mission, drivers, strategy and goals (and map system elements to them).

·         Define the human activity system before the rest, And the information systems (IS) before the technologies (IT).

·         Define/bound business systems (also IS and IT systems) by defining heir "emergent properties" - the services they provide.

·         Define "viewpoints" and "value propositions" to fit the perspective (Checkland might say Weltanshauung) of each stakeholder.

·         Define the business as a function/capability hierarchy.

·         Define the network of business functions/capabilities provide services to each other.

·         Define value/streams/processes sequential paths through function/capabilities.

Footnotes leading to later papers

The schism runs deep; consider for example “emergent properties”.

These are properties of whole system that cannot be found in a part of it.

E.g. bicycle transportation requires both bicycle and rider, neither part has the bicycle transportation property of the combination.


One socio-cultural systems thinker told me he tried to explain emergent properties to some engineers.

The engineers couldn’t understand what he was banging on about; and he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand.

He spoke of emergent behaviour as being unpredictable, surprising or mysterious (perhaps also “non-linear” or “chaotic”).

The engineers were thinking that emergent properties are the very purpose of their system design efforts!


There is an anti-determinism streak in some socio-cultural systems thinking.

Later papers argue that the critical property of human social systems is not whether humans behave deterministically or not.

It is that actors can choose to switch between social entities, and switch between playing different roles in social systems.

Further, they can step outside any system they play a role in, and step up to a meta system in which they change the roles of the first system.

(As software developers do in agile system development.)


Later papers include analysis of thinking about systems by Boulding, Ackoff, Churchman, Beer, Ackoff, Luhmann and Snowden.

Their observations, opinions and models cannot be merged into a consistent body of knowledge.

It is often difficult-to-impossible to use their models as predictor of social system behaviour.

At the extreme, some systems thinkers (notably Luhmann) turn general system theory on its head.


Read social entities and social systems for more on the schism.



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