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*

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THE origins of THE systems approach

Tracing the tracks of C. West Churchman

Last month I reread (and blogged) Churchman’s ‘The Systems Approach’ (1968) and was surprised to see that between the lines it contained practically the whole of the dialectical systems approach (the systems approach) as it finally took shape in 1971 (The design of inquiring systems) and 1979 (Enemies of the systems approach). In ‘The Systems Approach’ Churchman describes in fact how the dialectical systems approach emerged from the scientific systems approach (the “systems approach”) and operations research, something he had been working on very successfully from 1941 onward and the 1950s in particular, culminating in his ‘Introduction to Operations Research’ (IOR, Wiley, 1957; co-written by Russ Ackoff and Leonard Arnoff, one of the big guys behind Ernst & Young). Interestingly and speaking in a general sense, many of the ideas of ‘The Systems Approach’ of 1968 can be traced back in one guise or another to ‘Introduction to Operations Research’ of 1957. As usual, the paragraph numbers of this post refer to the numbers in the concept map. Or perhaps I should say concept enchilada.

1. ´The´ systems approach     … was designed by C. West Churchman. He wrote a first book about it in 1968, entitled `The systems approach´ (TSA). The term ´systems approach´ refers to the idea of dealing with systems ‘as a whole’. However, there is not a single (‘the’) systems approach, but there are many: the efficiency approach, the scientific management approach, the efficiency approach, the humanist’s approach and the anti-planners approach, just to mention the ones listed in TSA, pp. 13-14. Then there is the dialectical systems approach, which “really consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind with respect to society” (TSA, xi), i.e. between the different approaches to the social systems we live in.

2. Social systems      … are created by people. They represent our efforts at creating or increasing value by collaboration in a broad sense. The value thus created is to be enjoyed or treasured by the same or other people. People cannot just create any social system in any way deemed most efficient or best by some other one-dimensional standard, because social systems are created subject to constraints, part of which belong to the complex systems of valuation and exchange underlying the social systems. As a result of all these complexities and the fact that our social systems (and their components or higher-order systems) are many and tend to overlap and conflict with each other, problems emerge that we find hard, not to say impossible to address. These problems defy our – sometimes formidable – intellect and technology, both in fact the product of some of those same social systems (intellects have to be trained to be able to do their job, which is perhaps the whole point of this post and its subject matter). We think and exchange ideas, but we find it hard to come up with effective solutions. Businesses go bust, peoples go to war, religions harm or kill non-coreligionists, dictatorships flourish to the detriment of the suppressed, we are unable to root out the classical scourges of hunger, poverty, ignorance and disease, while overpopulation and climate change threaten the planet as a whole. We simply cannot fully understand and are often deviously deceived by the systems of our and other people’s creation.

3. Science to the rescue?      The scientific systems approach has its roots in operations research, which was an effort to let scientists improve Second World War efforts in any possible way, e.g. by using statistics or simply by being bright and innovative, asking “stupid” questions. Churchman was in fact a philosopher, but he, too, became usefully engaged in operations research from December 1941 (the Pearl Harbor attack was on the 7th) onward and rode the wave of its success in corporate America of the 1950s, at the same time contributing enormously to it. According to some, operations research was initially based on insights from administrating the erstwhile global British Empire, a complex affair indeed. Churchman, being an American, rather traced its roots to the efficiency approach of the early 20th century, also known as Taylorism, which was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management, e.g. in the production of Ford’s Model T (1908-1927). The same techniques were used in the production of thousands of Liberty ships and B-24 bomber aircraft, so it is not surprising that management guru Peter Drucker credited scientific management with winning the war (Beatty, 2002). Out of the efficiency approach grew the scientific systems approach of the management scientist, who increasingly made use of modern computers, also invented during the Second World War, primarily to calculate ballastic missile trajectories for the US Army (McCartney, 1999). Operations research discovered the concept of the system as key to the problems we are dealing with (Churchman et al., 1957). So, according to Churchman (1968), a system can be defined as being composed of Continue reading

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The whole systems enchilada

A dialectical total systems framework

Every now and then I think I have disentangled the whole systems enchilada. By this (i.e. the term ‘whole systems enchilada’) I mean that I am convinced that the systems approach of Churchman hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today, but that it is not a simple matter to visualize, know or show in what ways this relevance can be accepted and made effective in actual planning, decision-making and client participation processes. Over the past two months I have reread a lot of Churchman’s writings and the time has come to give this disentanglement a new go. Extra (and highly useful, not to say necessary) inspiration came from discussions over the past few days with Dr. Ken Doust (e.g. heads the SCU Master of Engineering Management Course, co-directs Australian Hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network), who was visiting with his wife Joyce from Australia. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map. Or perhaps I should say concept enchilada.

