Resolving confusions in systems thinking.
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By confusing social entity thinking with activity system thinking, much written under the heading of “systems thinking” obscures what is interesting and valuable in both
Challenges to systems thinking in management science are not new. In the 1970s, John Gall poked fun at it in “Systemantics”. Gall’s satirical book starts “we shall be principally concerned with systems that involve human beings, particularly those very large systems such as a national government, the railway system, the post office, the university.” Though his book appears facetious, Gall did pin down some general truths about why, as he put it, “Things Don’t Work Very Well”.
To make sense of systems thinking we need to beware category mistakes, and use clearly-defined terms.
“We cannot reduce the biological, behavioral, and social [to] the constructs and laws of physics.” Bertalanffy 1968
A generalist has to beware over-generalization. Much systems thinking discussion suffers from a category mistake. It uses the terms of one domain of knowledge in another, but with a different meaning. Or it starts with a debatable metaphor, or a superficial “isomorphism” between two structures, or draws correspondences between sciences that don’t bear scrutiny.
People often map structures or patterns they envisage in softer sciences (sociology, economics or business management) to structures or patterns observed in harder sciences (biology, chemistry or physics). Drawing an analogy to illuminate what can be justified by evidence or logic within the softer science is fine. Using it as the explanation or justification is problematic, and can be misleading.
In particular, physical laws are mostly peripheral to the study of social and business systems. We presume there will be an energy supply, sufficient to run systems and maintain their order. And we attend to the processing of material objects only where material flows are accompanied by information flows. Since the systems of interest are those that feature information flows, this book presents cybernetic principles as more relevant than the laws of physics.
“Cybernetics is not bound to the properties found in terrestrial matter, nor does it draw its laws from them.” Ashby 1956
Again, beware over-generalization. One thinker has said “systems thinking is a way of thinking about selected aspects of the world and their interrelationships which is useful to the thinker”. The trouble is, every way of thinking is about selected aspects of the world, and relates them to each other and/or the concerns of the thinker. Another has said that a system is “a thing contained or connected in some coherent way.” The trouble is, everything from an atom to a solar system is contained or connected in some sense.
If everything you can think of fits the definition of a system, then, how to differentiate systems thinking from any other kind of thinking? Moreover, systems thinking is far more than simply looking for the causes of an effect. If we notice the climate is warming, then look for causes, that is plain common-sense thinking.
The physicist Wolfgang Pauli reportedly complained of a scientific paper: it is “not even wrong”. And "so confused that one could not tell whether it was nonsense or not.” Some papers on systems thinking are impenetrable, unfalsifiable, or even metaphysical. They use terms like holistic, non-linear, fractal. complex adaptive system and antifragility with various meanings or with no clear meaning. They create new possibilities for interpretation and debate. This generates other papers, with ever-lengthening lists of references that lend a spurious authenticity to what was written in the first place.
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 system thinkers with respect to EA and BA, and may strengthen their hand when it comes to contributing to it.