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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Leibnizian inquiring systems

Combining insights of Descartes, Spinoza to grow fact nets

As I wrote in a previous post, “Churchman suggests that the history of epistemology can be used as a source of design models for learning systems and their justification. To this end he takes the renaissance of epistemology by Descartes in the seventeenth century as the starting point, followed by Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel and the American pragmatists, Singer in particular.” In this post I will summarize the chapter on “Leibnizian inquiring systems” in Churchman’s book on “The design of inquiring systems”. In this chapter Churchman writes how he understands Leibniz’s contribution to systemic inquiry, which is fundamental to our thinking about systems. And the world is packed with systems, many of which in dire need of Wicked Solutions. What more proof of the practical utility of philosophy does one need?

Diagnostic framework       One of the great problems of philosophy is the absence of a common language among philosophers. For the case of the epistemologies of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Kant and Hegel Churchman solves this problem by first creating a unified diagnostic framework. He does so by using two basic learning models to create a 2 x 2 matrix, which provides 4 quadrants or options to associate the different philosophers with (see left hand part of the concept map below). The key aspect of the first learning model of input-process-output is that the input must be “given” (as in ‘data’), or not. The key aspect of the second, simple-to-complex learning process is that whatever it is that the process starts off with must be “clear”,  or not.

Clarity and “given”-ness       Locke is an exponent of empiricism: we are not born with innate ideas, so all our knowledge comes from experience, i.e. sensory data that are clear. He is in the upper-right quadrant number 1. On the opposite end (quadrant number 4) we find Leibniz, who argues that inquiry begins with unclear material which is not an input. In his metaphysics people are a higher class of monads. Very simply put, monads are indivisible entities such as atoms or persons. They lack a window for input, so perception of the outside world is mostly guesswork. This goes very well with Churchman’s pragmatist background. According to Churchman, all the other philosophers fail to prove their respective positions, including Descartes and Spinoza, of whom Leibniz nevertheless adopted some ideas. (Note: Locke and Kant are not discussed in detail in the chapter on “Leibnizian inquiring systems”).


Descartes        Inquiring systems process symbols. That’s why an inquiring system can also be called a processer. Symbols can be sentences, digital sets, images and so on. Descartes is well known for his method of radical doubt (“Cogito ergo sum”), hence the demand for any inquiring system to be able to determine and guarantee the status of symbols to be processed, i.e. determine and guarantee whether these symbols are simple or complex, clear or unclear, and above all: true or false. For the inquiring system to be able to do so, Descartes designs a three-step approach. In the first step, God is invoked to ensure that the inquiring system can do that, “if God exists”. In the second step, the existence of God must be demonstrated, and in the third step God must be shown to be trustful, not a deceiver. In Churchman’s eyes Descartes fails to prove the last step.

Spinoza       … is not a traditional theist, but rather a pantheist, who identifies God with Nature. Therefore, God can no longer be play the role of a transcendent guarantor as with Descartes. Instead, Spinoza argues that the inquiring system needs an executive function. This function, like a modern “executive”, does not look at the nitty-gritty of actual processing of the symbols. It just co-ordinates the action of guaranteeing whether symbols are true or false (and simple or complex etc.). It also judges whether this action of co-ordination is carried out correctly. Spinoza says that the executive function is ‘intuitively’ capable of doing so. That’s where, in Churchman’s eyes, he fail to provide adequate proof.

Leibniz’s turn        As mentioned above, Leibniz’s metaphysics is based on the monad. Much has been said about the monad and what it is, but it is easiest – for the moment – to think about it as a person that can be described using some of the same terminology as used above for outlining the ideas of Descartes and Spinoza. Monads can be equated with inquiring systems or processers. With Descartes, Leibniz acknowledges the need for some form of guarantee of the truth or falsity of the symbols to be processed, but he sees no direct role for a transcendental God. With Spinoza he agrees with the idea of an executive function for his monad, but the way it works is entirely different. Leibniz´s solution for the monad to come up with something approximating truth involves five steps.

