Concepts of Systems Thinking

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Revision as of 21:16, 4 August 2011 by Sjackson (talk | contribs) (System Boundaries)
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Introductory Paragraph

System Elements

The concept of an element is fundamental to systems. Elements are the building blocks of systems. Elements may take many forms. They may be hardware, software, humans, processes, conceptual ideas, or any combination of these. According to (Jackson et al., 2010, p. 41), when a system interacts with other sibling systems, the system itself becomes an element in a larger system called a system of systems. Other potential elements are the development system, the training system, the test system, and the support system. Systems Engineering defines the properties of the entire system as well as the individual elements. However, the principle of holism discussed below states that the properties of the entire system cannot be defined from the individual elements.


The concept of grouping allows the elements of a system to be grouped into subgroups. In Systems Engineering these subgroups are called subsystems. Each subgroup, that is, each subsystem will exhibit its own functions and other properties. Grouping also allows the system to be represented in different ways. In Systems Engineering the grouping can be represented as a hierarchy among other representations discussed more thoroughly in Topic 4. Other representations include the web view and the interface view as discussed below in the concept of interactions. All views are abstract representations of the system.

System Functions

The concept of functions states that the entire system, its elements and its subgroups will be capable of one or more functions. The Systems Approach calls for the identification of these functions. In Systems Engineering these functions can be analyzed to determine the performance of the entire system and its component parts. Systems Engineering also establishes the functional architecture which is the basis for the incremental development of the physical architecture.


The concept of interactions states that the elements of a system interact with each other. In addition the subgroups also interact with each other. The entire system interacts with external systems and with the environment. The concept of interactions leads to the Systems Engineering process of Interface Analysis and Management and also to the architectural representations of the interface view. The concept of interactions is also linked to the concept of cohesion discussed below since interaction is a basic property of cohesion.

System Boundaries

The concept of boundaries states that all systems have boundaries. In Systems Engineering the boundary of a system defines the system of interest (SOI) called the relevant system by (Checkland, 1999, p. 166). The boundary of a system defines the surface at which the system interacts with other systems (see concept of interactions) and with the environment. Subgroups also have boundaries that define the surface where they interact with other subgroups.


The concept of cohesion also discussed by (Hitchins, 2009, p. 60) reflects the idea that a system is an interacting set of elements (see principle of interactions) that all act together to perform the functions of the entire system. (Hitchins, 2009, p. 60) describes cohesion this way: “A system’s form is maintained by a balance, static or dynamic, between cohesive and dispersive forces.” In the Systems Approach and in Systems Engineering the cohesion allows the entire system to be synthesized as discussed in the Systems Approach.


The concept of emergence states that a system will exhibit properties, called emergent properties that cannot be determined from the elements alone. They can only be determined when the entire system is considered as a whole, called holism, within the Systems Approach. For complex systems these properties may not be predictable. Thus, the Systems Engineering approach to treating them must be dynamic and iterative.

Additional Principles

In addition to the concepts discussed above, (Hitchins, 2009) identifies the following for a more comprehensive set of concepts; they are defined briefly here. They are included for a more in-depth understanding of systems. Like the concepts above, the astute Systems Engineer will incorporate these into the definition of a system of interest (SOI).

  • System Reactions. This concept describes the ability of a system to rearrange itself.
  • Adaptation. This concept describes the necessity for a system to adapt faster than the rate of change of the environment.
  • Connected Variety. This concept describes the ability of connected systems to achieve stability through increased variety.
  • Preferred Patterns. This concept describes how the stability of interacting systems is enhanced by increased cohesion.
  • Cyclic Progression. This concept describes how systems, primarily political and economic systems, cycle in response to variations in input energy and feedback loops.


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