Systems approach

The Systems Approach

Since the Enlightenment, and particularly in the 19th century, the attempt was made to break down phenomena, and indeed reality, into components in order better to locate and understand cause and effect relationships. This reductionist approach lent itself well to scientific empiricism and the requirements of the industrial age. The microscope was perhaps the paradigm for this intellectual approach, whose practical utility was self-evident.

Application of the approach led to an explosion of categories of phenomena and a ubiquitous process of classification and quantification. In the social world, reductionism was used to attempt to characterize people according to observable and quantifiable features, such as output and ultimately intelligence quotient.

Reductionism departed from the deductive approach handed down from antiquity, and thus broke with the dominant intellectual tradition that stretched from Heraclitus and Plato to Descartes and Kant. If that tradition had anything to offer, development of a counter-position to reductionism was inescapable. The 20th century saw, at the level of phenomenology, an interest among some, most notably in the social sciences, in recurrent or typical features of processes, as well as a preoccupation with structural features. Both tendencies shared common ground and provided a means for interpreting data obtained through reductionist methods. However, only the structural approach came to make claims for a general, and explicitly deductive, view of the world, so rejoining itself with classical tradition.

Within the structural approach, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a biologist, made the most outstanding contribution towards a unitive theory. He sought to discern organizational features among systems, an endeavour belonging to the realm of interpretation rather than that of observational methodology alone.

By taking this approach, he helped expand the scope for large ideas of general application. It is this that is the hallmark of the general theory of open systems he developed.

Yet von Bertalanffy performed his development squarely within the bounds of scientific (phenomenological) inquiry, rather than at a level of pure abstraction. His large ideas were practical ones, in the sense of establishing better systems of classification and a more explicit description of relations between (more or less) known empirical factors. From this point of departure, he introduced or systematized the use of concepts such as emergent properties, boundary, input, output, goal and information. These concepts were, moreover, bound together by rigorous deduction starting from irreducibles having an empirical basis, namely the entropy of matter and the contrary phenomenon, observed by Maxwell, of an organizational principle, which von Bertalanffy described as negative entropy (now often referred to as disentropy).

While von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory and his other writings made a massive intellectual contribution and thereby fuelled the introduction of “systems thinking” in contemporary life, he belonged to a much broader current.

The combination of mathematics with technology, notably computing and telecommunications, led to a distinct line of systems thinking, as exemplified by von Neumann, notably in his The Computer and the Brain (1958), and Shannon’s information theory. Various statistical techniques of “systems analysis” used in behavioural and management sciences can be said to represent another line of development, most notoriously applied during the Vietnam War by US Defense Secretary McNamara. One can find recognizable features of the systems approach, too, in legal studies such as Kelsen’s Pure Theory of Law (1934), in games theory and catastrophe theory, and even on theology, as seen in Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man (1955).

Theorists later turned the systems method towards organized human activity, partly for purposes of  classification – a feature notably of J.G. Miller’s Living Systems (1978) and Luhmann’s Social Systems (1995). Others exposed systems features in problem-solving and proposed the method as an aid to decision-making in business and wider management, such as in Checkland’s Systems Thinking, Systems Practice (1981). Others still have gone on to contend with relative determinism across systems, a central concern of complexity theory.

In this expansive context it is unsurprising that each area of inquiry has profited from the others over the years, meaning that a reasonably consistent, and ever more detailed, vocabulary of systems terms has emerged and entered the general language – “interface”, “steady state” or “autopoiesis”, “phase transition”, and so on. Most of those using this vocabulary, and even several of those developing it, do so quite removed from their fellows in different disciplines and from the underlying scholarly treatises. What has thus resulted is a broad movement rather than a well-defined school or ideology.

It is this movement Systemics Network International adheres to. It has made this adherence explicit – in its name — because the systems approach strongly influences SNI’s methodologies. Among SNI’s members are contributors to systems theory as such, notably Kevin Madders on types of interface and forms of integration at the level of international organization, and Pierre Bartholomé in communications satellite design. Others in SNI have applied systems concepts in such projects as electronic documentation design.

The practical benefit of a systems approach in the consultancy context is two-fold.

  • First, when applied to the topic at hand, it permits exposition of assumptions and reasoning in a succinct, consistent and explicit manner. The client and the project manager will thereby know where the consultant is coming from, which facilitates dialogue and a better, quicker match of product to expectation. In the absence of such rigour, the client can be left wondering what the basis actually is for conclusions that may have a significant impact on its affairs. That impact is, after all, why advice is sought.
  • Second, systems concepts are powerful. They permit presentation of scenarios and relationships in a comprehensive manner and then provide a basis for discerning an optimal solution, taking account of the factors and perspectives in play. In short, the systems approach, used well, is a method for designing decisions. Those decisions are often transcribed in longer texts, be it in the form of a policy document, a negotiating position, a contract, a business plan, a survey plan, a set of evaluation criteria, or a law. SNI has addressed all of these requirements.

A limitation imposed by such an approach is that the client cannot expect SNI merely to package an outcome that the client has already decided on beforehand. Some consultancies may “go through the motions” in this way, but not SNI.

On the other hand, clients need not fear that applying the systems approach means receiving deliverables littered with unintelligible jargon. The systems approach is an aid to understanding, presentation and decision. It should never get in the way of clear communication. And, finally, while the systems approach SNI applies can provide many of the inputs needed in arriving at a decision, it does not constrain. The client remains sovereign.