The monad´s five steps       … are: (A) identifying and sequencing the symbols, i.e. sentences etc.; (B) using innate logic to classify the sentences etc. as tautologies, contradictions or contingent truths (these are by far the most important, because they are very common in natural languages); (C) using a logic processer to process the tautologies and contradictions; (D) loosely assembling contingent truths into so-called fact nets. Imagination is used to do so, causing the fact nets to proliferate endlessly; (E) limiting proliferation by seeking convergence of the fact nets on one optimal net. The executive function achieves this by striving towards broad coherence, involving such principles as simplicity, elegance, and concordance with the proof of God’s existence. As a consolation for atheists or agnostics, this may well be a naturalistic God or an atheistic approximation thereof (see this post). Let’s not forget that Leibniz was a 17th century German.

N.B. None of the new concepts in the final two paragraphs of this post have been used in above concept map.

Current practice of science          A large part of scientific practice can be considered a Leibnizian inquirer. Science is not entirely ‘objective’ in the sense that preference is given to results that fit earlier findings and mainstream theory, which forms a “fact net.” Results that lie outside the largest net are often ignored. Theoretical laws, the denial of which would entail reconstruction of the net, are apt to be safeguarded by various devices. Disciplines tend to keep control of their nets by trying to exclude the relevance of results generated by other disciplines. Whether all disciplines comply with step E – convergences on one optimal net – is not clear.

Leibnizian concept of a whole system         Two ideas will be explored in the next chapter (and so in a next post): “On whole systems: the anatomy of goal seeking”: (1) no optimal design of a part of a system is possible without prior knowledge of the “whole” system. This idea, if correct (but self-evident!), challenges almost all our conscious policy making. We “attack” poverty, inefficiency, national belligerence, crime, as though each were a blot on an otherwise pure white carpet, and as though we had no responsibility for showing how the whole system would improve if this part were changed in accordance with our plan. And: (2) all systems are fundamentally alike in the design of their components. The pre-Socratic Anaxagoras (510-428 BC) was the first with a known quote of similar intent: “The seed of everything is in everything else.

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A systems view of God

The necessity of God from a systems perspective 

While reading Churchman’s chapter on “Leibnizian inquiring systems: fact nets”, I came across Anselm’s ontological argument. This never really hit home with me, so I decided to try and simplify it (hopefully not too much) by constructing a concept map on the basis of an explanation on the Internet (here) by Gideon Rosen. To me, this excursion into medieval thought is necessary to follow Churchman’s interpretation of the Leibnizian system of inquiry, which is useful background information for better understanding the systems approach to inquiry and intervention design.

Anselm       Saint Anselm was born into a noble Lombard family in northern Italy (1033). His name is of Germanic origin, ‘ans’ or ‘as’ meaning God (as in Oscar or Oswald) and (h)elm meaning helmet or protection (as in Wilhelm). He lived in the era of William the Conqueror with the Battle of Hastings (1066) and all that. He became a Benedictine novice in Normandy at the age of 27, was elected Abbot of Bec Abbey (formerly the most influential abbey in Normandy) in 1078, and held the office of archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, where he was buried (but the location of his remains is no longer known, not dissimilar to what happened with the relics of Thomas Beckett. The latter requested that Anselm be elevated to sainthood at the Council of Tours in 1163).


Scholasticism            … is not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, as it places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference and to resolve contradictions. It evolved in monasteries and later universities from about 1100 onwards as a method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context. Anselm of Canterbury, as St. Anselm is often called, was one of the founders. Other key figures were William of Ockham (Ockham’s razor) and Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica is considered to be the pinnacle of scholastic and medieval Christian philosophy. By thoroughly and critically reading a particular book by a renowned scholar, scholastic students learned to appreciate the theories of the author. It reminds me of what I am doing with the work of Churchman. It also occurs to me now that concept mapping may be considered an application of Ockham’s razor (or the lex parsimoniae, i.e. the Law of Parsimony), although the concept map in this post is perhaps not the best example.

God      … is a concept of considerable philosophical importance, especially as the ultimate principle of one key concept or another for 17th century rationalists such as Descartes or Spinoza, so the proof of God’s existence is the keystone of many a philosophical scheme. Churchman summarizes the ontological proof of God’s existence of Anselm as follows: “a thing defined to have all maximal properties must exist.” In the well-known words of Leibniz the same proof becomes: “ God exists if He is possible.” After careful study of the consistency of definitions, Leibniz concludes, in the words of Churchman, that “ there is one and only one possible  model which includes the existence of a so-defined God. Hence, only those contingent truth nets that ultimately meet the requirement that God exists can be considered as candidates for validity. In other words, the existence of God is sufficient for a unique solution of the system of reality.” In one of my next post, I will explain what it all means.

