information age governance challenges

broad historical overview

During the industrial age two ideologies dominated world politics: capitalism versus socialism / communism. They shaped the political scene within and between countries, represented by political parties of the right and left.

Socio-economic evolution advanced faster in capitalist societies and with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, capitalism was declared the victor in the ideological conflict and socialism / communism regarded as having failed to deliver on most of its promises. It also changed the ideological stances of political parties, driving them towards an ideological middle by proclaiming virtually the same ends (with somewhat different orders of priority) and with means largely differentiated by more or less liberalism or interventionism.

challenge of the information age

Although capitalism has co-produced a growing and prosperous middle class worldwide, it has also failed in eradicating poverty. And while researchers argue if poverty increased or decreased during recent decades, a closer look at data and their measurement suggests that both seem to be right: in relative terms poverty has declined, in absolute terms the numbers of poor people have increased (the population explosion being a huge contributor, as well as wars, natural disasters and the exceeding of carrying capacity of natural systems, amongst others). Similarly, the gap between rich and poor is widening and relative poverty increasing (including in the more developed countries).

Even more perturbing, capitalism has morphed into a vicious form of finance driven mega capitalism that is not only exploitative of the poor (whereby coal mines have been replaced by sweatshops), but is also exploitative of countries and their tax payers, mortgaging them for generations to come. The focus on self-interest of capitalism that should bring about the collective good is instead driving humanity closer and closer to an abyss of unsustainability that could mean extinction, with growing sectarian strife along the way.

Moreover, the current governance model (i.e. nation based representative democracy), cannot deal with the challenges posed by business corporations that operate in different nations and shift from one country to another as its profit driven corporate self- interest demands, leaving the countries to mop up the damage and cost of their withdrawal. Even worse, supply chains of independent corporates, each driven by self-interest, legacy business models and non-renewable resources, run across nations, regions and continents. There is no governance body that could facilitate their redesign towards sustainability, nor enforce their compliance with such designs. For example, who indeed could redesign the global finance system? Merkel suggested this a few years ago (i.e. to consider splitting the finance system related to the “real-economy” from that related to the investment economy). Obama (not surprisingly considering who some of his largest funders are) said no. Her other bold attempt to bring about an Energiewende (i.e. energy transformation) to more renewable energy has bankrupted the German solar industry since (largely because the energy supply chain was not redesigned before political interventions were made and possible impacts explored).

ideological vacuum in global governance

Globalisation and its impact on social, technological and natural systems proceed within a governance vacuum:

  • The nation state based representative democracy model cannot exert sufficient governance in a global economy (i.e. the power of global corporates can and frequently does overrule interests of nations and the power of their governments).
  • With the failure of both capitalism and socialism / communism to produce the common good and secure peace and stability for humanity, a new (or amended existing) political ideology needs to be found in order to deal with the current and future governance challenges.
  • There is no appropriate governance ideology and model guiding the sustainable interaction of social and technological systems with nature.
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thoughts on societal governance from a biomatrix theory perspective

We propose that a wholistic paradigm (e.g. like Biomatrix systems theory) can contribute various concepts to the development of an appropriate information age relevant governance.

Biomatrix systems theory distinguishes between two types of systems:

  • entity systems (e.g. a person, neighbourhood community, organisation, society, humanity, species, etc.)
  • activity systems (e.g. the activities, processes, or functions of the entity systems)

There are some generic differences in the governance of entity and activity systems. The following are some reflections on this.

societal governance from an entity system perspective

Entity systems form a containing systems hierarchy, whereby an entity system contains sub-entity systems, which – in turn – consist of sub-entity systems, etc. For example, the planet contains human, animal, plant, societies; each society consists of individual members, each individual of cells, etc.

Each entity system within the containing hierarchy is a whole in its own right, different from the other parts, but also an integral part of a larger whole. Accordingly, systems theory speaks of two forces that operate in each entity system: a differentiating force that emphasises the uniqueness of each part and an integrating one which makes a system part of a larger containing whole.

However, the entity system is not merely an accumulation of sub-entity systems. It is more. To paraphrase the famous systems dictum: an entity system is greater than the sum of its parts of sub-entities. A society is more than the sum of its individual members. Analogous to the organism which survives the renewal of its cells, a society continues as its members die and new ones are being born. It is greater than all its members together.

