CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*
(Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another.)
But only if it simultaneously reveals its relevance.” (Sjon van ’t Hof)

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Solving the wrong problem precisely

“A problem well put is half solved.” Dewey, 1938

In 1998, Ian Mitroff adapted an article from his book Smart Thinking for Crazy Times, which dealt with preventing misdirected thinking, or the time, talent, and resource drains that result from solving the wrong problems. In all its brevity the article made a lot of sense to me, so I turned it into a concept map, which I will briefly describe in this post. The article was called Solving the Right Problems. In another article, Errors in systems approaches (Adams and Hester, 2012), my attention was caught by a table in which Ackoff (1974, 1999) summarizes the characteristics of two types of problem solving, those of the machine age and those of the systems age, roughly corresponding with linear and non-linear management, respectively. In this post I will combine Ackoff and Mitroff to show the essence and relevance of both, not only in politics but also in business.

Management fads         solving-wrong-problemMitroff’s main point is that management (or political leadership) is prone to fads, i.e. falls victim to the idea of management programs (e.g. Total Quality Management, reengineering, downsizing) as total cure-alls. These are not wrong per se, but as hyped ‘cure-alls’ they typically fail to address the right problems that are hidden in complex issues. Their continuation or adaptation should be subject to critical thinking and, most of all,  wisdom.

True competitive edge      Mitroff states the bottom line of systems thinking as follows: “Those who are adept at smart thinking know how to cut through complex issues, ask the right questions, and solve the right problems. The ability to spot the right problems, frame them correctly, and implement appropriate solutions to them is the true competitive edge that will separate the successful individuals, organizations, and societies [and worlds??] from the also-rans.”

Some good questions      According to Mitroff, some of the most basic questions facing all institutions, public and private, include:  What business(es) are we in? What business(es) should we be in? What is our mission? What should be our mission? Who are our prime customers? Who should our customers be? How will the outside world perceive our actions? Will others perceive the situation as we do? Are our products and services ethical? Clearly, these questions are geared somewhat to the business community. Similar questions can be generated using Churchman’s 12-category teleological model as used in Wicked Solutions. The insights and answers with regard to these twelve categories need to be in balance, i.e. systemic inquiring (and design) systems are themselves systemic, too. So, in Churchmannian terms, first nine categories are dealt with by asking: Who or what or how is or ought to be (1) the purpose; (2) the client/beneficiary; (3) the measures of success; (4) the decision-maker; (5) resources; (6) environment; (7) the designer; (8) implementation; (9) guarantor (of ultimate success)?

The wrong problem, precisely        Considered linearly (but watch out!), the problem-solving process has four distinct steps: (1) acknowledging a problem; (2) formulating the problem; (3) deriving the solution to the problem; and (4) implementing the solution.  Although all four steps of the process are crucial (Wicked Solutions makes you understand why), Mitroff thinks we ought to pay particul solving-wrong-problem-preciselyattention to the interactions between the second and the third steps. The bottom left cell covers the situation of solving the wrong problem precisely. It is the main concern of his book (and the article derived from it).

Muddled thinking types      Above fundamental management flaw results in muddled thinking, which blinds leadership to 5 basic types of error: (1) picking the wrong stakeholders (so: consider at least two stakeholders who can oppose one’s actions); (2) narrowing one’s options (so: produce at least two very different formulations of any key problem); (3) picking the wrong language of variables (so: as 2., but at least one in technical terms and one in human terms); (4) narrowing the boundaries/scope of a problem (so: broaden the scope of every key problem up to and just beyond one’s comfort zone); and (5) failing to think systemically (so: manage paradox or contradictions; in most cases, the interactions between important problems are more important than the problems separately; N.B. the novel ‘framing’ step in Wicked Solutions achieves that exactly and more, i.e. keeping problem and solution space as open as possible before defining either of them).