The ontological argument        … in short, is meant to refute the ideas of a real or imaginary (😀 ) atheist, who denies God’s existence on rational grounds. Anselm manages to do that by bringing the atheist to contradict himself or herself. The steps are as follows: 1. Anselm defines God as the absolutely unsurpassable being; 2. The atheist is asked to imagine this to be a possibility, i.e. to consider it a possibility that such an unsurpassable being exists in his/her understanding; 3. God being unsurpassable in every property and aspect, must also be unsurpassable in terms of existence, or else he would not be unsurpassable in every property and aspect; 4. Therefore God’s existence is a logical necessity that cannot be denied without contradicting oneself.

Reductio ad absurdum          Gideon Rosen explains in some detail (here) that the ontological argument is in fact an “argument to absurdity”. This type of argument can take many forms, one of which is based on the idea that the denial of the assertion would result in a logical contradiction, as in this example: “There is no smallest positive rational number, because if there were, then it could be divided by two to get a smaller one.” The contradiction in the ontological argument lies in the fact that: “A being that cannot be conceived to be greater than it is can be conceived to be greater than it is.”

Charles Hartshorne       … developed Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy into process theology. He also developed the neoclassical idea of God and produced a modal proof of the existence of God that was a development of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument. I mention this to show that Anselm’s insight is not just a nice example of medieval scholastic reasoning, but continues to be relevant in some schools of philosophy, not just in the Vatican. The term “modal proof” means that the ontological argument does not stand alone, but is one strand in a fabric of reasoning which Hartshorne sometimes called “the global argument”. In doing so, Hartshorne follows the advice of Peirce and the example of Leibniz (and his contingent truth nets). Hartshorne (1897-2000) was one of two editors of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American pragmatism. In my view, pragmatism and process thought form the theoretical pole while the systems approach (incl. Wicked Solutions) forms the practical pole. The works of Churchman form the link between the two poles and the gateway to their understanding, in theory and practice.

Socratic dialogue       The earlier dialogues of Plato , relating the debates of his teacher Socrates, raised the use of reductio arguments to a formal dialectical method (Elenchus), now called the Socratic method. A dialogue on Anselm’s ontological argument would go as follows (thanks to Anselm, his translators, and Gideon Rosen):
Anselmus: You see no proof of God’s existence, so you do not belief he exists. Is that right?
Atheist: Yes, that’s right. There is no shred of evidence for God’s existence.
Anselmus: Yet you have a clear idea in your mind of what it is you belief not to exist. To keep things simple, is it OK if I define God as a being than which nothing greater can be conceived?
Atheist: Yes, that’s a good way of understanding the meaning of the word God.
Anselmus: Now, let’s suppose that God exists in the understanding alone, similar to trolls and Santa Claus. Yet, God could be conceived to exist in reality, couldn’t he?
Atheist: Yes, of course. God can be conceived to exist or not to exist, no problem at all.
Anselmus: But you will agree that it is greater for a being to exist in reality than to exist in the understanding alone, won’t it?
Atheist: Well, yes. I can’t deny it.
Anselmus: But then we seem forced to conclude that a being than which none greater can be conceived can be conceived to be greater than it is. That’s self-contradictory, which leaves us no other conclusion than that God must exist in reality as well as in the understanding!

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Systemic design and inquiry

Designing models for learning systems

The first chapter of Churchman’s ‘The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization’ is called ‘Design and inquiry’. It is an introduction to a book about the design of inquiring systems for systemic design and inquiry. It provides definitions of the key concepts ‘systems’, ‘design’ and ‘inquiry’ and outlines how they are related. I used a concept map (see below) to enable me to write the following structured summary (with a few additions to enhance understanding).

Design      … is a general, human activity. It is synonymous with planning, optimizing etc. People design systems that serve purposes to satisfy the needs and desires of the same or other people. We can distinguish two categories of systems: personal systems and interpersonal systems. Personal systems are our lives and our selves. Interpersonal systems include transportation, medicine, and shelter to give just a few examples. Systems are composed of organized components, i.e. components and their inter-relationships. The systems dealt with here comprise people or groups of people – what else could have needs and desires to satisfy?