1. ´The´ systems approach      … was designed by C. West Churchman. He wrote a first book about it in 1968, entitled `The systems approach´. What he meant by ´systems approach´ is that people use various approaches to deal with systems ‘as a whole’. So, there is not a single (‘the’) systems approach, but there are many: the efficiency approach, the scientific management approach, the political approach, the humanist approach, bureaucratic approach, participatory approaches, learning approaches, planning approaches etc. We need systems approaches, because humans make systems all the time with the purpose to produce or increase value. So we have businesses, economic systems, political systems, religious systems, education systems, health systems, family systems etc. These systems interact and overlap, just as our approaches interact and overlap. Often system activities have negative consequences. One of the main reasons is that we make all sorts of (false, wicked) assumptions to make our approaches work. This results in a certain messiness, which affects the effectiveness of value production and the way we value (or hate) the systems we live in. Churchman developed a dialectical systems approach to address this messiness. It is a rational approach based on attempting to approach the system as a whole, taking into account other systems approaches. One could say it is a heroic attempt to create a supersystem approach. However, the systems approach is an unattainable ideal. “Each person looks at [complex problems] in such a one-sided way that the systems approach is lost.” This notion is incorporated in the dialectical systems approach to turn it in the best imaginable systems approach. That’s why Churchman claims that “the systems is not a bad idea.” (see also my post on “Deception and systems approach.”

2. Who uses ‘the’ systems approach?      Well, hardly anybody. Ain’t that strange? Yes and no. One of the reasons is that it is not taught at universities and in secondary schools. One reason for that is that we do not think in general terms about our systems and the best ways to approach them. Another reason is that it is not used in practice. Or so it seems. On the one hand, Churchman’s approach seemed to most people to be a bunch of principles that lacked a stepwise, readily applicable method. On the other hand, Churchman’s ideas on the systems approach have over time influenced a great many systems thinkers and practitioners. These include Peter Senge (and his Fifth Discipline, which he calls ‘systems thinking’), Peter Checkland (and his ‘soft systems methodology’), Werner Ulrich and a great many more. Presumably, the systems approach lost out to the other approaches in the competition with Continue reading

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A summary of ‘The Systems Approach’

This is a 15-paragraph overview of a series of 15 blogging posts, which covered the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. At the end of each paragraph is a link to the original post, providing a more extensive summary of the original chapter. By quickly reading through the 2000+ words of this overview you get a good impression of what Churchman’s seminal book is about. You will also see the first outlines of the framework of categorical considerations that Churchman presents in his next book (The Design of Inquiring Systems) and that forms the basis for Werner Ulrich’s Critical System Heuristics. You will also get a better sense of how that framework was originally used by Churchman, which isn’t all that different from how you can use it today and in the future. Ulrich has shown that the framework can be used on its own, Churchman used it in combination with techniques from management science, you could use it in combination with a planning approach of your own.

Preface   C. West Churchman (1913-2004), an American pioneer in management science and systems thinking, was one of the first to recognize that social systems – whether in business or society – “are far too complicated for our intellectual powers and technological capabilities to be able to really identify the central problem and determine how it should be solved, no matter what approach is used,” including the scientific systems approach of management science. This convinced Churchman of the need to make a distinction between this scientific systems approach – and a novel, much more dialectical systems approach that “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind with respect to society,” such as ”the humanist approach, the artist’s approach, or the engineering approach.” See full post at CSL4D.

Thinking       [chapter 1] The scientific systems approach is a great planning tool. It identifies various subsystems to achieve a particular objective. An additional, overall management subsystem relates all the sub-objectives to the central objective, checks whether sub-objectives meet their standards, keeps an eye on the time and budgetary constraints, and prepares alternative pathways in the case of problems. Unfortunately, this approach may still create a whole lot of nonsense. The dialectical systems approach is Churchman´s rational effort to address this ´snag´. Its chief interest is in systems with humans in them, such as industrial firms, hospitals, educational institutions.” Churchman’s dialectical systems approach first of all reflects on the overall objective and then describes the system in terms of this overall objective by juxtaposing four different debaters: (1) the advocates of efficiency; (2) the model building scientists; (3) the humanists, who emphasize freedom, dignity, privacy; and (4) the anti-planners, wary of rational plans. See full post at CSL4D.

