Fragmentation of systems thinking: Systems thinking is not a coherent body of knowledge but derived from a conglomerate of approaches, concepts, tools and methods with often different – even conflicting – interpretations on the one hand and different names for a similar and even same thing on the other hand.
To benchmark in this context would imply that we can only compare the same type of systems (e.g. an organisation, function, project, person) that use the same approach in the same context, otherwise we compare apples with eggs.
I received the following inquiry into benchmarking systems thinking “….we adopted systems thinking in 2005….and would like to visit organisations that have integrated systems thinking approaches within their work…..for benchmarking purposes”.
My immediate gut reaction on benchmarking systems thinking was: Sharing experiences, yes! Benchmarking, no!
Systems thinking describes how systems are organised, unfold and change and how this should be managed. MBA programmes do the same regarding business organisations.
Systems thinking is (w)holistic. (Note: Wholistic means considering wholes, while holistic implies that there is emergence at the level of the whole). By comparison, MBA programmes are fragmented. Their curriculum is designed on a subject (i.e. function) specific basis. Even systems thinking is treated as a subject and in rare cases it is delivered as an action learning programme.
To make MBA programmes systemic would imply that the whole MBA curriculum is designed as a systemic and integrated action learning programme, based on a meta-systems paradigm (e.g. Biomatrix Systems Theory). This would imply that systems thinking is not a specific subject but is the meta-discipline within which all subject specific knowledge is contextualised and the interaction between subjects is organised.
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Futures research concerns itself with how systems change and develop in the course of time. I would therefore argue that it represents the temporal perspective of systems theory and that the underlying worldview of futures research is systems thinking.
Some futurists (e.g. Linstone) distinguish between two types of forecasting, exploratory and normative. This is analogous to the distinction of the current and ideal futures in systems thinking.
Exploratory forecasting involves extrapolating the current structure or behaviour of a system into the future and exploring the outcomes of this. Since the environment will also change, the future outcomes will differ from the current ones. Alternative assumptions about environmental changes and the system’s response to them give rise to alternative future scenarios.
Normative forecasting explores the desirable future of a system and how the system can attain it. The latter exploration involves backcasting.
Systems thinking provides useful insights and tools for the exploration of the current future (e.g. systems dynamics models, strategic assumption surfacing) and ideal future (e.g. theoretical insights on the difference between problem solving and dissolving through ideal system redesign). It also provides insights of how systems change (e.g. co-production across three levels), types of change within and between systems (e.g. clockwise and counter-clockwise flow of change) and the outcomes of change (e.g. Type I versus Type II or emergent properties). Systems thinking also contributes methods of change management (i.e. how to analyse a system and its possible futures and how to create a more ideal future). (See biomatrixweb.com for our approaches to the management of organisational and societal development and change.)
As a note of concern: I recently attended a presentation of the 2012 State of the Future report by the Millennium Project. In my interactions with attending futurists, I noted a lack of systemic understanding around the difference between
alternative scenarios (i.e. current future scenarios) and an ideal design (i.e. an ideal future scenario) and
the nature of change in systems with relatively fixed functioning (i.e. nature’s systems) and in those with a greater freedom of choice (i.e. human social systems).
This reflects a current future mindset.
Futurists have an important role to play in (dis)solving humanity’s perplexing problems which we know cannot be achieved without a paradigm shift towards systems thinking. They therefore need to be systems thinkers and systemic change facilitators.
Since I had some input to the education of futurists (through a lecture on systems thinking to the students of the M.Phil. programme of the Institute for Futures Research), I blame myself for obviously having failed to get this message across. I have since made suggestions for the redesign of the curriculum of that programme based on systems thinking.
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A growing recognition of the interdependence of systems across scientific disciplines manifests as an increase in interdisciplinary research, whereby two or more disciplines work together around a specific issue.
However, from a systemic perspective, interdisciplinary cooperation and integration still implies fragmentation, albeit at a higher level. It is a bottom up approach, whereby two or more disciplines share their knowledge to co-produce emergent knowledge that transcends and contextualises the interacting disciplines.
By comparison, systems theory (especially the integrated version of Biomatrix Systems Theory) offers a top down approach of investigation and cooperation across disciplines. Because it provides generic frameworks and organising principles for the interaction of systems of the naturosphere, psycho-sociosphere and technosphere, it can facilitate transdisciplinary debate and research across all types of systems.
Transdisciplinary debate can also facilitate the exploration of some of the assumptions on which the various scientific disciplines rest, thereby initiating a shift in paradigm. It can also facilitate contextualisation of discipline specific knowledge and the emergence of new knowledge from inter and transdisciplinary cooperation. From a philosophy of science point of view, a transdisciplinary exploration produces knowledge derived from synthesis (i.e. from the interaction of a discipline with others within a containing whole).
The knowledge derived from synergy complements the discipline specific knowledge which is mostly derived from analysis. Both types of knowledge together present a larger truth.
