The traditional way of thinking about systems, be they biological, physical or social, is to break them down and analyse the individual parts to gain an understanding of the whole – referred to as ‘reductionism’.
In addition, the social and business systems we construct, tend to be designed along functional lines, i.e. in relation to their parts – in terms of business units, directorates, agencies and departments. Even if we get as far as thinking in terms of our business processes, these tend to be looked at in isolation, ignoring their relationship to the rest of the system.
This way of thinking has served us well, particularly in the fields of science and technology, but it has its limitations when faced with highly complex and dynamic systems. These are more than the sum of their parts – they can have emergent properties, not present in any of the individual elements; and these themselves can have complex relationships.
In the case of human society and business, our systems have become increasingly complex. The range of products, services and methods of delivery have increased dramatically, as has the size and access to markets.
Organisations themselves have become more complex, through the creation of complex delivery chains, through outsourcing, the use of shared services and crowd-sourcing; and the need to tailor products and services to individual customer needs.
This dynamic complexity requires a new way of thinking. It is no longer enough to simply examine and act upon each part of a system in isolation. It is necessary to examine how each part interacts with each other; and work on the system as a whole.
Through such an approach, a far better understanding of the system is achieved, allowing us to influence its behaviour and change its make-up, far more effectively than through traditional thinking.
System Dynamics is one of a number of schools of thought within Systems Thinking. It is the one I will focus on here, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is relatively easy to understand; secondly, it holds true for most organisational settings and the design issues faced; and thirdly, it is strongly related to Systems Engineering, from which it was born. This is useful when dealing with the hard, rather than soft aspects of business design, such as data, information and technology. Indeed, it comes from what is sometimes referred to as the ‘hard’ school of systems theory and practice.
System Dynamics deals less well with the human, or ‘soft’ aspects of system behaviour. We will cover these down the track, using theory and practice drawn from the ‘soft’ school of system theory and practice. This is particularly important when considering the human aspects of the service, either at a strategic or operational level.
Donella H. Meadows, “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”
Provides a very accessible point of entry to the subject. A good book to buy for the whole team!
Russell L Ackoff, “Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management“
Pre-eminent authority on organisational systems theory. One to dip in and out of. Also find and read anything else by this truly great man.
Michael C. Jackson, “Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity”
One for the reference shelf. Provides a comprehensive introduction to Systems Thinking, in its various forms, including its historical development. Not a light read, stretching to almost 700 pages.
Michael C. Jackson, “Fifty Years of Systems Thinking for Management” (2010)
Good summary (15 pages) of the application of Systems Thinking to management over the last 50 years, centred around Boulding’s Hierarchy of Complexity. As here, it argues for a pluralistic approach in terms of applied method, matched to the nature of the system under examination. Lots of references, for those who want to go deeper.
Magnus Ramage, Karen Shipp, “System Thinkers”
This book presents a biographical history of the field of systems thinking, by examining the life and work of its major thinkers. A great way to get a good feel of the breadth and depth of the subject and the many different schools of thought that it embraces.
This is a huge subject and worthy of a course of study. The Open University in the UK runs a number of courses, inc. a Post Graduate Diploma; and publishes some excellent, and all importantly free, on-line materials.
First Published: 07/10/2011 Last Updated: 04/09/2020