Systems according to Churchman

Or, designing both models of reality and systems of inquiry

Churchman     C. West Churchman (USA, 1913-2004) was a pioneer in systems thinking, both hard (operations research) and soft (the systems approach, social systems design) (see previous post). He was also a philosopher of the pragmatic school, which says that “a thing is what it does.”  He also wanted his philosophy to work practically to improve human lives. Improving military operations to get rid of Hitler as fast as possible is what motivated him for his groundbreaking work on operations research during WW-II. After the war he applied his insights to business and industry, thus founding the completely new discipline of management science. This new science deals mostly with systems that have people in them. These are systems like industrial firms, hospitals, educational institutions, and so on. The approach Churchman developed to improve these systems is the systems approach.

Systems approach - overview

Churchman’s minimal system (and a little bit more)
If you are not acquainted with concept maps, read the blog post first.

The minimal system     In The Systems Approach (1968) Churchman outlines five basic considerations for thinking about the meaning of a system (TSA 29-30):

  • the total system objectives and, more specifically, the performance measures of the whole system;
  • the system’s environment: the fixed constraints;
  • the resources of the system;
  • the components of the system, their activities, goals and measures of performance; and,
  • the management of the system.

These aspects can be readily identified in the above concept map, which also shows key relationships between these aspects. What he doesn’t mention is: (a) that the system’s purpose should serve a group of clients or beneficiaries (but they are perhaps implied in the “system objectives”); and (b) that a plan may be designed to improve the working of the whole system (but that is perhaps implied in the notion of “resources”).

Improving systems     The whole point of thinking in systems is to model real systems in such a way that they can be improved. The model itself is also a system. It should in some way resemble the real system, but will never be more than an approximation. In addition to the real system and the model of the system there is also the inquiry system. The inquiry system (perhaps “learning model” would be a more appealing modern equivalent) uses the same basic elements (“learning categories”) as the ones in the system model, but this time they are used in a process of comprehending reality, a process of “unfolding”.

Unfolding the categories     …. can be done in many ways. In a general way it is no more than using the categories as labels or concepts for formulating questions, contemplating them (alone or as a team), and finding answers that can help improve the system of interest. In The Systems Approach and its Enemies (1979) Churchman suggests that “one way to unfold any of the categories is to try to …. compare the “is” with the “ought”. The search for the  “is ” usually leads to a map” (SAE 81). Examples are the benefit-cost map for the “client” category to trace out where the benefits and costs go, and influence maps for the “decision maker” or “planner” categories. Churchman’s books on the systems approach are full of ingenious questions to help in unfolding the categories.

Back to our concept map      The “purpose” category could be unfolded by asking what the real objectives of the system are, which may differ considerably from the stated objectives. This is an important distinction, since the purpose must be known to be able to asses the performance and thereby the improvement of the whole system: in fact, both, the performance of the whole system and of the system components (or programmes) must be justified in terms of the system purpose. So the key unfolding question is whether they are. And in the case of the programmes whether the resources devoted to them justify the resources put into their operation.

Churchman’s table of categories      In his The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971) Churchman first presented his “scheme for planners: (TSA 79):

  1. Client                           –      Purpose                                        –     Measure of Performance
  2. Decision maker      –      Components (resources)         –      Environment
  3. Planner                      –      Implementation                        –       Guarantor

The first six categories correspond to Churchman’s minimal scheme that is also shown in the concept map. What is lacking are the last three. They are more difficult to explain and I will not attempt to do that now. With some modifications the table has also been used by Werner Ulrich, a student of Churchman in the late 1970s. See: Ulrich, W. (2005). A brief introduction to critical systems heuristics (CSH) I will leave it at that, for the moment.

Final remarks       The main point of this post was to explain how the systems approach works. One final remark: Churchman never systematized his approach, simply because the process of unfolding is endless and highly situation-specific. And on his categories he says that “they are […] for understanding the process of comprehending reality; […] other labels could be found to accomplish the same task.

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