Design methods       A key activity in design is the identification and selection of design alternatives. This may be done with a design routine or a generalized systemic design methodology. Many design routines impose restrictive boundaries on the system to be designed. In Churchman’s words: “A central design issue is to decide on system boundaries and environment.” This is so because boundaries restrict the space for creativity, design alternatives, and meaning (in terms of moral value and its ground).

Human elements      Since design is a human activity, the human element is important. Only humans design and even when designing interpersonal systems, they are still concerned with their own or other people’s personal systems, viz. the implications for their lives or selves. This is so in a variety of ways: actors – whether in their role of designer or implementer – will protect their interests. As a result, acceptability may become part of the rationale of systemic designs.

Scientific inquiry      Churchman contrasts the scientific model with systemic forms of inquiry. Scientific inquiry limits the scope of design to accepted practice. Science seeks objective knowledge, i.e. knowledge that doesn’t reflect the interests of one group or person or another. But that too is a subjective interest with far-reaching consequences for design, both in method and in result. By defining design more broadly, a more general, systemic methodology can be adopted that is less restrictive and more prone to validate the design rationale.

Implementation     … is essential to design: if it doesn’t work (at all or properly) it is of no use, even if the purpose is so stated to satisfy human needs and desires. Implementation may threaten or favour certain interests, which in turn may affect acceptability in a variety of ways. This is a complex affair. Those who are (co-)responsible for implementation need the right knowledge to be able to implement properly. Defining this knowledge is a complex affair, too.

Design stipulations          Churchman identifies 6 things design must do: 1) distinguish between different sets of behavior patterns (what); (2) estimate how well each alternative set will serve a specified set of goals (when); and (3) communicate its thoughts to other minds to allow corresponding implementation (how); (4) avoid repeating the thought process when faced with a similar goal-attainment problem by using a general design methodology (why); (5) identify the whole relevant system and its components, including human creators (who); and (6) take into account the issues of comprehensiveness and effectiveness, including political and intellectual questions (how much).

The rest of the book      … looks at historical designs of inquiring systems. These days, the design of inquiring systems generally involves more science and research, whereas traditionally, philosophy or reflective thinking (thinking about thinking, doubting about doubting, learning about learning) was also used to learn about reality. Churchman suggests that the history of epistemology can be used as a source of design models for learning systems and their justification. To this end he uses the renaissance of epistemology by Descartes in the seventeenth century as the starting point, followed by Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel and the American pragmatists, Singer in particular. Find it in your library! It is packed with insights. If you are just looking for a practical methodology to apply the systems approach on a problem of your own, try Wicked Solutions.

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A synopsis of process philosophy

A great lecture by Arthur F. Holmes

At the end of my last post (no, not that last post!) I admitted to my predilection for Whitehead, the father of process philosophy and theology. Unfortunately, his magnus opus, Process and reality, is notoriously difficult. Accidentally, I came across a playlist with a lecture series on the history of philosophy by Arthur F. Holmes (The playlist also includes lectures on Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hegel and American pragmatism, which I will probably use as a background when I will deal with Churchman’s “The design of inquiring systems”). I found the first lecture on Whitehead (there are three in total) greatly elucidating, especially after I made a concept map (see below) of the lecture. I also made a transcription of the lecture, which you can download here. What follows in this post is a short description of the concept map, so a very, very brief introduction to Whitehead’s process philosophy. Best listen to the lecture, while keeping the concept map, the transcription, and possibly this post handy. You may learn something in a jiffy that others (really, really clever guys and gals) have taken months to master.


Process philosophy     … is nothing new. Process notions can be found in many traditions, including Buddhism (India), and Taoism (China), but also in the ideas of the pre-Socratic Heraclitus (Greece, 535-475 BC). Process philosophy in its modern guise was formally launched in 1929 when Whitehead (1861-1947) published his Process and reality.