Rise of the systems age       Over the past 250 years or so we have witnessed the Scientific Revolution (part of the Age of Enlightenment), the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Great Inventions (automobile, aircraft, telephone, radio, light bulb), the Age of Infrastructure Systems, and finally the Age of System of Systems (transportation system, communication system, energy system). In the future all systems will be connected in a ‘smart’ way. For the time being it is a messy affair (just think of the agriculture-energy-transportation-industry-climate nexus, the financial systems, or the place of humanity in all that), but let’s call the ‘ideal’ world that of the Smart, Human and Natural Future or perhaps the Poietocene (Design Age) as I suggested earlier. According to above Ngram the systems age may have started around 1955 and is in full gear since 2000.

Machine-age vs. systems age       The transition from machine age to systems age may have occurred somewhere in the 1960s or 1970s. In 1974, Ackoff compared the two for a number of characteristics:machine-age-and-systems-age-thinking

In 2012, Adams and Hester suggested that “in addition to these characteristics […] a complex system can be differentiated from a simple system by the rich contextual environment.” In a way it is the context that turns complicated problems into complex, messy ones, also known as “wicked problems”, requiring a ‘teleological’, systems approach to be dealt with properly. After a rich career in operations research (OR), Ackoff stated that “managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.” The 6 characteristics translate well into the key terminology used in Wicked Solutions (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016) , a workbook that guides users through the steps and stages of a systems approach that addresses their own wicked problem. Environment is one of twelve categories that form the core of the systems approach.

Muddled thinking and messes        Mitroff says about the five types of muddled thinking that they may be distinct in the sense that they are clearly identifiable, but they are not independent: they interact. In below concept map I have made an attempt to visualize this interdependence, using some of the characteristics of machine-age and muddled-or-systems-thinkingsystems-age thinking identified by Ackoff. Muddled thinking (the ‘green’ parts) limits the role of stakeholders, which directly or indirectly narrows the problem-solving options. It also adopts a machine model involving passive parts fitting neatly in a clearly-defined boundary, which suits a language of variables in terms of technical concepts. In contrast, systems thinking appreciates patterns among system parts and between system parts and the system (or rather ‘problematic situation’) as  a whole. Many of the key patterns can only be understood using human concepts. Different stakeholders have different, partial perspectives of the situation, requiring an inquiring system, which can only be provided  by the systems approach or something very similar. The boundary ‘separating’ the problem (or intervention design) from the environment is subject to debate. It is the only way to do justice to the dynamics of interaction and expand the problem-solving options and become truly smart and innovative.

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Constructive journalism

… and how it could benefit from the systems approach

This morning (Dec. 2, 2016), the somewhat sceptical article on constructive journalism by Adri Vermaat in Trouw (a Dutch newspaper, article not free) triggered me to write this post. We live in a complex world, so it is inevitable that many things go wrong, even to the point of threatening all or part of humanity. Therefore we need tools to deal with complexity, not only in debates (as in democratically elected parliaments) but also in news reports. From my point of view (as a systems approacher) journalism is one of the many professions that would do well to get acquainted with the knowledge and skills to apply the systems approach. How could this idea fit in a framework for constructive journalism? Contrary to what you may think, the systems approach is not so much about efficiency (although it is), or models (although it is, be they mostly in your head), but rather about values and world views. It provides principles and methods to understand and improve problematic situations as a whole. The key issue is that both, the inquiry (i.e. understanding) and design of interventions (e.g. policies) in complex situations are themselves also complex and therefore difficult (complex) to communicate. This is not just a matter of resources (posing limits to the number of people to interview), but also a matter of communicating systemic complexity itself. I suggest that only the systems approach can offer the theory and practice for linking ‘the particular’ of positive emotions with ‘the general’ of solution information.

Cathrine Gyldensted      … is the Danish reporter who coined the term “constructive journalism”. She did so together with Karen McIntyre, who completed the world’s first Ph.D. dissertation on the subject in 2015. Gyldensted is obviously a person in what Singer called “the heroic mood“, which drives people to take on uncertainties (about what is right, true or good) in ever new disguises. In the case of Gyldensted, she wants to make news reports more meaningful.


Homeless woman     In a Ted speech in Dresden, Germany, Gyldensted recalls interviewing a homeless woman in 2008 in crisis-struck Washington, who had lost her job and her home, but not her hope and strength. Reader response to this story of ‘constructive’ hopefulness rather than ‘negative’ homelessness gave her the idea that a focus on positive emotions can be newsworthy, too. Gyldensted currently teaches constructive journalism at the Academy of Journalism of Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in Zwolle, The Netherlands.