Efficiency       [chapter 2] The efficiency approach is preferred by debater number one. It is at the core of scientific management, not to be confused with management science. Its main objective is improving labor productivity. Idleness is one of the typical symptoms of inefficiency. It can be observed in workers, machines, inventory, infrastructure, and budgets. The “systems approach” considers the efficiency approach ‘old-fashioned’ because it looks at only one part of the system, not the system as a whole. It is better to ask “what combination of waiting and idleness is optimal in the whole system?” The general principle is that it is often best to balance one inefficiency with another to achieve better total system performance. See full post at CSL4D.

Systems       [chapter 3] The scientific systems approach is preferred by debater number two. It views a system as a set of parts (or components or subsystems) coordinated to accomplish a set of goals. The components use resources and the environment to work towards the total system objectives. So, a system is defined by: (1) the total objectives; (2) the relevant system environment; (3) resources “are the means that the system uses to do its job,” including money, people, time, and equipment; (4) components, which take specific actions for using resources and environment to work towards the outcome of the system; and (5) management, which keeps an eye on system performance and takes corrective steps when needed. This sounds straightforward, but Churchman found that it is very difficult to define these five “considerations”, the more so because they are interdependent. See full post at CSL4D.

Simulation      [chapter 4; original title: ‘an illustration’] A study of the rising cost of cargo handling in the port of San Francisco was used to show how the dialectical systems approach may integrate other types of systems approach. The worry was that costly cargo handling would affect US competitiveness, while there was also a threat of labor strikes if cargo handling was made less labor intensive. First of all, management scientists identified the government agencies as the decision-maker, which implied that extending the embedding principle to the transport system would not be considered, thus restricting the purpose of the investigation by the engineers. Next, a simulation model was developed using past statistics on ship arrivals and so on to be able to determine the impact of a change of technology on the cost of cargo handling and on other parts of the port system. Finally, there was the question whom to share the benefits of innovation with. See full post at CSL4D.

 Input-output    [chapter 5] The input-output model is also widely applied by management scientists. ‘In’ go resources (people, money ..) and out come products or services: e.g. students from educational systems, and goods and dividend from industrial firms. A linear model of a manufacturing firm that makes 100 different kinds of furniture takes must consider the same five aspects as identified in chapter 3: (1) measures of performance: net profit expressed mathematically as weighted output minus cost subject to a set of constraint equations; (2) environmental constraints; (3) resources; (4) components: product lines (including marketing); and (5) management: the decision making on the amount of resources for each product line. In general, the larger the system becomes, the more the parts interact, the more difficult it is to understand environmental constraints, the more obscure becomes the problem of resource allocation, and the more difficult becomes the problem of the legitimate values of the system. See full post at CSL4D.

 Program budgeting     [chapter 6] Program planning & budgeting (PPB) combines planning with budgeting to achieve whole system effectiveness when multiple entities are dealing with a single broad issue, oversight is lost, and resources may be wasted. First, the objective of such a multi-faceted government program to deal with a social problem (e.g. alcoholism) is formulated. Next a number of general programs is identified: (1) prevention; (2) remedial activities; (3) control, e.g.  by medical or legal activities; (4) research; and (5) administration. These in turn are broken down in subprograms, as shown in an activity matrix. After that, the demands for the activities on the various programs and subprograms are expressed, as shown in a requirements matrix. The optimal design is one that maximizes the overall score by a rational allocation of activities in each subprogram. Serious gaps in knowledge may require judgments that need additional research. See full post at CSL4D.

 Knowledge management      [chapter 7; original title: ‘management information systems’] Management information systems (MIS) support decision-making, esp. in government and large corporations, e.g. for resource planning, client relations, or knowledge management. The system must be able to identify which information is valid and relevant and understand how it could help the manager in his or her decision-making. This requires a model of the manager and a forecasting model to be able to contrast alternative potential solutions in a reiterative process, involving a ‘rich’ interchange. Now, the core business of knowledge management would therefore be adapting the enriched interchange necessary for that process to different organizational contexts by obtaining valid and relevant information from multiple sources. Knowledge is best defined as ‘the ability of some person to do something correctly.’ The humanist is concerned that information systems are closed to the outside world and deeper values of morality and esthetics are lost. See full post at CSL4D.

