Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. A chapter in “the book” at https://bit.ly/2yXGImr. Last updated 31/05/2021 12:25


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This chapter divides systems thinking into two broad schools, both of which are needed. It also outlines ideas explored in other chapters

Purpose: outcome or aim?

This article is nicely done and you may draw some lessons from it. Still, it is questionable on several points, including the correlation of a system to a purpose.


Daniel Kim defines a system as "Any group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent parts that form a complex and unified whole that has a specific purpose”. What does complex mean, and why does a system have to be complex? If it is unified by a purpose, then who has, defines or agrees that purpose? What is the purpose of the solar system, a hurricane, a termite, a game of poker, or IBM?


Some systems thinkers subscribe to the view that purpose = outcome, as in the phrase Purpose Of a System Is What It Does (POSIWID). Does Kim, like Meadows, use the word purpose with different meanings: a) the outcome of a system's dynamics, and b) an aim/goal/objective of a system's observers or designers?


Kim is interested in feedback loops. In effect, his system is an activity system we can represent in a causal loop diagram. That is OK if we are talking about one activity system, but not if we are taking about a whole business or other social entity. It is simply impossible to represent the whole entity, all its aspects, in one causal loop diagram (and to attempt it would be to presume the entity is nothing more or less than one big machine). We have to differentiate the entity from the countless different activity systems observers may find in it.


Every change agent should start with the purposes (aims) of sponsors and other stakeholders. After that, activity systems thinking (defining the processes, data and roles needed to produce some desired effects or results) is one thing, social entity thinking (directing, organizing, managing and motivating some actors to achieve the aims) is another, and the outcomes of whatever has been defined or managed is another thing altogether.

Ackoff on aims

In an effort to build a unifying system theory that bridges the schism between activity systems and social entities, Ackoff built elaborate hierarchies of aims, activities and four system types. The graphic below is my attempt to stitch Ackoff’s system ideas together in a coherent whole.


Ackoff’s system classes

Actors (parts)

Activities (parts)

Aims (purposes)

State maintaining system

Play roles in

an activity system

No optional activities

Fixed aims

Goal-seeking system

Some optional activities

Purposive system

Are members of

a social entity

Define their own activities

Fixed aims

Purposeful system

Define their own aims


The first two kinds of system are activity systems with a fixed range of possible activities. Ackoff referred to them deterministic; I don't know if he recognized they could instead be probablistic or possibilistic (as defined elsewhere in this work).


Ackoff's primary interest was in social entities of the third and fourth kinds. He assumed actors can define their own activities, and perhaps aims. He characterized these social entities as being "purposive" or "purposeful".


The aims of Ackoff’s purposive social entity lie in the desire of external actors (sponsors, stakeholders, managers, designers and others) for the entity to produce particular state changes in its environment. The internal actors may be seen as slaves to that end.


The aims of his purposeful social entity are found in the desire of its internal actors to produce internal or external state changes that benefit themselves. Which implies the entity is “self-organizing.


Surely well-nigh every human institution is both? It may be called purposive in so far as it is shaped by the aims of external actors; and called purposeful where it is shaped by the aims of actors who play roles in the system (who may change activities and aims in ad hoc ways).


If there is no pattern regularity or repetition, then what is systematic or systemic about a social entity? Ackoff said his purposeful system "can change its goals in constant environmental conditions; it selects goals as well as the means by which to pursue them. It displays will.” However, he said it does have one stable feature - an "ideal" - which is unobtainable. Who defines it? Who knows what it is? Why can it not be changed?