In the context of society, this larger integrated and wholistic character of the entity system is expressed by the concept of community. (In the context of an individual person we speak of his / her personality.)

Community has a uniting and individual transcending characteristic that is often expressed as community spirit. (From the field perspective of Biomatrix theory we would explain this “spirit” as being the underlying in-formation field with which the individual in-formation fields of the members resonate. Individuals whose fields do not resonate with the collective field are not part of that community.)

governance implications

Societal governance from an entity system perspective is to build and protect a community, as well as harmonising it with the larger containing wholes.

By comparison, the current political system of democracy is entity system based governance in a non-systemic manner, because it is focused on the parts of the whole in an accumulative (i.e. numerical) manner. It allows the majority of the parts and their shared characteristics to represent the whole and rule over the other parts which have other characteristics. It is a win / lose model based on power over.

Even if – as some would argue – political parties reflect different sub-communities in society, the focus is nevertheless on numbers and the representation of the self-interest of their members at the expense of and through power over other members of the containing community.

Although in praxis cooperation between the parts occurs, this is driven by necessity and not principle. The necessity arises from the recognition that in a win / lose situation the opposing parties could drive the system into lose / lose mode.

Instead, the cooperative strategy proposed below is a principle based governance stance which demands to seek out areas of shared values and interest to build a shared containing whole (i.e. a shared community) and advance the interest of the whole, as well as that of its parts, in a balancing manner.

Integrating parts into a coherent whole (i.e. community building) and balancing the interests between the parts and between the parts and the whole are the core governance challenge of a cooperative strategy. This goes beyond a representative model of governance.

Note: This balancing occurs not only in space (i.e. between the levels of part and whole), but also in time (i.e. between short versus long-term considerations). Justice from a systemic perspective implies balancing the interests of different systems in time and space.

societal governance from an activity system perspective

activity systems within an entity system

Entity systems consist of bundles of activity systems (i.e. the actions, processes or functions of the entity). They are the functional parts of an entity system. Each function is directed at and co-produces other entity systems. For example, society has functions like education, health care provision, and transport which are aimed at providing services to develop its members. Likewise, through their activities (e.g. work function, cultural function, parenting function, etc.) the individual members of a society co-produce the state of development of the society they are part of.

In the same manner that an entity system is greater (and different) than its containing parts of sub-entity systems, an entity system is a whole that is also greater than the sum of its activity system parts.  It is a synergistic emergence from the interaction of all its activity systems.

On the one hand, its activity systems shape the entity system, on the other hand, the entity system shapes its activities. For example, a person’s work-life shapes him or her as a person. At the same time, the person shapes his / her work-life. Likewise, different societies shape their education and other functional systems according to their preferred values, and –in turn- are shaped by their functions.(This is how the national development planning perspective and the community building perspective would interface).

All entity systems of a specific type have evolved the same types of activity systems. For example, all organisms have the same type of physiological functions that are organised in the same generic manner. Or, the marketing and IT systems in all organisations function according to generic knowledge and use the same type of hard and soft-wares. Likewise, anthropologists tell us that all societies have evolved similar functions, such as economic, political and various cultural (i.e. religious / moral, aesthetic and science related) functions. They also observe that these systems evolve similar features during different stages of development (e.g. during the agrarian, industrial and information stage of a society)

governance implications

 From a governance point of view, an activity system requires primarily a function specific governance (i.e. the expertise of scientists and “technocrats”) in their (re)design, operation and governance. Only secondarily does it need to be shaped or “customised” according to the specific values of the entity system (i.e. specific community) they serve.

The current governance model of representative governance is not functionally conceived. The elected representatives of the entity are supposed to make decisions about functions of which they have no expertise knowledge (and even if they have expert advisors, their ability to select them may be a problem). More seriously, there is no law enforcing stakeholder consideration in the design and operations of societal functions, nor is there legally entrenched stakeholder accountability.

linking up of activity systems across entity systems

Analogous to a fishing net in which the threads run continuously through the knots (in fact creating them), activity systems in the Biomatrix run through entity systems. (One way of looking at the Biomatrix is that it is a web of interacting supply chains.)

