Origins of the Systems Approach

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This article is part of the Systems Science Knowledge Area. It gives some of the history and detail of the development of a number of different Systems Methodologies by the system science community. Some of these ideas form the basic theory and methods are used to define Systems Thinking.

Introduction to Methodology

A paradigm is distinct from a theory. A paradigm is a theoretical framework. Kuhn (1962) first popularized the term.

A methodology is a body of tools, procedures, and methods for solving a problem; in this context, a systems engineering problem. Such a set is ideally derived from a theoretical framework.

A method is a particular process or approach to solving a problem.

Systems dynamics

Systems Dynamics (SD) uses some of the ideas of cybernetics to consider the behavior of systems as a whole in their environment. SD was developed by Jay Forrester in the 1960’s (Forrester 1961). He was interested in modeling the dynamic behavior of systems such as populations in cities, industrial supply chains.

SD is also used by Senge (Senge 1990) in his influential book The Fifth Discipline. This book advocates a system thinking approach to organization, and makes extensive use of SD notions of feedback and control.

Hard Systems Methodologies

Checkland (Checkland 1975) classifies hard system methodologies, which set out to select an efficient means to achieve a predefined end, under the following headings:

  1. System Analysis, the systematic appraisal of the costs and other implications of meeting a defined requirement in various ways.
  2. Systems Engineering, the set of activities that together lead to the creation of a complex man-made entity and/or the procedures and information flows associated with its operation.

Operational Research is also considered a hard system approach, closely related to the Systems Analysis approach developed by the Rand Corporation, in which solutions are known but the best combinations of these solutions must be found. There is some debate as to whether System Dynamics is a hard approach, which is used to assess the objective behavior of real situations. Many application of SD have focused on the system, however it can and has also be used as part of a soft approach including the modelling of subjective perceptions (Lane 2000).

Systems Engineering allows for the creation of new solution systems, based upon available technologies. This hard view of systems engineering as a solution focused approach applied to large, complex and technology focused solutions, is exemplified by (Jenkins 1969; Hall 1962) and early defense and aerospace standards.

NOTE: Historically, the systems engineering discipline was primarily aimed at developing, modifying or supporting hard systems. More recent developments in systems engineering have incorporated problem focused thinking and agile solution approaches. It is this view of SE that is described in this SEBoK.

All of these hard approaches use systems thinking to ensure complete and viable solutions are created and/or as part of the solution optimization process. These approaches are appropriate to unitary problems, but not when the problem situation or solution technologies are unclear.

Soft Systems and Problem Structured Methods

Problem Structuring Methods (PSM) are interactive and participatory approaches to assist groups of diverse participants to alleviate a complex, problematic situation of common interest. Typically the hardest element of the situation is framing the issues which constitute the problem (Minger and Resenhead 2004).

PSM use systems and systems thinking as an abstract framework for investigation, rather than a structure for creating solutions. Systems descriptions are used to understand the current situation and describe an idealized future. Interventions directly in the current organization to move towards the idea recognize that the assumptions and mental models of the participants are an important obstruction to change and that these differing views cannot be dismissed but must form part of the intervention approach.

Peter Checkland’s action research program, see Systems Science, in the 1980‘s forms the basis of work by Checkland, Wilson and others in the development of soft systems methodology (SSM) (Checkland 1999; Wilson 2001). SSM formalizes the idea of a soft approach using systemic thinking to expose the issues in a problem situation and guide interventions to reduce them. SSM provides a framework of ideas and models to help guide participants through this systemic thinking.

Other PSM approaches include Interactive Planning Approach (Ackoff 1981); Social Systems Design (Churchman 1968), and Strategic Assumptions Surfacing and Testing (Mason and Mitroff 1981).

SSM and other soft approaches use systems thinking to ensure problem situations are fully explored and resolved. These approaches are appropriate to pluralist (glossary problems. Critics of SSM suggest that it does not consider the process of intervention, and in particular how differences in power between individuals and social groups impacts the effectiveness of interventions.

Critical systems thinking and Multimethodology

The development of a range of hard and soft methods naturally leads to the question of which method to apply when (Jackson 1989). critical systems thinking (CST) or Critical Management Science Jackson (Jackson 1985) attempts to deal with this question.

The word critical is used in two ways. Firstly, critical thinking considers the limits of knowledge and investigates the limits and assumptions of hard and soft systems, as discussed in the above sections. From this comes frameworks and meta-methodology for when to apply different methods such as Total Systems Intervention (TSI) (Flood and Jackson 1991).