Conventional journalism      The trouble with conventional journalism is that it focuses too much on flaws and disconnects, especially in government policies and institutional decision-making. The underlying logic is that the press is the watchdog of government, to see that it does what it says it does, and to bring to light cases of abuse of power and corruption. The principles underlying this form of journalism is explained in “the bible” of modern reporting, entitled “The elements of journalism” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, updated in 2014). Conventional journalism has played its role to keep Western governments in check for about two centuries. Yet we see a rising mistrust among the people, not only in government and the institutions, but also in media and in society as a whole. This mistrust even gives rise to radicalization which undermines society even more. In Gyldensted’s analysis, conventional journalism fails to address this problem of mistrust (accidentally elderly statesman Jan Terlouw addressed the same problem this week; more Dutch, sorry) and actually reinforces by always focusing on the negative news of the flaws and disconnects.

Constructive journalism       In addition to focusing on positive emotions, constructive journalism may also provide solution information. When the two are combined people or institutions may see the relevance of engagement and get inspired to engage in some form of action. The example used by Gyldensted is that of an article (again in Dutch, sorry!) by Karel Smouter in The Correspondent on the way the deportation of rejected asylum seekers may be improved by the agency concerned. Smouter mainly used interviews with agency staff, who were asked how they would handle things. The article ‘Five steps for a better repatriation service’ was picked up by the agency management, which unexpectedly invited Smouter to present his findings. Those of us who know something about Wenger’s communities of practice (and the principles of deception-perception of the systems approach) will recognize that what Smouter did was apply some principles or organizational learning. In a way, the writing of the article was a kind of pop-up version of a community of practice to address the management flaw of ignoring the tacit or not so tacit knowledge of those who are doing the actual work.

The problem of complexity        Many problems, whether in the workplace or in politics, are very complex. Typically, complex problems, also known as ‘wicked problems‘, need to be handled with great care. In fact, the concept of ‘problem’ is problematic. In the case of a problematic situation This means that defining the problem is something that is part of the inquiry and part of the formulation of the solution. What is more, the concept of ‘solution’ is also problematic. In many cases, there is no definitive solution, but only a resolution on some form of improvement or transformation about which there can be some level of mutual agreement. This idea of mutual agreement brings us to the question: mutual among which people? Who are concerned? Who are the stakeholders? Who ought to be consulted? How can they be involved in decision-making? These and many other questions can be part of the systems approach.

Did we run out of ‘simple’ problems?       The main rationale for constructive journalism is its supposed potential to reduce mistrust. What people forget is that the world has been growing more complex for a long time. The term wicked problem was coined by Rittel in the mid-1960s. The ‘systems approach’ was developed by Churchman in the same period. Anybody who reads his books that were written half a century ago will notice how easy it is to map all our current problems (except perhaps global warming) on the problems he described and used as cases. One of the issues in the development of the systems approach is the objectivity-subjectivity problem. As reality becomes more complex, the truth about it becomes less clear. This doesn’t mean truth becomes irrelevant. People simply cannot do without truth and meaning. In the systems approach contrasting or conflicting perspectives bring out those aspects of the ‘truth’ that are most difficult to agree upon. With the right tools and attitude it is possible to hammer out an agreement on what the ‘intersubjective’ (i.e. common agreed upon) truth could be that makes sense to all (or most) parties.

By way of conclusion       It seems to me that the problems constructive journalism seeks to address are actually wicked problems. There exists a theory and a praxis to address wicked problems of all sorts and sizes, which is often known as ‘the systems approach’. There is no other theory with the same integrative, transdisciplinary power available. The theory is deeply grounded in philosophy and in practice. It is also ignored, mostly because it doesn’t suit idiosyncratice, discipline-specific, preconceived ideas about problem solving. Journalism is transdisciplinary par excellence and would do well to consider taking serious notice of the systems approach. How it can be integrated in constructive journalism and similar initiatives is hard to predict, but there is little doubt (in my mind) that it can be very helpful, if not crucial. Not just  to sense-making, but also to addressing the many problems that plague the modern world. And it is not even difficult to learn! (but it may be difficult to master…).