More specifically, activity systems of different entity systems link up with each other to form larger supply chains. For example, the nutrition supply chain requires light to allow plants and animals to grow; they become food by harvesting, processing, distributing, cooking and eating them, which our body digests, metabolises and absorbs as nutrients. Likewise the energy supply chain in society starts with our planet’s (and sun’s) resources from which energy is generated and distributed to consumers.

All supply chains leave by-products (e.g. waste, pollutants) along the way mwhich become part of other supply chains.

Each section of a supply chain is part of a different entity system (in the case of the nutrition chain these are the sun, the planet, the agricultural and food industries, the family, person, cells in the body, molecules and atoms; in the case of the electricity supply chain these include mines, power-stations, distribution line operators, energy storage and appliance related enterprises).

While nature’s supply chains have evolved sustainable functioning, most supply chains created by society are not sustainable. In nature, the processes associated with life’s functions have evolved stability, whereby the outputs (both products and by-products) become input to others, resulting in the ecological balance we observe. By comparison, many of society’s supply chains (in parts and as wholes) exceed the carrying capacity of nature by overloading nature’s capacity to absorb by-products and through resource depletion.

governance implications

As outlined in the introduction, many of the supply chains that comprise our global economy need to be redesigned from a sustainability perspective. This implies that activity system governance will have to inspire a change in entity system governance and even overrule it.

By comparison, the current global supply chains emerge from the self-interests of the organisations linking up with each other. Individual entity system (i.e. corporate, national) perspectives prevent the creation of sustainable supply chains. Although some organisations embrace supply chain management , this is mostly from the perspective of optimising their own operations within their current business model and not from the perspective of transforming their own business model in terms of benefitting the larger whole. In fact, the entity systems along a supply chain can only change their business model, if this is prompted by an overarching redesign of the industry. An example would be that the coal industry changes its business model from being a continuous energy provider to becoming a complementary energy provider. In praxis this would involve using different technologies than they use now, which implies a costly change (if it can be done at all within existing power stations).

Activity system governance requires that stakeholders from all sections of a supply chain need to cooperate in the (re)design of a supply chain and its implementation, whereby each stakeholder needs to make its unique function specific contribution. We have previously referred to this as a stakeholder democracy.

A stakeholder democracy would imply that

  • stakeholder is a function specific concept (e.g. the different sections of a supply chain and their specific stakeholders need to be considered or involved in its design and operations)
  • decisions would need consideration or involvement of all stakeholders (i.e. legitimacy of decision-making would need to be dependent on stakeholder consideration / representation, whereby the failure to include key stakeholders would make the decision illegitimate).
  • accountability on the design and operation of an activity system is to its relevant stakeholders (and not to an anonymous majority of the associated entity system).

The current entity system governance model of a numbers based democracy driven by the self-interest of the parts (be the number of persons within national governance or number of countries within international governance), is insufficient to deal with the global supply chain challenge.

However, it is possible that by embracing the governance ideology of Systemic Cooperative Strategy more appropriate governance models (e.g. of activity system based public / private partnerships) could emerge.

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systemic cooperative strategy: progressing from revolutionary strategy to evolutionary strategy

The concept of systemic cooperative strategy has its philosophical origin in the Hegelian philosophy of dialectics and its practical application in Marxism / Leninism.

The three laws of dialectics of Marxism / Leninism have been driving revolutionary strategy throughout the industrial age and until now. They are very effective in bringing a society to a revolution, but ineffective thereafter in developing that society in an evolutionary manner.

The reason for this is the Law of Negation of the Negation which states that by negating capitalism (which is a negation of an original human socialim), the socialist order will arise again. However, history has shown that it did not spontaneously arise but had to be enforced by autocratic regimes.

From a systems thinking perspective this law represents the erroneous assumption that by getting rid of the problem the solution arises, instead of an error derived from reductionist thinking.

The principles of a systemic cooperative strategy (we could also call it a dialectic cooperative strategy) are derived from the second law of dialectics, the Law of Unity and Contradiction.

Depending on the context within which this law is applied, a systemic cooperative strategy can become

  • either a revolutionary strategy, the aim of which is to destroy the current system,
  • or an evolutionary strategy, the aim of which is to create a shared desirable future of the containing whole.

More specifically, to transform revolutionary into evolutionary strategy would imply changing the third law of the Negation of revolutionary strategy into a first law of Affirmation of evolutionary strategy. The following table compares the two types of strategy.



