What systems mean to me

January 31, 2012 at 12:17 am | Posted in Blogroll, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

I am no expert on anything, but I am interested in everything conceptual. I am especially fascinated by a few of those concepts; one of them being “Systems thinking”. The reason is two-fold. On one hand, it helps me to drill down any thoughts or experiences to a very generic level and then try to apply them to specific situations. On the other, I always find it a somewhat elusive concept and more I read & think about it, more shades become visible; it provides a challenging and exhilarating journey.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of system which is “set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network”. I feel this definition comes more from the physical sciences. Other definitions are, “Combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole” “Ordered and comprehensive assemblage of facts, principles, doctrines, or the like in a particular field of knowledge or thought” So it is not limited to physical things but also applies to virtual elements like facts or principles. And all these definitions agree on its complexity.

Initially I also used to view a system as made up of parts but slowly veered around to an alternate way of treating the systems as indivisible; they can’t be broken in parts. The moment we do it, the system loses its wholeness and integrity. When we consider it as indivisible, each system gets lot more freedom once it is taken out of the hierarchy of systems. After all systems are conceptual constructs and we can define them whichever way we want.

For example, rather than treating individuals as parts of a bigger system called family or employees as parts of a bigger organization, I prefer to treat individuals & employees as independent systems in their own right interacting with other systems like family or organization. Family and organization are concepts and not collections of individuals or employees. In a given organization, all employees may be replaced by robots and still the organization remains an organization.

This is a fundamental shift in approach. Each system has its boundaries. If we consider it as collection of parts, these parts are inside the system boundary. When we consider a system only as a concept the interacting systems are outside the boundary of the system. In one view, employees are inside and customers outside. In the other view, both are outside. It leads to very different outcomes when applied to specific situations. Instead of systems being bigger or smaller which automatically means more important or less important now puts every system on equal footing.

Another aspect is difference between individuals and roles. When individuals are considered as part of the family of organization, we tend to mix the roles. For example, an individual who is an employee of an organization may also be a shareholder of the same organization. But the management would treat him as a single individual and get disturbed, annoyed or enraged when his behavior as one role may be very different from expectation of the organization from the other role. Similarly, two brothers may also be partners in family business. If they mix the two roles, there are endless tensions and problems. Whereas if they are clear that their interactions as brothers are part of a different system from their interactions as partners of a different system and keep them completely isolated, there would be no problems.

Another aspect of systems is their complexity. A common approach is to treat it as inevitable and deal with it accordingly. I feel complexity is relative to how much we know about the system and the dimensions of the environment in which it operates. A system is complex as long as we don’t know enough about it. We may not be even aware of certain dimensions on which it operates. The moment we become aware, the complexity starts vanishing. In addition, as we become aware of new relationships in a given dimension, the system starts losing its complexity. So apart from taking indirect routes to deal with this complexity, we can also try to look for other dimensions or relationships which exist but are so far not visible to us.

I have shared above one way of viewing systems. I don’t propose it as the only way but since I find it quite useful to understand as well as sometimes predict the behavior of systems I as a system interact with. I would like to know whether any of this makes sense to you and whether it is helpful when you try to apply it.



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