Alfred North Whitehead    … was a ground-breaking philosopher (of science), physicist and mathematician from Thanet in Kent, UK. His main influences as a philosopher were modern science, Hegel, 19th century Romanticism and the Alexandrian fathers. His prime concern is the distinction between science and ethics, the separation of value and fact, a problem that also troubled Churchman (hence perhaps my liking of the two).

Mathematician and physicist   While in Cambridge he wrote Principia mathematica with Bertrand Russell. While teaching at London University he wrote about quantum physics and relativity theory. He reformulated the relational implications of both in a number of fallacies of science, including the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (esp. in relation to mechanistic abstractions) and the fallacy of simple location (which is based on non-relational ideas).

Hegel’s influence     … came to Whitehead mostly through the work of F.H. Bradley, a British idealist philosopher, who rejected empiricism – as did Whitehead. Hegel´s philosophy is best characterized as evolutionary idealism, in which the ‘free, creative spirit’ unfolds into self-consciousness using the well-known triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. This spirit is not a substance or thing, but a process, which Hegel studies by means of a phenomenology of human existence and history. Whitehead borrows most of these ideas from Hegel, with the exception of the ‘spirit’ idea (idealism). He is staunchly monistic (as am I) and prefers his evolutionary process to be naturalistic.

The evolutionary naturalism     … of Whitehead emphasizes process (instead of substance), relations (instead of non-relational, atomistic things), and an organic world view (instead of a mechanistic universe). Whitehead also adopts a phenomenological approach to the study of process as the basic notion of reality. His main subject of phenomenological study is human consciousness, as it is most directly accessible to us.

Sense perception      Of all the processes that make up human consciousness, Whitehead uses sense perception as the paradigm event to exemplify all the processes that constitute the universe. Whitehead’s theory of where our ideas come from differs from that of many of his predecessors. Sense perception follows from the intrusion of real, objective paradigm-eventdata (first step), which prompt us to consider a range of possibilities (second step) as to what this intrusion amounts to. In a third step, we select one of these possibilities or ideas as our ‘working hypothesis’. This hypothetical idea symbolically refers to the objective data that intruded upon our consciousness in the first place, be it by way of sound, touch, vision or otherwise. Whitehead is without doubt a realist (or naturalist) and not an idealist.

Eternal possibilities    The question now is as to where the possibilities of the second step come from? One could say it comes from our “stock of experiences”, as Dewey suggests. Whitehead prefers them to come from the so-called “logos structure” of God as developed by the Alexandrian church fathers such as Clemens and Origenes in the 2nd and 3rd century CE. These possibilities are possibilities of novelty that must have been created in some way. Without novelty no creative process is possible. To Whitehead God is the highest manifestation of creativity, whose stock of possibilities drives the cosmic process of creation. Whitehead does not claim any knowledge of the starting or end point of creation. On the basis of the evidence available to us there is only on-going creation.

Value     … can be observed at two points. In the first place in the range of possibilities, each of them being value-laden, whether it is for good or for bad. The second point is where we opt (or decide) for one possibility or the other. Whitehead wanted a cosmology that has a place for value. Modern science claims itself to be value-free by restricting itself to the facts and nothing but the facts, whereas Whitehead experiences aesthetic and moral value in the world and in nature. This experience of value is also expressed in Romanticism as exemplified by e.g. Wordsworth, whose poetry was a source of inspiration for Whitehead.

Process theology       Whitehead’s metaphysics has greatly inspired Christian theology and perhaps the theologies of other faiths. Important process theologians include Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) and John B. Cobb (1925), who co-founded the Center for Process Studies with David Ray Griffin (1939) in 1973. Dr. Cobb maintains a blog, answering questions regarding process thought and faith. A very pleasant introduction to process theology is the one by C. Robert Mesle. The Divinity School of the University of Chicago was the place where process theology developed for at least 60 years.

Criticism    … of Whitehead and process philosophy comes from a variety of sources. Whitehead’s early friend and collaborator, Bertrand Russell, obviously criticized the theological aspects of process philosophy, since he believed religion to be little more than often harmful superstition. Arthur Holmes (who delivered the Youtube lecture on which most of the concept map of this post based) thinks Whitehead may have stretched his event-based monism too far by applying it to persons.