First Law of Revolutionary Strategy Law of Quantitative and Qualitative Change

This law says that quantitative (i.e. step by step) change will eventually lead to a qualitative change which is the revolution. It represents the demise of the old order after which a new order (i.e. socialsm) will eventually arise.

First Law of Cooperative Evolutionary Strategy Law of Affirmation of the Future

This law says that in order to achieve a desirable future, it needs to be affirmed. In practical terms this means that the desired outcome of what the future should be must be designed. Systems thinking suggest the method of ideal system (re)design for creating a picture of the future.

Second Law of Revolutionary Strategy Law of Unity and Contradiction

This law states that in a society and its environment there are forces operative which are in unity with (i.e. serve or are aligned with) the interests of the revolution and others that contradict it (i.e. serve, favour or are aligned to the current order of society).

The revolutionary activist identifies, aligns with and aims to strengthen the forces of unity and opposes and aims to weaken the contradicting ones.

The actions are always unique to the context in which the activist finds him / herself.

Second Law of Cooperative Evolutionary Strategy Law of Unity and Contradiction

This law states that in a system and its environment there are forces operative which are in unity with (i.e. serve or are aligned with) the desirable future of the system and others that contradict it (i.e. serve, favour or are aligned to the current order or status of the system).

Stakeholders and their leaders identify, align with and aim to strengthen the forces of unity.

Concerning the forces of contradiction, these could be transformed (e.g. through amending the design in a win / win manner), opposed (e.g. denounced) or ignored, depending on what is appropriate. By adding the term cooperative to evolutionary inserting the term cooperative

Since stakeholders are functionally defined systems, their actions will be function specific, as well as unique and context specific.

Third Law of Revolutionary Strategy Law of Negation of the Negation

This law states that by getting rid of an evil regime and capitalism, the original human state of a socialist order will emerge.

From a systems theory perspective, this law represents a philosophical error associated with the reductionist worldview, namely that by removing the problem, the solution will emerge.

By comparison, systems / complexity theory recognise the co-production of complex societal problems by different stakeholders who will need to change their behaviour in such a way that they co-produce the desired outcomes of an aligned future.

Third Law of Cooperative Evolutionary Strategy Law of Quantitative and Qualitative Change

This law says that quantitative (i.e. step by step) change will eventually lead to a qualitative change which represents a system transformation.

However, unlike the belief into a final order (i.e. socialism as being the end-state), evolutionary strategy acknowledges that life goes on and that social systems can reinvent themselves and shapeshift, as their changing environment and inner desire demand.  The description of a future as an ideal which cannot be attained but continuously approximated, prompts continuous development which may or may not represent qualitative change at intervals.

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thoughts on governance in the information age


This paper represents a collection of thoughts (based on previous research by Elisabeth Dostal) on some aspects of information age governance. It is intended to write a more carefully considered scientific article on this theme at a later stage.

The purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion on information age governance and inspire feedback on the thoughts expressed in it.

The main body of the paper is concerned with introducing systemic cooperative strategy as a possible ideological stance for the information age.

Appendix 1 discusses the dialectic origin of a Systemic Cooperative Strategy.

Appendix 2 distinguishes between two types of systems and the implication of this on governance.

Appendix 3 is a brief reflection on some of the governance challenges of the information age.

systemic cooperative strategy

definition of systemic cooperative strategy

Systemic Cooperative Strategy is the deliberate striving of a system to cooperate with other systems in order to co-produce a shared desirable future of the containing whole.

The containing whole could either be an entity system (e.g. a family, neighbourhood community, society, humanity as a whole), or an activity system (e.g. the functions of an organisation or a society; a supply chain spanning different organisations and nations).

Systemic Cooperative Strategy represents a worldview. It is deployed in a principled and not haphazardous manner. It is a law-like strategy that has its origins in dialectic thinking (especially in the laws of dialectics as applied in revolutionary strategy.

what systemic cooperative strategy is not

cooperative strategy versus systemic cooperative strategy

Different stakeholders and political parties have always cooperated, if it suited them (e.g. as lobbies in pursuing shared aims that provide win / win for themselves), or out of necessity (e.g. when they realise that unless they cooperate or compromise they would lose as well).

(Note: In complex situations, a win / lose stance often becomes a lose / lose one, because if the losing part realises that they cannot win, they can undermine the winner.)