Management information      [chapter 8; original title: ‘an illustration’] At one time, the Governor of California asked experts to design a computer-based, statewide information system. The idea was to propose a system that was capable of providing the same information as the present manual system, preferably in better time and at lower cost. The hidden purpose was to use “think tank capacity” in the Californian aerospace industry during a lull in government contracting. Churchman notes that different purpose definitions would result in different designs and that political support could itself be considered a key resource. The most practical option had decentralized storage with a central catalogue. The proposal was never implemented. The following aspects were left out of consideration: (a) the risk of ‘uncontrolled information accumulation’; (b) the question of whether future needs were to be taken into consideration; (c) the privacy or confidentiality issue; and (d) the use of a statewide information system to support decision-making. See full post at CSL4D.

 Time        [chapter 9] We have no precise model of the future, nor do we have reliable data for its input. The systems idea of nonseparability is related to the embedding principle. It means that there are functional relationships in the larger system that must be considered when improving a ‘smaller’ system. Nonseparability would extend planning beyond the next stage (single stage, ‘static’ view) to the subsequent stages (multistage, ‘dynamic’ view). The management scientist prefers the static view over the dynamic view, whereas most people know that the dynamic view is what counts. The longer term increases the unreliability of estimates. This applies particularly in social design, with different perspectives in choosing and ranking functional entities and relations. Network theory, or network analysis, comprises such planning techniques as CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT (Programme Evaluation Review Technique). These are generally applied to physical systems rather than social systems. See full post at CSL4D.

Planning      [chapter 10] The systems approach is about planning with a view to the whole system. Planning must ‘pay’ for itself and compensate for the opportunity cost. Planning must be planned for.  An elaborate planning system unfolds into the subdivisions of: (1) social interaction, which subdivides into: (a) justification to demonstrate the worthwhileness of planning effort; (b) staffing and organizing to avoid alienation of planning from management; (c) communication of the plan by persuasion, education and politics; and (d) the design of a stepwise plan of implementation;  (2) measurement to create information about the decision-maker(s), alternatives, goals and objectives, effectiveness, and selection of the best alternative; and (3) test of the plan, using simulation, counter-planning and control. Of these three major subprograms of planning, “the second […] occupies the most attention at the present time, and this may account for the fact that planning so often fails in its mission.” See full post at CSL4D.

Values       [chapter 11] Any evaluation of the systems approach depends on how we value, which depends on the ‘real’ objectives of the system. The problem is that system ‘inhabitants’ often hide the real objectives by emphasizing the positive aspects to garner support or admiration. Churchman distinguishes three roles: the customer, the decision-maker and the planner. The decision-maker engages the planner to help him serve the customer better by systemic change. So it is up to the planner to clarify the real objectives. Customers can be clients in a shop, stockholders, employees, union representatives etc. Finding out the real objectives often entails a complicated and sometimes frustrating learning process of trial and error. Words or behavior can only express people´s values and preferences indirectly. Planners prefer feasible problems over complex ones. One tempting and practical, but deceptive strategy is by making assumptions to reduce the objectives of the system to a single, simple goal. See full post at CSL4D.

 Behavior      [chapter 12] Behavioral science could complement the systems approach for better handling of human conflict and resistance to change, problems that may result in non-implementation. One approach is to study human conflict by means of game theory. Laboratory studies demonstrated the existence of cooperative and conflict types. Studies of real cases developed practical principles of organization and group motivation. Resistance to change is a topic in the field of social psychology. Findings could be used in a sociotechnical systems approach. One of the best ways for handling resistance to change is by avoiding the problem of alienation of the planning system. This implies the need for companies to transform into learning organizations. Gaming and social accounting are two other fields of behavioral science. Business games can give entrepreneurs a direct insight in conflict situations. Social accounting is useful in supporting concepts that are used in the systems approach. See full post at CSL4D.

 Anti-planning     [chapter 13] The idea that a planning philosophy such as the systems approach is the most appropriate philosophy is not shared by everybody. It is also important to realize that “no approach to systems can stand by itself. Its only method of standing is to face its most severe opposition,” as could be mounted by anti-planners. Churchman distinguishes 6 types of anti-planning: (1) the ‘excellent’ manager; (2) the sceptic (there is no sound approach); (3) the determinist (everything is the product of social forces); (4) religion (upholds “God’s plan,” which is unalterable); (5) approaches reflecting the self: e.g. the revolutionary self; and (6) the non-intellectual, e.g. artists. The ‘excellent’ managers are the most common of all anti-planning approachers. They are supposed to be persons with rich experience in the system and with perceptive, brilliant minds. They “know the business” and cannot see how some outsider could tell them anything significant. See full post at CSL4D.