God     Whitehead leaves many questions on the nature of God unanswered. Perhaps he did so on purpose, to leave open the possibility of process naturalism as suggested by Mesle, who holds that “the world of finite, natural creatures is unified”, but not “in such a way as to give rise to a single divine Subject,” even of a non-supernatural kind as in process theism. A naturalistic God then may be conceived as the subjective projection of a unified world of finite, natural creatures, i.e. an ideal without the unified existence ascribed to it by theists, but well worth approximating as a conception in one way or another. Such a conception leaves ample room to position oneself as an atheist, agnostic or theist, all the while producing a lot of common ground between the three.

Appreciation     There can be no doubt that Whitehead’s philosophy is a valiant effort to bring value or the human quest for meaning and fact or the scientific quest for truth together in a single scheme. The scheme as a whole cannot be understood and appreciated by looking at it from a single angle. Taking human consciousness as a starting point for obtaining a phenomenological description of a paradigm event of cosmic process, both at macro-scale and micro-scale, as well of human as of divine reality,  was brilliant. Once theism is accepted, then the logos structure gives it a new twist (panentheism) that inspired many theologians, including Wieman and untold (not just Unitarian) others. There is also the romantic view of aesthetic and moral value in nature, which aligns well with this type of panentheism. Bertrand Russell, despite his criticism, could not possibly disprove of that.

Systems approach      What I like about the phenomenological description of the “paradigm event” of process is the way it fits with the systems approach. It is important to note that an event can be anything, from somebody’s biography (or life) to the history of the universe. A systems version of Holmes´ account of an event could be: a process (or project or policy) that experiences an intrusion of sorts (a “wicked problem”), which then may become the subject of an inquiry in a systemic way to suggest an infinite range of possibilities, which enables a decision in favour of one option or another. Another aspect of process philosophy is its process-relational vision, its view that reality is relational, through and through. Reality as a social process. Freedom is inherent in the world. To be an individual is to be self-creative, i.e. to take decision after decision. Furthermore, in Mesle’s words, “Experience is rich and complex. The clarity of sense experience is grounded in deeper but vaguer experiences of our relatedness to the world process. Adequacy to this wealth of experience [SH: which can be tapped by taking into account the perspectives of others] is the ultimate test of our ideas.” The value of the systems approach lies in its potential for finding better approximations to such adequacy.

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Systems, design and inquiry

Two more concept maps, like it or not

Yesterday I started rereading Churchman’s 1971 book on “The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization.” The opening chapter introduces a few basic concepts, such as system, design and whole system in very general way. It is a problem of the systems field that thinkers and practitioners use different sets of terms for more or less the same concepts. Efforts to clear this away are notoriously difficult and controversial. I hope to demonstrate how the terminology of Churchman can be reframed in the terminology of Wicked Solutions, which uses inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries.

Systems, design and inquiry       … are the three basic concepts that Churchman writes about in his trilogy of the systems approach (1968, 1971, 1979). I use the same three concepts in my own short definition of the systems approach, which I understand to be a way of carrying out systemic intervention design and inquiry. You can also rearrange the three concepts to produce the title of Churchman’s book “The design of inquiring systems”, i.e. systems or approaches for better understanding the ‘systems’ designed by humans to be able to improve the performance of certain tasks. Since these systems (e.g. as in ‘transport systems’, ‘systems for providing shelter’ etc.) are designed, they can also be referred to as ‘designs’.


Collaborative activity systems       Churchman points out that it is in the nature of humans (Homo sapiens and predecessors) to develop collaborative activity systems to generally make life and society easier, safer, more productive, more comfortable or more in agreement with a common good. Continue reading

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The pertinence of the systems approach

… to wicked problems faced by planners generally

There is no simple, coherent way of explaining the systems approach and how it is able to help planners deal with the wicked problems they face. This is a key hindrance to adoption of the systems approach by planners, because “failure to explain” almost automatically entails “failure to convince”. Logic dictates that the principles of the systems approach must follow from the characteristics of wicked problems. My effort to follow that logic resulted in a mildly complicated explanation. Before you read about it in this blog post, you must know that 1. I will not explain here how the systems approach can be carried out (this was done elsewhere); and 2. wicked problems abound everywhere at enormous cost to business and society, so the widespread adoption of the systems approach – and therefore convincing planners of its practical necessity – would appear to be a matter of considerable urgency. So far, the systems approach has not gained much traction.