The conventional cooperative stance is driven by self-interest. By comparison, systemic cooperation is aimed at creating win / win between the cooperating systems for the larger whole.

cooperative strategy versus cooperative

There is also a difference between cooperative strategy and a cooperative.

A cooperative strategy, either of the conventional or systemic kind, is an action stance of a social system with the aim of pursuing cooperation.

By comparison, a cooperative is a social entity system whose parts are legally bound and organised to cooperate with each other.  A cooperative can subscribe to cooperative strategy (i.e. to cooperate with other independent systems) or not.

how does systemic cooperative strategy work

Systemic cooperative strategy involves

(1)  co-designing with the other stakeholders an ideal future of the containing whole in terms of a shared

  • ideal ethos (e.g. values of the desirable and not desirable / acceptable)
  • ideal aims both as outcomes (i.e. end aims) and strategies to achieve the outcomes (i.e. means aims)
  • ideal governance (e.g. coordinating rules, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms)

(2)  designing the own contribution for co-producing the shared ideal future (i.e. each stakeholder has a unique functional contribution; for example, to co-produce an ideal school, the pupils, teachers, administrators, school principal, department of education and parents have a different contribution to make that only they can make; if one stakeholder fails to deliver its share, the whole and the other parts will suffer).

(3)  using a dialectic approach in change management that furthers the development of the containing whole. (See Appendix 1 for a deeper discussion).

In practical terms the dialectic approach means

  • agreeing with, aligning with, supporting other stakeholders if it is seen as working towards the shared futures (i.e. exerting form creating governance), while
  • pointing out if another stakeholder works against the shared future and trying to persuade them to change course (i.e. exerting form creating governance), or using various actions derived from form maintaining governance (e.g. holding them to agreed on rules), or form destroying governance (e.g. legal action against them, withdrawal of funds).

application of systemic cooperative strategy

Systemic cooperative strategy can be used to develop an

  • entity system (e.g. as in nation and community building) or
  • activity system (i.e. a functional system like an education system, and a supply chain, like the energy supply chain).

See Appendix 2 for a more in depth discussion on this.

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workshop in systemic organisation and societal transformation

Recently I have been asked to facilitate a workshop for the alumni of University of Stellenbosch entitled Masterclass in Systemic Organisation and Societal Transformation. As part of the marketing drive, I responded to a few questions which resulted in the following reflections on the biggest challenges faced by organisations today and on the perception of transformation.

What is one of the biggest challenge that companies / organisations are facing globally at the moment?

The biggest challenge of all organisations, public, private and NGO, is the rapidity of change and the growing complexity they are confronted with.  This will not go away but accelerate in future in the increasingly interconnected global economy and world. Organisations will need to learn to manage within this.

Currently they respond with a plethora of change interventions aimed at different functions of the organisation.  And while some lead to improvements in some areas, others are ineffective or even make things worse (e.g.  by impacting negatively on other areas in the organisation or other stakeholders,  creating instability and chaos, draining resources and making members change wary).

What is needed is wholistic (also referred to as systemic) organisation development, or more specifically, a wholistic transformation that allows the organisation to deal more effectively, creatively and resiliently with the growing complexity and change without losing stability.

Is there enough awareness of the importance of transforming organisations / companies to deal with such challenges?

In my experience as a systems thinker, the concept of transformation is not really understood.  Apart from having a particular political connotation in South Africa, it is also not understood by the current management paradigm in general.  The main reason for this is that it is still grounded in the reductionist worldview of the industrial age which focuses on the best practice within the separate functions of an organisation (e.g. marketing, sales, finance, operations, strategy, leadership, people management, resource management, IT), while transformation is associated with the wholistic perspective of their synergistic interaction. Put differently, the reality of management praxis is that each strategic decision always involves multiple perspectives derived from different functional requirements and stakeholder interests. Each management situation involves a unique combination of these, leads to unique outcomes and sets in motion unique consequences for the system itself and the other systems it impacts on.  This is the reason for the growing change and complexity that ripples through all systems worldwide.  We can either be rushed along by their rapids, or learn to steer through them.

