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The Systems Approach

"Systems world" by André Moons and Kevin Madders, SNI, © Copyright 2000

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 to scientific empiricism and the requirements of the industrial age. The microscope, for observing ever more minutely elements making up our world, 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 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 Kant and Goethe. 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 among others 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 focused on organizational features of systems, which lay, necessarily, in the realm of interpretation rather than in that of simple observational methodology. By taking this approach, he reopened the domain of 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 a fundamental 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 (e.g. The Computer and the Brain) 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 in 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, in games theory and catastrophe theory, and even in relation to theology, as seen in Teilhard de Chardin's Phenomenon of Man. More recently, theorists have turned the systems X-ray towards organized human activity, partly for purposes of classification (a feature of J.G. Miller's Living Systems) but also in order better to expose systems features in problem-solving, notably as an aid to decision-making (cf. Checkland's Systems Thinking, Systems Practice). Others have contended 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", "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 scholarly treatises. What unites them as they walk their very different roads is what many systems theorists regard as a synchronicity or synergy explicable by the theory's inherent self-consistency. What has thus resulted is a broad movement in the history of ideas rather than a well-defined school or ideology.

It is this movement, a "systems approach", that Systemics Network International belongs to. In the tradition of systems theory's exponents, SNI has made its adherence explicit - in its name -- because the systems approach strongly influences SNI's methodologies. Among SNI's members are to be found contributors to systems theory as such, notably Kevin Madders on types of interface and forms of integration and organization at the level of international organization, and Pierre Bartholomé on features of organization in communications satellite design. Others have been more concerned with the application of 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 will have a significant impact on its business. 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 deriving 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 do "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 no more than an aid to understanding, presentation and decision. It should never get in the way of clear communication, the standard for which must always be set by the reader and user of the information, not its producer. And, finally, while the systems approach can provide many of the inputs needed in forming the right judgment, it offers no substitute for the capacity to make that judgment. That remains very much a human factor.