Slideshow         In below slideshow I use 10 slides to explain a concept map that presents an integrated conceptualization of the logical relationships of the core characteristics of wicked problems with the basic requirements and workings of the systems approach. This should provide the necessary scaffolding for a meaningful understanding of the design principles underlying the the systems approach, including the version described in ‘Wicked Solutions’.

Wicked problems         The term wicked problem emerged in a context of social planning in the 1960s (Rittel, Churchman). Most people now agree that wicked problems do not only abound in administration, but also in business, communication, development, and education. As a result of their complexity, wicked problems (or rather ‘problematic situations’) defy problem definition. This means that Continue reading

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Systemic business model development?

Business model canvas and the systems approach

In this post I show how the well-known ‘Business model canvas’ can be represented very effectively using a concept map. I also argue that in many cases the design of a business model should be preceded by the design of a systemic intervention using the systems approach. The entire process from wicked problem to business plan then becomes: WP→SI→BM→BP, where WP = wicked problem, SI = systemic interventionBM = business model, and BP = business plan.

Alexander Osterwalder     … writes in his PhD thesis (2004) that the complex term “business model” rose to prominence in the dotcom years before the well-known bubble with the same name burst in 2000. At the start of his thesis work he was mainly interested in the development of effective software-based business model tools to improve strategic management in a rapidly moving, complex and uncertain business environment. Because the bubble had burst shortly after, he quickly weakened the research question to: “How can business models be described and represented in order to build the foundation for subsequent concepts and tools.” So, essentially, his PhD thesis became an exercise in knowledge modelling. One of the things he found during his research was a strong interest of the business community in business models to enhance communication and transparency. Several years later, Osterwalder came up with his now famous business model canvas. A very short introduction can be seen in this 3-minute video.

business model canvass

Business model generation        … is the title of a book, written by Osterwalder, which I heard of in early 2013. I picked up a copy last week and, flipping through, it occurred to me that the business model canvas could be made a lot more readily understandable by turning it into a concept map (concept mapping is a knowledge modelling tool). The key concepts of the canvas are depicted in yellow, and the meanings of these concepts are illustrated in grey. I rather liked the result, so I figured I should share it with you. The book (i.e. ‘Business model generation’) provides lots of ideas and additional concepts. I particularly liked the grey ‘Outlook’ section in the back where non-profit (social) business models are discussed, e.g. the Grameenphone model. There is also a section on how to write a business plan based on a business model (pp. 268-269) and one on the implementation of the business model (planimplementation) in an existing organization (pp. 270-271) with ‘levers’ for effecting change in the areas of strategy, structure, processes, rewards and people (these areas in fact correspond to Galbraith’s Star Model of organizational design).

Sequoia Capital      … (an American venture capital firm) provides an alternative, 10-step model for writing a business plan, which you may like as well. Steps 2 and 3 focus explicitly on the problem (the pain of the customer) and the solution (your company’s value proposition to make the customer’s life better). In Osterwalder’s model these two key aspects are combined in the ‘value proposition’ concept. At another level the distinction is made between a cost-driven and a more value-driven business (see concept map). Value-driven businesses are generally the more interesting ones, although the distinction between cost-driven and value-driven businesses is not always easy to make.

The systems approach       What troubles me in the models of Osterwalder and Sequoia is that they seem to leave out the step preceding  model design. This is particularly the case for value-driven enterprise development to address complex, wicked problems. In such cases, it seems to me that the systems approach would appear to be a good choice to find ‘whole system’-based ideas for designing systemic interventions for innovative business models, which in turn could be described in the form of a business plan.

     WP→SI→BM→BP, where
WP = wicked problem, SI = systemic intervention,
BM = business model, and BP = business plan

The systems approach typically deals with aspects of design, co-creation, risk reduction, sustainability – a huge challenge for business – and effectiveness – a huge challenge for government – (look in the concept map in the grey box illustrating the various types of customer needs). I am not saying that it is always wise to consider everything as a wicked problem, but wicked problems are more widespread than we like to think and people often want to get rid of them or find some form of alleviation from them, so it may well be worth keeping the systems approach in the back of one´s mind. If not for thinking of new businesses, then perhaps for imagining more innovative business models.

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