Synergy cannot be micro-managed in a reductionist manner.  It requires management based on a different logic, derived from wholistic thinking.  Albert Einstein alerted us to this by observing that problems cannot be solved by the level of thinking that gave rise to them but only by a new level of thinking.  Wholism (or systems thinking or complexity theory as it is also referred to) represents such higher level thinking. It gives rise to insights and solutions that are not available within the reductionist paradigm. It also represents the logic of a wholistic organisational transformation.

Such a transformation involves not only a transformation in thinking, but also the setting up of coordinating structures, procedures, guidelines and frameworks appropriate for synergistic management.  We call this “wiring” the organisation for ongoing change.  This is the challenge of organisation and business development of the information age.  This “wiring” is analogous to establishing a GPS that allows a system to steer an intended course in any environment.  The GPS, like the “wholistic wiring” of an organisation enables a system to steer an intended course in a turbulent sea of change and complexity, instead of being tossed around by it.

What are some of the key messages that you would like to convey to your audience through this Masterclass?

The key message is that a wholistic organisational transformation is profoundly simple and hugely effective (even if not always easy to bring about).  It will be outlined how a transformed organisation functions and how the process of transformation should, ideally, be managed and its momentum maintained.

The reason why we speak of a Masterclass is that all delegates will have change management experience due to having managed, participated in or observed various change interventions and their outcomes.  During the class the delegates can share and reflect on their experience and understand it within a wholistic context.

Amongst others it will be understood that all function specific management models and concepts that are learned in the course of management education and praxis are useful, provided they are applied in the right manner, at the right time in the right context and for the right purpose. If not, they create problems and lead to failure. Mastery is associated with the wisdom arising from this wholistic understanding.

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pioneers have no peers

History of innovation shows that in the early phases of a new approach or product, there is no possibility of benchmarking. One could not benchmark an iPad before other companies replicated the product. One could compare it with a computer or smartphone, but this is comparing some aspects of the new product and not really benchmarking. Pioneers have no peers!

Although systems thinking per se is not an innovation, its application still is. In the absence of a standardised approach and application, every person, department and organisation experimenting with systems thinking in their specific context is still somewhat of a pioneer.
The integration of the fragmented body of knowledge into one internally consistent meta-systems theory as achieved by Biomatrix Systems Theory is innovative. Likewise, the development of a comprehensive systemic change management methodology for organisational and societal change as facilitated by the Biomatrix Societal and Organisation Development Programmes is also an innovation. Because the Biomatrix programmes represent an inclusive and synergistic integration – besides adding unique features – they cannot be compared to other partial approaches. (By analogy, one cannot compare a car with a gearbox.)

The Biomatrix programmes will lend themselves to benchmarking once they are widely, routinely and in their entirety applied within organisations (analogous to organisations installing a SAP system). Until then they are unique and pioneering.

Instead of benchmarking, we suggest the sharing of experiences between organisations using the same and even different systems approaches. Our organisation, BiomatrixWeb, uses Masterclasses in organisation development to create a platform for this exchange of information.

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benchmarking action learning projects

I know of several MBA programmes that teach systems thinking as action learning projects. Some benchmarking between them should be possible.

In my experience, systemic action learning involving projects works very well, while action learning directed at functional improvements can be problematical.

To explain: in terms of the Biomatrix Systems Approach, both a project and function are activity systems and organised according to the same framework and principles. The difference between them is that projects are a temporary part of a system and come to an end when their aim is achieved, while a function is an inherent and ongoing part of an entity system (e.g. the nutrition or thinking function of a person; the marketing, financial or production function of an organisation; the education or energy provision function of a society). As the entity changes, so do its functions; and vice versa.

In a functional context, problems are typically co-produced by the function itself, by other functions within the organisation and by the organisation as a whole (besides the functional environment). Thus an isolated action learning project aimed at improving a function can achieve only the elimination of the problems that arise from within the system. To eliminate the other problems and achieve a systemic functional transformation would require changes in other functions and the organisation as a whole. This is only possible in the context of an organisation transformation programme such as the Biomatrix Organisation Development Programme. It cannot be achieved in an isolated functional intervention.

By comparison, the scope of projects is more limited. They typically address a specific problem or need of a system by providing a product or service to it. Examples are a building project, marketing proposal or new product development.

Benchmarking in terms of specific outcomes of the projects (type II properties) is not really possible, except maybe in the broadest terms (e.g. implementation within budget and time). Benchmarking of type I properties such as adhering to the prescribed steps of a procedure could be useful.