The Multi-Methodology approach takes this aspect of critical thinking one stage further to recognize the value of combining techniques from several hard or soft methods as needed (Mingers and Gill 1997).

The second aspect of critical thinking considers the ethical, political and coercive dimension and the role of system thinking in society, see below.

Selecting Systems Methodologies

Jackson proposes a frame for considering which approach should be applied, please see: Jackson's Framework. In Jackson's framework the following definitions apply to the participants involved in solving the problem:

  • unitary : A problem situation in which participants "have similar values, beliefs and interests. They share common purposes and are all involved, in one way or another, in decision-making about how to realize their agreed objectives." (Jackson 2003, p. 19)
  • pluralist : A problem situation involving participants in which "although their basic interests are compatible, they do not share the same values and beliefs. Space needs to be made available within which debate, disagreement, even conflict, can take place. If this is done, and all feel they have been involved in decision-making, then accommodations and compromises can be found. Participants will come to agree, at least temporarily, on productive ways forward and will act accordingly." (Jackson 2003, p. 19)
  • coercive : A problem situation in which the participants "have few interests in common and, if free to express them, would hold conficting values and beliefs. Compromise is not possible and so no agreed objectives direct action. Decisions are taken on the basis of who has most power and various forms of coercion employed to ensure adherence to commands." (Jackson 2003, p. 19)

Jackson's framework suggests that for simple and complex systems with unitary participants, hard and dynamic systems thinking applies, respectively. For simple and complex systems with pluralist participants, soft systems thinking applies. For simple and complex systems with coercive participants, emancipatory and postmodernist system thinking applies, respectively. These thinking approaches consider all attempts to look for system solutions to be temporary and ineffective in situations where the power of individuals and groups of people dominate any system structures we create. They advocate an approach which encourages diversity, free thinking and creativity of individuals and in the organization's structures. Thus, modern system thinking has the breadth needed to deal with a broad range of complex problems and solutions.

While these ideas sit at the extreme of system thinking as a tool for problem solving, Jackson (Jackson 2003) identifies the work of some authors who have included these ideas into their systems approach.


Works Cited

Ackoff, R.L. 1981. Creating the Corporate Future. New York, NY, USA: Wiley and Sons.

Checkland, P. 1975. "The Origins and Nature of “Hard” Systems Thinking." Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 5(2): 99-110.

Checkland, P. 1999. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, New York, NY, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Churchman, C.W. 1968. The Systems Approach. New York, NY, USA: Dell Publishing.

Flood, R. and M. Jackson. 1991. Creative Problem Solving: Total Systems Intervention. London, UK: Wiley.

Forrester, J. 1961. Industrial Dynamics. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.

Hall, A.D. 1962. A Methodology for Systems Engineering. New York, NY, USA: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Jackson, M. 1985. "Social Systems Theory and Practice: the Need for a Critical Approach." International Journal of General Systems. 10: 135-151.

Jackson, M. 1989. "Which Systems Methodology When? Initial Results from a Research Program." In: R Flood, M Jackson and P Keys (eds). Systems Prospects: the Next Ten Years of Systems Research. New York, NY, USA: Plenum.

Jackson, M. 2003. Systems Thinking: Creating Holisms for Managers. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Jenkins, G.M. 1969. The Systems Approach. In Beishon, J. and G. Peters (eds.), Systems Behavior, 2nd ed. New York, NY, USA: Harper and Row.

Kuhn, T.S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962

Lane, D. 2000 “Should System Dynamics be Described as a `Hard' or `Deterministic' Systems Approach?” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 17, 3–22 (2000) John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Mason, R.O. and I.I. Mitroff. 1981. Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions: Theory, Case and Techniques. New York, NY, USA: Wiley and Sons.

Mingers, J. and A. Gill. 1997. Multimethodology: Theory and Practice of Combining Management Science Methodologies. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Mingers, J. and J. Rosenhead. 2004. "Problem Structuring Methods in Action." European Journal of Operations Research. 152(3) (Feb. 2004): 530-554.

Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. London, UK: Century Books.

Wilson, B. 2001. Soft Systems Methodology—Conceptual Model Building and Its Contribution. New York, NY, USA: J.H.Wiley.

Primary References

Checkland, P. 1999. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, New York, NY, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Forrester, J. 1961. Industrial Dynamics. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.

Jackson, M. 1985. Social Systems Theory and Practice: the Need for a Critical Approach. International Journal of General Systems 10: 135-151.

Additional References

Jackson, M.C. and Keys, P. 1984. "Towards a System of Systems Methodologies." The Journal of the Operational Research Society. 35(6) (Jun. 1984): 473-486.

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