Deception       [chapter 14; original title ‘conclusion’] The ultimate meaning of the systems approach “lies in the creation of a theory of deception and in a fuller understanding of the ways in which the human being can be deceived.” So: (1) understanding our problematic systems is our most critical problem; (2) the problem of finding the appropriate approach is insoluble; because (3) continuous perception and deception are in the nature of complex systems; so (4) we must continually re-view the world, the whole system, and its parts. Four principles of deception-perception confuse and enlighten the management scientist and everybody else:   (a) “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” (b) “The systems approach goes on discovering that every world view is terribly restricted.” (c) “There are no experts in the systems approach;” and (d) “The systems approach is not a bad idea.” See full post at CSL4D.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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Deception and the Systems Approach

Is THE systems approach a supersystem approach?

This is a summary of the last, concluding Chapter Fourteen of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which covered the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1 through 13 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  The critical problem     According to Churchman, “the most critical problem we face today [is] the understanding of the systems in which we live.” (TSA 230). Decision-makers in all areas of society fail to take the right decisions, because the expert planners advising them rely mostly on non-systemic or not properly systemic intervention models. In the preface of The Systems Approach, Churchman makes a distinction between the “systems approach” of the management scientist and the systems approach of the system philosopher. Of the systems approach he says that it “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind [perspectives] with respect to society,” including those of the humanist and the anti-planner (see previous post). It is for this reason that the systems approach can also be called the dialectical systems approach. It is the last resort in man’s attempt to deal with the critical problem, which is that people – experts, decision-makers, planners, scientists, politicians, reporters and citizens alike – fail to understand the systems they live in.

2.  The scientific “systems approach”     …., or the application of science to systems design, is “the main topic of conversation of the entire book” (TSA 229) and subject to severe crticism. Churchman goes as far as stating that the scientist can be conceived as an anti-planner and a deceived scientist, who believes “that science has arrived at a plateau [of perfect inquiry] where its own change is minimized.” The ultimate meaning of the systems approach, in his view, “lies in the creation of a theory of deception and in a fuller understanding of the ways in which the human being can be deceived about his world and in an interaction between these different viewpoints” or perspectives. In other words: to perceive more clearly, we must use different perspectives to understand better how singular perspectives are deceptive.

3.  The dialectical systems approach     … is promoted by the system philosopher. He does so by contrasting and critiquing the different systems approaches. He uses – at least in this book – the scientific systems approach as a starting point. It is the management scientist who notes that the efficiency expert is deceived by his perception of idleness and slack in the system. But similarly the management scientist is deceived by his approach, “in which ´all´ of the objectives are represented and a ´proper´ compromise is created.” (TSA 228). “In the straight-faced seriousness of his approach, he forgets many things: basic human values and his own inability really to understand all aspects of the system, and especially its politics.” But then Churchman – the archetypal dialectical system approacher – admits: “I, too, am biased and deceived.” (TSA 230).

4.  All approaches limited     The systems approach is an unattainable ideal. “Each person looks at [complex problems] in such a one-sided way that the systems approach is lost. […] People are not apt to wish to explore problems in depth with their antagonists. Above all, they are not apt to take on the burden of really believing that their antagonist may be right.” So: (1) we must recognize that understanding our complex problematic systems (or situations) is our most critical problem; (2) we must admit that this problem, i.e. finding the appropriate approach to systems, is not solved and will never be solved; because (3) continuous perception and deception are in the nature of [complex, human] systems; so (4) we must resign ourselves to a continuing re-viewing of the world, of the whole system, and of its parts (or components). (TSA 230).

5. Confusion and enlightenment    … are “inseparable aspects of human living” (TSA 231). The notion of separability or non-separability is very important in Churchman’s approach. It is the belief in separability that enable us to develop clear ideas. A good example is that of the efficiency expert, who looks at slack in the system as a separate phenomenon, which he can remove without affecting the rest of the system. He feels enlightened. Then comes the management scientists, who confuses him with ideas about non-separability of different aspects of the system. The management scientist is not opposed to efficiency, but it must be embedded in the rest of the system. Finally comes Churchman, who ‘confuses’ (and ‘enlightens’!!) the management scientist and everybody else with his principles of deception-perception.