P.S.    The world’s first conference on Constructive Journalism took place on Friday the 2nd of December, 2016. The second (on ‘Constructed | Constructive Journalism’) will be held from 8 to 9 December 2016, in Brussels, Belgium.

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The pure land of a(nti)teleology

Reversing the table on rationality, again and again

self-portrait-van-goghReading Churchman is like riding a conceptual rollercoaster. He never shies away from looking at things from totally different angles, opposites in particular, and not just occasionally but in quick succession, again and again. We have already seen that the systems approach is all about teleology, i.e. the idea that humans purposefully make designs to add value to their working lives, to improve the quality of their lives. Yet, many people distrust all this scheming and planning and much prefer to seek satisfaction in other ways. Instead of the systems approach, with its mixture of benefit and cost, assurance and risk, they prefer their lives to have a certain non-decomposable grandeur, passion, purity or unity, e.g. as in the way that a painter experiences his or her painting, a singer sings, an actor acts. This post summarizes Chapter 14 in Part II of Churchman’s “The design of inquiring systems”.

Speculations on systems design     … is the title of Part II of “The design of inquiring systems”. In previous posts I have written mostly on Part I “A classification of systems [of inquiry]”. In Part II, Churchman speculates on the nature of inquiring systems. Teleology (or the science of goal-seeking) is the conscious attempt to create a better world or a better live. One of the questions is: which aspects of an inquiring system to create the necessary knowledge or understanding cannot be made conscious? But if not all aspects can be made conscious, then how can we guarantee that it is right? What are the limits of artificial intelligence? How do we handle the relationship between relativism and non-relativism? Human nature is non-relativistic, so the concept of the guarantor comes out of their own individuality.


Simple teleology      In Churchman’s teleological model the designer plays a key role: not only does he design an intervention to improve (a problematic situation in) reality, but also does he or she design (or adapt) or choose inquiring system to produce the necessary knowledge that accurately represents reality. It is important to note that “the designer” is a role within the systems approach; this role could be played by a client (or beneficiary), a decision-maker or a hired expert. Continue reading

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Philosophic inquiring systems

The foundations of the systems approach

Churchman (1971, p. 17-18) suggests that “.. we can regard the history of epistemology [..] as a description of how learning can be designed and how the design can be justified. This way of reading [..] requires a translation from one philosophical aim to another.” He proceeds by stating “.. where this historical journey will lead. It will suggest some very rich and exciting designs, each design in some sense encompassing the best features of its predecessors. But in the end it will conclude that we are faced today with some critical design problems we do not know how to solve.” Churchman continues to emphasize that science is of little use, since it “cannot discuss social change (implementation) in any but a very restricted sense. Finally, and perhaps most important, science has no adequate way of studying the elusive.” Churchman’s survey of historical designs encompasses Leibniz (1646-1716; rationalism), Locke (1632-1704; empiricism), Kant (1724-1804; idealism), Hegel (1770-1830; absolute idealism) and Singer (1873-1954; pragmatism). Those of you not familiar with philosophy should note that it is not unusual to construct a novel philosophical scheme in this way. It may sound difficult, and indeed the original Churchman’s survey is a long (120 p.) and hard read (or was to me). I hope to have simplified it using a rather elaborate concept map (at the end) without losing the essence, but showing the overall ‘architecture’ instead.

Epistemology     Philosophy is the quest for wisdom. Wisdom may be considered “thought combined with a concern for ethics” (Churchman 1982, p. 7). Epistemology is the fundamental branch of philosophy that studies (-ology) knowledge (-episteme), more especially its nature, presuppositions, foundations, extent and validity. In other words: epistemology is thinking about thinking. A key question is: what are the conditions for justifying our belief that something is true, if anything? Epistemology is important because our beliefs underpin our actions and we want our actions to be meaningful in some way, and embody our values, even if they are destructive.