It needs to be understood that the transdisciplinary input is to provide a framework and organising principles (e.g. in form of questions). It does not provide content. The content (i.e. the synergistic knowledge associated with specific disciplines) comes from the disciplines themselves – i.e. through discipline specific answers to the generic transdisciplinary questions.
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Systems thinking fragmentation: In spite of more than 50 years since its inception, the impact of systems thinking in the universities I have observed and interacted with is disappointing. It has made an impact on some disciplines and even improved some interdisciplinary cooperation, but did not have the expected trans-formative effect on research and teaching that could arise from its trans-disciplinary application. (If you have a different experience, please share it with me.)
A major reason for this is probably the fragmentation of this body of knowledge. As a worldview, systems thinking is derived from a conglomerate of concepts, models and tools developed by different thinkers associated with general systems theory and related bodies of knowledge such as cybernetics, operations research, complexity theory, chaos theory and field theory, amongst others. Also, different disciplines have developed their own interpretations, often using a different language for the same concepts and applications (e.g. some concepts and methods of systems thinking are renamed from those of cybernetics and much of complexity theory is renamed systems thinking). Although these different bodies of knowledge share the same or similar concepts, they are not integrated and do not form an internally consistent theory, either as a whole or sometimes not even as a part.
Depending on the preference of the lecturer or programme manager (e.g. of MBA programmes), one systems (or related) approach is preferred to others, often uncritically (or with lack of experience) as to their effect on change management. For example, I have a few times been approached by students who were guided to apply the wrong systems approach for their topic and “got stuck” in their research.
Other programmes discuss a selection of approaches, treating them as of equal importance, even if different from each other. For example, I have encountered the demand by a programme manager to teach different systems approaches and allow students to make their own choice as to which one they would like to follow. Besides prescribing some diverse reading, I did not comply with this request, based on the argument that the Biomatrix Systems Approach is a meta-approach that synergises (i.e. integrates and contextualises) the concepts of most other approaches. The intellectual effort involved took the members of theBiomatrix Group several years and produced four PhDs in the context of a multi-disciplinary PhD programme. Students of a systems thinking module cannot replicate this effort in a few weeks plus apply it in praxis to their specific action learning project.
The attitude of treating each systems approach and even some tools and concepts as equal and stand alone approaches and not understanding that the integration within a larger whole (i.e. meta-systems approach) would create a synergy between them, perpetuates the fragmentation of systems thinking. It always amazes me that the systems community speaks about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts when teaching systems thinking without applying this insight to the body of systems thinking knowledge itself. By comparison, other scientific disciplines integrate any new concept into the larger body of discipline specific knowledge.
The Biomatrix Group strives for a theoretical integration. We grapple with any new concept we encounter, comparing it with apparently related ones (in terms of content, not necessarily name) and – if it adds new insights – we integrate it into Biomatrix Systems Theory (and add the author to the list of intellectual giants on whose shoulders we stand). From a theoretical point of view, our strength is development of coherence and integration, besides also having made some unique conceptual contributions.
From a methodological perspective, we also strive for integration of tools, methods and approaches developed by us and other systems thinkers. My personal yardstick is: can the methodology facilitate the dissolving of global poverty in terms of content (i.e. facilitating the appropriate redesigns of systems and the development of comprehensive and feasible strategies) and change management (i.e. facilitating the alignment of key stakeholders around the design and the implementation of each strategy by the relevant stakeholder)?
We are grateful to the peers who work with us, both in fleshing out detail in theory and methodology and who apply the theory and methodology in praxis and share their experience with us, thereby contributing to the continuous development of this body of knowledge. We are also happy that an increasing number of systems thinkers, disillusioned by the fragmentation of the field and its difficulties regarding application, embrace the Biomatrix Systems Approach, because it makes sense to them and works for them in praxis.
Ultimately, Biomatrix Systems Theory was co-produced by all systems thinkers we came into contact with – personally and through our extensive reading. Tracing a specific concept back to who originated it is probably more difficult in systems thinking than in other scientific disciplines (in our academic publications we try our best to do so specifically, while in our popular presentations we acknowledge the list of names of thinkers whose concepts are included). For example, who is to be acknowledged for originating the concept of the containing systems hierarchy? Was it Koestler, who wrote a book about it? Others would argue that it is a universal experience that societies contain individuals and organisms contain cells. One may even dispute that there is something like a truly “original” idea. Someone, somewhere thought and wrote about the idea, perhaps in a different context, even if others work with it, embellish and add to it.
In conceptual reality, systems share generic principles and patterns of organisation and behaviour, while their application in physical reality leads to unique outcomes. In physical reality each system is different from any other. There was never an application quite like the current one and there will never be one that is exactly the same. This has profound implications for philosophy of science. (See also reflections on Benchmarking.)