6. Principles of deception-perception:     (a) “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” The reason for this is that it enables us to realize that alternative world views have validity, while being in conflict with our own world views. It shows us the role of models in our perception and the fundamental need for dialectics. (b) “The systems approach goes on discovering that every world view is terribly restricted.” The reason is that world views tend to look at parts as if they are wholes, or wholes as if they are parts. The embedding principle works both ways, endlessly expanding and contracting. (c) “There are no experts in the systems approach.” The public always knows more than any expert. Everybody who lives in the system has a valid perspective, which some experts find hard to admit. (d) “The systems approach is not a bad idea.” This is not so, because there is no alternative (i.e. to deception), not because it is perfect (i.e. with perception only). See paragraph 4 above.

Final note    “The Systems Approach” is not Churchman’s last book about the dialectical systems approach. On p. 43 of “The Design of Inquiring Systems” (1971) Churchman describes how the anatomy of goal seeking by whole systems can be used for developing a framework of categories (or considerations or categorical considerations) in a system of inquiry. On p. 79-100 of “The Systems Approach and Its Enemies” (1979) he develops this framework a bit further. One of his students, Werner Ulrich, adapted this framework to suit his “Critical Heuristics of Social Planning” (1983). In this latter form it has found its way, via a large community of practice in the UK (Open University, University of Hull), into “Wicked Solutions” (2016, see also below). During the writing of Wicked Solutions it became apparent how closely it follows the original ideas of Churchman. As an avid concept mapper I produced a combination of Churchman’s and Ulrich’s framework (2nd version) to clarify these relationships (see also my post on goal seeking systems). The framework didn’t exist at the time of writing “The Systems Approach” (1968) except perhaps as a mental ‘map’ in Churchman’s mind, but it is easy to recognize the framework’s elements in “The Systems Approach”. In fact, it would be useful for the reader of “The Systems Approach” to have this framework in mind, which is why I add it to this post. But beware, the below framework contains ideas of Ulrich (1983) and Williams & Van ‘t Hof (2016). Expect me to produce a more purely Churchmannian one somewhere in 2017 or 2018. This is the best I have, so far.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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Anti-Planning vs. the Systems Approach

The contribution of anti-planning approaches to planning

This is a summary of Chapter Thirteen of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1 through 12 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Planning philosophy      The idea that a planning philosophy such as the systems approach is the most appropriate philosophy to lay out the structure of a system and decide what changes should occur that best serve the customers of a system is an idea that is not shared by everybody. To the rationalist it’s hard to see how anyone could ever accept an anti-planning philosophy. The fact remains that there are a great many people that do is important. It is important not only to take that fact into account, but also to realize that “no approach to systems can stand by itself. Its only method of standing is to face its most severe opposition.” Such an opposition is mounted by anti-planning approachers. Thus, anti-planning can and must essentially be regarded as a fundamental part of the (dialectical) systems approach. This is all the more important, because the systems approach at best offers an approximation or a succession of approximations without any guarantee that it will ever result in the hoped for progress or that the progress will be really of the hoped for kind. If science cannot be the guarantor of progress, which it would seem it can’t, then it is best to subject any plans to the fiercest opposition imaginable.

2.  Anti-planning approaches     …. are in conflict in fundamental ways with some or all aspects of the (scientific) “systems approach” so they can play a very useful role in the opposition of it. They reject the idea of rationality, or the idea that something useful can be planned, or the notion of control, or the entire concept of a system. Churchman distinguishes 6 types of anti-planning approaches or approachers: (a) the ‘excellent’ manager; (b) the sceptic; (c) the determinist; (d) religion; (e) self-reflection; and (f) the non-intellectual. The (dialectical) systems approach is able to critically appreciate and these anti-planning approaches for the alternative essences of value they represent. To some extent it is also able to incorporate them in its approach.

3. The ‘excellent’ manager     …. Is the most common of anti-planning approachers. He is supposed to be a person with rich experience in the system and with a perceptive, brilliant mind. He examines a few aspects of the systems, receives some data and reports, and readily makes up his mind what should be done. “In most cases he cannot make explicit what steps he has taken and he feels no need to do so. If, as a young man, he has shown signs of being perceptive and a good leader, he is promoted. If not, he never climbs the ladder. In this anti-planning practical school, education takes place with the system and is never made explicit.” (TSA 215-216). They “know the business” and cannot see how some outsider could tell them anything significant. Nevertheless, it is hard to justify in what way they are great and perceptive decision-makers.