The design of inquiring systems       … is an indirect way of looking at the production of wisdom. It is thoroughly epistemological in the sense that it is about the justification of ways for learning wisdom. Any method for learning wisdom must be based in a theory of the origin and organization of knowledge. It is only by applying the principles of such a theory that we can hope to acquire or generate some degree of wisdom. This may at first look awfully theoretical, but it can be practical if: (1) these principles can be learned and applied; and (2) the results of the application can play a basic role in decision making, whether in business, government or our own lives. N.B.: the principles are loosely derived from the core (pp. 42-205) of The Design of Inquiring Systems, in which Churchman discusses the inquiring systems of Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and Singer resspectively.

Leibniz (1646-1716)     … is a rationalist. Rationalists claim that we can gain our concepts and knowledge independently of sense experience. The problem with sense experience is that it can be deceptive, Continue reading

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A systems approach to the design of inductive inquiry

The problem of observation as a nonseparable component

In the late 1960s Churchman was invited by NASA to work on an automated organic chemistry laboratory (or ‘inquiring system’), presumably to detect possible traces of life (‘biosignatures’ in current Exomars terms). The laboratory was to land on the Mars surface and do its work all on its own using a mass spectrometer. Churchman’s contribution was to help design a suitable inquiring logic. Churchman later used the results to illustrate how a Leibnizian inquirer could be used in practice for more ‘down-to-earth’ purposes. It was important that the example would be neither too simple (to contain all the elements for a proper explanation), nor too complex (to be understood by the average reader). What follows now is a summary of Chapter 4 of the Design of Inquiring Systems (Churchman, 1971). An earlier version of the chapter is entitled “On the design of inductive systems: some philosophical problems” (Br J Philos Sci (1969) 20 (4): 311-323 doi:10.1093/bjps/20.4.311). It seems that Churchman’s work with NASA was not always well appreciated. Probably NASA scientists couldn’t or wouldn’t understand what he was talking about, as if he was from another planet (Mars?). That’s interesting because it was all about Mars, anyway.

The importance of induction      Induction is commonly understood as “The process of inferring a general law or principle from the observation of particular instances” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed October 28, 2016). That is way too narrow. Carnap (1952) takes inductive inference to include all non-deductive inference. That may be a bit broad. It is important to note that deduction is not very practical: it can never support contingent judgments such as meteorological forecasts, nor can deduction alone explain the breakdown of one’s car, discover the genotype of a new virus, or reconstruct fourteenth century trade routes. Inductive inference can do these things more or less successfully because, in Peirce’s phrase, inductions are ampliative (i.e. adding to what is already known), whereas deduction only orders and rearranges our knowledge without adding to its content. We may conclude that induction is of crucial practical importance. The question then becomes: What distinguishes good from bad inductions? This is also known as The Problem of Induction. Churchman combined philosophy and management science to lift this question from the theoretical realm of philosophy to the practical world of planning and decision-making. Unfortunately, what he had to say about good induction was by and large lost in misinterpretations and a lack of practical approaches for its effective application. It is the business of this blog (not just this post) to bring “Churchman” back to life.

The induction process 1.0     In chapter 4 of the Design of Inquiring Systems Churchman discusses a “systems approach” to the design of inductive systems. The term “systems approach” can be applied because he applies system teleology to the design of inductive systems (see my post on Goal seeking by the systems approach). But first we must agree on what is meant by induction, so let’s take a look at below concept map (which is composed of 3 sub-maps that are intended to make sure you don’t lose track), in particular the right upper sub-map entitled “Induction process 1.0”. The main thing induction does here is to find and confirm a hypothesis (which could also be a plan or a project, since they are hypothetical solutions to the problem of planned human activity) to explain data (facts, observations, ‘reality’) using existing theory and background information. If it fails to do so, the process must be repeated. It is important to note that extralogical considerations enter into the design choices. Ideas about possible solutions and about the conditions of the situation enter into the process. There are no rigorous or mechanical procedures to find hypotheses from the data. Those involved look at clues, make guesses, and reject hypotheses in typically undefined ways. Could these intuitive moves be made explicit?


The induction process 2.0     … is the formalization of a more ‘intuitive’ design of the induction process using extralogical considerations. Its inspiration comes from Leibniz. For the sake of comparison I included a simple version of the Leibnizian inquirer (see my post on Leibnizian inquiring systems for the full version). What we see is ‘contingent truths’ (i.e. data, facts, observations), that must Continue reading

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Instilling the idea of non-separability

How to grasp an obscured yet fundamental truth?