Action learning programmes can also be set up to experience the difference between conventional and systemic project design and implementation. For example, for several years I presented a module on systems thinking in the context of an action learning programme which involved projects prescribed by the organisation. It was the last module in the programme and most teams were in the process of finalising their project design and implementation plan. After exposure to systems thinking they realised how much they had not considered in their conventional project design and that they need to iterate through it again and make some significant changes and additions. Every year we got the advice from students to put systems thinking as the first module. We explained that they still lacked detailed knowledge at the beginning, that integration is only possible at the end and that they would have missed fundamental learning (i.e. that systemic project management is more effective than conventional project management). In all the years, all projects were implemented, with the exception of one, whose team refused to rework their project design after the systems thinking module.

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benchmarking systemic structures and praxis

Analogous to a riverbed channelling water, one can entrench some systemic praxis in organisations through facilitating the design of systemic structures. This includes systemic structures for each organisational function (i.e. systemic process and supply chain design) as well as the coordination of the organisation as a whole through a three-dimensional organisational matrix structure, reinforced by according planning forums, knowledge management structures and governance.

However, a riverbed could channel clear or dirty water in the same manner. Likewise, the information within systemically conceived structures could be processed systemically (i.e. synergistically) or conventionally. Put differently, planning and decision-making could involve systemic methodologies to yield synergistic outcomes or not, even if the structures are systemic.

Thus, both structures and praxis need to be systemic, in order to create a systemic learning organisation. As pointed out above, different systems approaches deal with structures and processes somewhat differently and therefore benchmarking can be misleading.

Derived from the Biomatrix meta-systems theory, the Biomatrix Organisational Development Programme is designed to create systemic structures, practices and organisational culture that cohere with each other and are systemic. Organisations applying the programme in its entirety could be subjected to benchmarking. However, since establishing a systemically structured learning organisation can take a couple of years (depending on its size) and different organisations take a different path to get there (due to a modular design depending on the specific needs and realities of the organisation), benchmarking them may also be challenging.

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benchmarking and worldview

Systems thinking is often taught as a worldview in the belief that students will apply it automatically in their own context. And of course, most people become more insightful, creative, inclusive, strategic and win / win orientated in their personal capacity after an even short exposure to systems thinking.

If taught in an organisational context, it is assumed that exposure of a critical mass of employees to systems thinking (e.g. in the context of leadership or talent development) will change organisational culture and make it more successful. According to Biomatrix Systems Theory this is probably “half” of the truth. A change in ethos (i.e. worldview, values and beliefs) initiates a clockwise change process (i.e. an according change of aims, process, structure, governance, mei use and interaction with the outer and inner environment). However, the counterclockwise force of change associated with current governance, organisational structures, mei, process, aims and even ethos, resists the intended change derived from exposure to systems thinking. Thus, unless systems thinking changes the structures of the organisation, its effect on the organisation is limited. (See also the blog section on Benchmarking systemic structures and praxis.)

As a management consultant I also observed that different personality types seem to relate differently to systems thinking, which may also be of relevance to benchmarking:

  • There are persons and organisations who espouse wholistic thinking without knowing how to apply it.
  • Others are so wholistic in considering an issue that they never get to an action (analogous to “paralysis through analysis”).
  • There are differences in taking up and reacting to systems thinking according to personality type. Based on the Myers-Briggs, Ned Herrmann and Benziger typologies I have observed the following:The (D) visionary / intuitive types and the (C) harmonising / feeling types are often natural systems thinkers, albeit in quite different ways and generally in a haphazard manner. The visionary types burst with alternative options concerning the future and are useful for creating the content of systemic designs. The feeling types tend to sense the pattern of the current situation (especially the ease and unease between people) and are good in surfacing problems and conflict, as well as managing change systemically and aligning stakeholders through design iterations (irrespective of the content of the change).The (A) analyst and the (B) organiser types tend to resist systems thinking as a paradigm (at least initially). However, once they understand and embrace it, they can become staunch supporters, applying it in a structured manner. Through them systems thinking gets entrenched in the structures and regulations of the organisation and maintained in its day to day operations.
  • Similar cultural types that one observes in persons can also be observed in organisations (e.g. typology by Cameron and Quinn)

Using typologies, one could maybe benchmark culture, including systems thinking. (However, I do not have experience in benchmarking culture).