4. The sceptic and the determinist      … are also fairly common anti-planning types, though far less important than the ‘excellent’ manager. “The sceptic firmly believes that we can never understand even minor aspects of a system.” (TSA 217). “His approach is that there is no sound approach.” (TSA 218). We deceive ourselves when we think we are improving anything. He is the arrogant relativist, who simply shows the extreme difficulties of answering questions, which is something the dialectical systems approacher wholeheartedly agrees with, except for becoming a relativist, too. The determinist, on the other hand, believes that major human decisions are not in the hands of human decision makers, including Napoleon (Tolstoy, 1869). Everything is the product of social forces rather than the result of the doings of particular individuals. The determinist does bring up an important issue in that it is important to the planner to pinpoint the “decision makers” in the system, or else he will not have a way to produce the changes that are needed. The important issue is that this pinpointing is not as easy as it may seem. See also one of my previous posts.

5.  Religion and self-reflection     “The religious approach says that the real planning of the world lies in a power or mind that is greater than the mind of all men combined.” This implies that it is no longer up to a human being to try to decide on his own how the whole system must change using a rational approach. Rather he must uphold God’s plan, which is unalterable. This poses three main problems to the rationalist: (a) the lack of evidence for such a plan or its originator; (b) the conflict of dogmatic belief with scientific proof of the nature of reality; and (c) the conflict of dogmatic belief with rationally derived human values as in the Kantian ethics. On the other hand, the rational planner cannot possibly believe to have the correct plan. He must keep thinking of his activity as a series of approximations, in which each approximation is in principle better than its predecessor. But why should such a series of approximations lead anywhere? (TSA 219-223). The second anti-planning approach is based on the central position of the self. It has a great many varieties: the power-dominated self, the conservative self, the revolutionary self, the annihilated self (for whom all existence becomes trivia) etc. “The ‘recommendations’ of the management scientist are an expression of his inner being and have nothing to do with ‘optimal’ changes in reality.” (TSA 223). The debate becomes interesting when applying psychoanalytic theory to the “systems approach”: if “poverty” could be redefined in something other than economic terms, we might discover how many poor people there are in our rich culture. (TSA 225).

6. The non-intellectual approach     … does not belief that thinking in any of its senses is important in the development of human life. It is the approach that finds the essence of value in the song, the painting, the vision, the myth, the feminine, and ultimately the unspoken. Must we admit that the basic aspects of human values never can be represented by the scientific or behavioral systems approaches? It is a deep reminder that what systems approachers create or propose is deeply irrelevant or perhaps even partially destructive for the person who finds his life in the religious, or in the search for the self, or in the completely nonintellectual. Thus, anti-planning must essentially be regarded as a fundamental part of the (dialectical) systems approach.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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Behavior in the Systems Approach

Adding some ‘soft’ empiricism to ‘hard’ rationality

This is a summary of Chapter Twelve of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1 through 11 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Behavioral science     …. tries to bridge between the economic-feasible approach to the change of systems and the humanist demand for the representation of “real” human values. It investigates what the human being is like in terms of his or her behavior. As an empiricist, the behavioral scientist is much less interested in model building. He focuses on the individual rather than the whole system. He tries to observe how and why the individual makes his or her choices, sets goals, has beliefs, develops concepts of reality, and expresses values. Combined these types of behavior form patterns that structure the way groups, societies and cultures are organized. The systems approach rather works the other way around. In theory the behavioral scientist´s approach could complement the systems approach. 

2. Human conflict     …. Is one of two key problems that need to be addressed in the systems approach. No matter how well-balanced systemic interventions are designed, there is always the risk of non-implementation. Behavioral science may offer a way out. One way to study human conflict is by means of game theory. It is sometimes defined as “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” But there is more to it. Some of its findings have been tested under controlled conditions (in laboratories) or semi-controlled conditions. This has resulted in theories involving cooperative and conflict types. Human conflict can also be studied in real cases. These studies have given rise to ideas concerning possible principles of organization and group motivation with direct relevance to applying the systems approach in practice.