Chapter 3 of Churchman’s “The design of inquiring systems” (1971) is entitled “On whole systems: the anatomy of goal seeking.” What this suggests is that the notions of ‘whole systems’ and ‘goal seeking’ are somehow related. It also suggests that the idea of ‘goal seeking’ can be disentangled by looking at its anatomy. In other words, the idea of ‘goal seeking’ needs to be dissected, or else we won’t understand what ‘whole systems’, and by extension ‘the systems approach’, mean or purport to achieve. Churchman himself admits that “the details are somewhat tedious”, which suggests that a non-genius like me won’t understand it, unless he really applies himself. With almost 40 pages the chapter is the longest in the book and I must admit:  It was tough going. Hope you find my brief useful. It may help if you first read my previous post on the same chapter. You may also like to read Churchman’s 1962 working paper “On inquiring systems“, which corresponds by and large to Chapter 3 of the book published 9 years later.

Four main steps       After having read the chapter “On whole systems”, I concluded that Churchman asks the reader to take four giant steps in order to really understand what he means by a system. None of these steps are likely to correspond to anything the reader has learned before, although he/she may be vaguely or intuitively aware of it. The reader must: (1) acknowledge the four main types of relationships in a human activity system; (2) conceptualize a factory as a simple, non-separable system, i.e. a system packed with interdependencies; (3) conceptualize how Churchman´s system categories can be used to learn about or (re-)design an actual system such as a factory; and finally (4) attempt to see the importance of a systems perspective of the world.


Explanatory models       [step 1] The designer seeking to improve human activity systems has 4 key explanatory models to conceptualize alternative systems that are hopefully more effective than the one they seek to improve on: (i) cause-effect relationships (A leads to B); (ii) producer-product relationships (A may lead to B under certain conditions; (iii) functional relations (A influences system aspect B); and (iv) teleological entities, i.e. human activity systems, rank and choose functional entities to achieve a purpose.

Factory as a system       [step 2] A factory is an example of a human activity system with a large number of interdependiencies, i.e. relationships that produce non-linear effects thus turning the factory into a non-separable system that is not overly complicated. The south-eastern quadrant of the concept map is sufficiently self-explanatory.

Non-separable systems     [step 3] What turns a relatively simple non-separable system such as a factory into something highly complex is a combination of parts with multiple feedback loops and the presence of humans. Continue reading

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Goal seeking by the systems approach

Its rationale, its structure, its application, and its definition

There are many ways of explaining the systems approach, but it is difficult to find a way that enables quick understanding and acceptance. While reading Churchman’s ‘The design of inquiring systems’ I came up with the following explanation. The bracketed numbers in the text refer to the grey numbers in the concept map. Simply stated, the systems approach applies system teleology to human activity in order to improve value creation. This could be interpreted as a clever answer to a very interesting question, the short version of which is: “What fundamental pattern underlies all human activity?” Or, formulated in another way, “What must we know for studying concerns of effectiveness?

Human activity         … is what the systems human-activity-as-teleological-systemapproach deals with in the broadest sense (1). The systems approach provides principles for inquiring into and redesigning the complex relationships (2) that characterize human activity (3). In the systems approach, ‘the bigger picture’ is an important concept, because it is necessary to better situate both complex inter-relationships and human activities (4).

Teleological system      Human activity can be considered to be a teleological system (5). This means that human activity is best understood by its ends or purposes. This simple idea is the foundation of the systems approach (6). According to Churchman a common, fundamental pattern characterizes all human goal seeking (7). This pattern underlies the systems approach, i.e. the systems approach explains what the pattern is and what principles must be followed for its application in practice (8).

Value creation    At its most simple the above pattern is the logical connection of fundamental concepts, three of which are: design, resources and value (9). The ‘bigger picture’ is also part of this fundamental pattern (10). The general purpose of human activity could be said to be the creation of value (11). Part of the human activity is the use of resources (and environmental factors) to create value. Another part is design, which attempts to understand what value to create, why, and how. Three roles can be distinguished Continue reading

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