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is benchmarking unsystemic?

Benchmarking typically measures performance and outcomes on the basis of best praxis observed by others or by oneself in the past.

Many systems thinkers (e.g. Ackhoff) regard benchmarking per se as unsystemic. A key argument is the mediocrity produced by comparing with and following others versus the creativity of being a leader and innovator (i.e. the uniqueness that arises if one applies systems thinking).

By analogy, one cannot meaningfully benchmark Picasso with Rembrandt, or Madonna with Mozart, but we probably could benchmark the disciples of each master and benchmark them on how well they copy / imitate him or her.

Having made a general statement, I would nevertheless like to consider the issue of benchmarking in general, and of systems thinking specifically, in more detail. I would like to start by reflecting on it from the perspective of different systems concepts to determine if and in what context benchmarking of systems thinking is useful or not. (See also for further explanation of these concepts).


One of the core concepts of systems thinking is co-production. Applied to benchmarking, this implies that one cannot isolate one co-factor, like practicing systems thinking, and make it responsible for the (successful or unsuccessful) behaviour and outcomes of an organisation. Other co-factors could be much more important (e.g. new opportunities in the environment could be responsible for success, while the best praxis of systems thinking could fail to deliver good results because of other co-factors).


Another concept relevant to benchmarking is that of emergence, namely the emergence of new qualities and outcomes from the interaction of a system with other systems in its environment. Describing the characteristics and outcomes of a system involves two types of qualities: type I and II.

Type I qualities are inherent in the system and tend to lend themselves to measurement (e.g. number and amount of resource use, efficiency measures, speed of processing, waste and faults produced, etc.). They are typically the subject of benchmarking and benefit by it.

Type II properties are properties that emerge from the interaction of systems and are not inherent in one of the interacting systems. These qualities tend to be unique to a specific interaction, not repeatable (at least not in exactly the same way) and not measurable. Examples are the evaluation of innovation, strategy development, ideal designs and new product development.

The aim of introducing systems thinking in an organisation can enhance both types of qualities. Type I qualities can be improved through applying systems thinking in an operational context (e.g. through systems optimization which is aimed at producing more efficiencies). Applying systems thinking in a strategic context (e.g. for business and organisation development) should produce unique and creative characteristics and outcomes (type II) which do not lend themselves easily (if at all) to benchmarking.

current versus ideal logic

Comparison implies current logic (i.e. repeating more of the same thinking) that leads to the replication of the functioning of the system that serves as a benchmark. By comparison, ongoing development requires creative behaviour of the system within its continuously changing context and driven by its unique aims (e.g. its unique vision of an ideal future).

Benchmarking the ideal (even in its current approximation) does not make much sense. For example, the unique interpretation of a vision like wanting to be the most beautiful restaurant in town, or leaping ahead through technology, cannot be benchmarked. However, once this interpretation has been manifested (e.g. as a particular colour scheme, furnishing and service of the restaurant, or a new feature in the car), it can be compared and measured.

But how much of all this is due to having entrenched systems thinking in the organisation? Good strategic thinking and various creativity techniques taught in every MBA course could lead to similar outcomes.


A similar argument can be derived from the observation that systems embrace paradox. Systems are conservative as well as progressive. Due to their structure, they are relatively stable, behave routinely and operate in a standardised manner, producing standardised outcomes (i.e. type I qualities). Adapting to a continually changing environment, they are also flexible, creative and synergistic (i.e. they display type II qualities).

To successfully benchmark, one would need to distinguish between different parts and behaviours of the system – those which serve standardisation and can be benchmarked and those which require creativity and cannot.

different types of governance

From a governance point of view, entrenching benchmarking is form maintaining governance, not a form creating one as would be required for new development. The outcomes of form creating governance (e.g. creative strategies, new product development) are unique and do not lend themselves to benchmarking. The outcomes of form maintaining governance do. This could refer to any regular activities associated with or designed by a systemic intervention. For example, the operationalisation of systems thinking could be measured through the regularity of planning meetings that are held after the systemic redesign of the organisation. Or one could measure if the planning meetings use systemic methods (e.g. stakeholder analysis, systemic brainstorming). But the appropriateness of their use or the outcomes they produce cannot be measured.

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