3.  Resistance to change     … is the other key problem that needs to be addressed in the systems approach. It is perhaps even more about non-implementation than human conflict. It is a topic in the field of social psychology. It could help develop an approach to systems that combines the best of both worlds and that could be called the sociotechnical systems approach. Churchman points out that one of the best ways for handling resistance to change is by avoiding the problem of alienation of the planning system (see Ch. 10). This implies the need for companies to transform into learning organizations, an idea that was successfully promoted by Peter Senge and others a quarter of a century afterwards.

4.  Gaming and social accounting     … are two other fields of study in which behavioral science could play a role. Both are of direct practical relevance. Business games and international games are examples of serious or applied games that can give entrepreneurs and diplomats a direct feel of and insights in the conflictual situations they are operating in. One could surmise that such games may also help the system approacher in ensuring actual implementation of his or her proposals. Social accounting has grown considerably in importance since Churchman wrote The Systems Approach. It is useful in supporting concepts and ways of thinking that are used in the systems approach.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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Values in the Systems Approach

The difference between soft and hard systems approaches

This is a summary of Chapter Eleven of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1 through 10 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Evaluation    Many may wonder whether the systems approach pays off in practice. Adherents of the “systems approach” – aka the scientific systems approach of management scientists and the like – showcase savings of millions of dollars or claim increased effectiveness as a result of a more rational approach. Others point to the lack of implementation. Any evaluation of the systems approach depends on how we value. For an answer to this we must turn to the ‘real’ objectives of the system. The problem is that the ‘inhabitants’ of the system hide or don’t know the real objectives and constraints. They emphasize the positive aspects to garner support or admiration.

2. Roles      …. in the systems include those of the customer, the decision-maker and the planner. These are intricately linked. The decision-maker engages the planner to help him or her serve the customer (or client or beneficiary) better by changing the system. So it is up to the planner to clarify the real objectives of the system. The systems approach (the dialectical systems approach) argues that it is difficult to distinguish the roles very clearly. There may be considerable overlap, even in the case of a single person or group. Customers can be clients in a shop, stockholders, employees, union representatives etc. The planner cannot always ask customers what they want. Some of the system customers may not even been born yet.

3.  Real objectives          Finding out the real objectives of a system is a complex issue. It carries us directly into the minefield of design. An example is that of the planner-architect who asks the client-house builder what he wants. Another example is that of the planner-ICT expert who asks a client-website builder what he wants. It may seem simple at first, but is in fact a complicated and sometimes frustrating learning process of trial and error. Clarifying the real objectives resists verbal probing, whether by eliciting verbal statements or indicated behavior, esp. if it is about risk taking and risk aversion. The problem is that words or behavior can only express people´s values and preferences indirectly. And none of it is final, because we cannot interview future or past clients. Besides people are fickle or hold on to their ideas – or not – with varying degrees of intensity. Moreover, much depends on the information people have about the system and the worth of alternatives available to them.

4. Feasible problems     The natural inclination of most planners is to adopt a so-called engineering philosophy to problems. Two strategies stand out: (1) getting rid of multiple decision-makers by finding or designing a representative who is assumed to be able to represent the real objectives of the system; (2) getting rid of multi-stage problems by making other assumptions to reduce the objectives of the system to a single, simple goal. Both are tempting and practical, but deceptive. It is has a parallel in scientific inquiry which is also based on creating a controlled environment to enable precise measurements. This has enabled great learning in the physical domain, but not so much when social problems are concerned. And just as a reminder: the word social here is used as in ‘social institutions’ and includes administration, business, communication, development, education, finance, geography, history and so on.

5.  SS versus MM     Churchman makes a useful distinction between single-stage problems with a single decision-maker (SS) and multi-stage problems with multiple decision-makers (MM). The basic idea of the dialectical systems approach is that it is much more rational to approach MM types of problems as such and not to attempt to deal with them as if they are SS types of problems by making a panoply of assumptions, i.e. by using a hard systems approach to soft systems. This poses certain difficulties to the approach, especially in terms of the way we think about certain classes of problems, also known as wicked problems. According to Churchman we must recognize “that all real problems are MM.” (TSA 191). One year earlier he wrote that: “the membership in the class of nonwicked problems is restricted to the arena of play: nursery school, academia and the like.” (Churchman 1967). In ‘Wicked Solutions’ (see below) we suggest framings as a key step in dealing with MMs without falling in the trap of assumption making. Chapter 11 of TSA provides a key part of the theoretical basis for this.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

 

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