Ultimately, I think, the challenge of systems thinking lies in application. It is nothing less than facilitating the transformation of our social systems in order to dissolve humanity’s most serious problems and ensure its sustainable development within the sovereignty of nature and with respect to other forms of life.
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Scientific fragmentation: As emphasised by systems thinking, problems like poverty span dimensions (i.e. there are economic, cultural, political, technological, ecological, biological and physical causes of poverty). Accordingly, there need to be strategies for dealing with the different dimensions.
Issues like poverty also span levels (i.e. from the galactic to the sub-atomic). For example, climate change at the planetary level is a co-cause of poverty, as are international and national economic and other policies, organisational behaviour, community and family traditions, personal abilities and attitudes and disease arising from the biological and physical levels within people.
These different dimensions and levels are studied by different scientific disciplines, while the issue itself (e.g. poverty, climate change, or many other problems) spans all or most of them and emerges from their interaction.
There is no formal establishment of a meta-discipline within universities (at least as far as I know) that provides the frameworks, organising principles and methods of inquiry that can deal with transversal problems by harnessing and integrating knowledge from and across disciplines relevant to the issue and that can facilitate transdisciplinary cooperation in analysing them, co-designing solutions and managing their implementation.
An integrated meta-systems approach, like the Biomatrix Systems Approach, could fill this gap.
Fragmented thinking in academia: There is increasing awareness and shared experience that we live in one global world, dependent on one precious planet. Yet, the unity of thinking about it (both in terms of science and systems thinking), let alone its praxis, keep eluding us.
Here are my reflections on it as relating to science (both natural and human) and systems thinking (of course, there are other co-factors, which I kept for another reflection):
Case of sustainability: If we want to survive as a species, embracing sustainable development is one of the key challenges.
I reflected on this issue while attending the Africa Leads conference, which focused on the role of leadership in creating a sustainable future. (See also blog entry on Leadership.)
Two issues struck me as huge problems, not just with the conference, but with our global interaction around sustainability in general.
theory of sustainability
Concerning the scientific underpinning of sustainability, there seems to be a plethora of models and partial theories – typically located within or arising from a specific scientific discipline.
However, sustainability is an issue that arises from the interaction of the social and technological systems with natural systems. It is therefore a transdisciplinary issue and requires a transdisciplinary approach in dealing with it. Yet there is no coherent theory of sustainability that spans the socio-, techno- and naturosphere and describes the organisational requirements (including limits) of their systems in accommodating each other. Developing such a theory would require the facilitation of a meta-discipline. (See also blog entry on Fragmented scientific thinking.)
Without a meta-discipline derived from a meta-theory (such as Biomatrix Systems Theory), how can decision-makers, policy designers and politicians make appropriately informed and in-forming decisions in this context? Accordingly, (inter)national frameworks and policy documents for sustainable development tend to be shopping lists of strategies and objectives, ranging from discipline specific prescriptions, to “nice to haves” and politically correct items. Likewise, the political processes of formulating them are not systemic, if not dubious (e.g. the Rio+20, United Nations Development Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 determined the outcomes of the conference before its start).
As high level summary, Biomatrix Systems Theory would suggest that the web of the psycho-sociosphere and technosphere would have to operate within the limits set by the web of the naturosphere. It suggests framework and organising principles that need to be considered and adhered to.
theory of technology
What is most disconcerting about leaders concerning themselves with sustainability is their lack of concern, interest and knowledge of technology.
As a facilitator of societal change management (in organisations and societies), my understanding of the role of technology is the following:
it is an important driving force of human development
it is the main “culprit” in co-producing humanity’s most serious problems
it is a potential “savior” in delivering us from those problems.
While the organisation and functioning of the natural and psycho-social systems are investigated and described by the different scientific disciplines, there is a gap concerning the technosphere.
As a social scientist, I also lack technological knowledge. As a meta-systems thinker I am aware of this and its consequences and therefore seek cooperation in filling the gap.
I am deeply grateful to Rias van Wyk, founder of the Institute for Futures Research (for which I worked for many years) and now director of the Technoscan® Centre Minnesota, USA and world leader in technological forecasting, for his willingness to co-facilitate trans-disciplinary inquiries from a technology perspective.
He made us (and indeed the world) aware that there is no scientific discipline concerning itself with an integrated view of technology, while detailed knowledge about specific technologies abounds in the various scientific disciplines.
It is therefore not surprising that politicians, public policy designers and members of industry bodies lack technological understanding, yet commit us to specific technological futures. How can we make informed technological choices that “save” and “develop” without an underlying theory that explores technology from a big picture perspective, paints alternative technological landscapes and allows the evaluation of different options and their impacts on the other systems of life?
It is also not surprising that MBA programmes fail to understand and incorporate technology in its curriculum. Where technology exists as a subject, it is mainly concerned with IT. Thereby technological ignorance amongst the decision-makers in organisations and societies is perpetuated.
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