Its rationale, its structure, its application, and its definition
There are many ways of explaining the systems approach, but it is difficult to find a way that enables quick understanding and acceptance. While reading Churchman’s ‘The design of inquiring systems’ I came up with the following explanation. The bracketed numbers in the text refer to the grey numbers in the concept map. Simply stated, the systems approach applies system teleology to human activity in order to improve value creation. This could be interpreted as a clever answer to a very interesting question, the short version of which is: “What fundamental pattern underlies all human activity?” Or, formulated in another way, “What must we know for studying concerns of effectiveness?“
Human activity … is what the systems approach deals with in the broadest sense (1). The systems approach provides principles for inquiring into and redesigning the complex relationships (2) that characterize human activity (3). In the systems approach, ‘the bigger picture’ is an important concept, because it is necessary to better situate both complex inter-relationships and human activities (4).
Teleological system Human activity can be considered to be a teleological system (5). This means that human activity is best understood by its ends or purposes. This simple idea is the foundation of the systems approach (6). According to Churchman a common, fundamental pattern characterizes all human goal seeking (7). This pattern underlies the systems approach, i.e. the systems approach explains what the pattern is and what principles must be followed for its application in practice (8).
Value creation At its most simple the above pattern is the logical connection of fundamental concepts, three of which are: design, resources and value (9). The ‘bigger picture’ is also part of this fundamental pattern (10). The general purpose of human activity could be said to be the creation of value (11). Part of the human activity is the use of resources (and environmental factors) to create value. Another part is design, which attempts to understand what value to create, why, and how. Three roles can be distinguished: the designer, the client and the decision-maker (12). Everything else follows from there, including ideas on planning, effectiveness, management, evaluation etc. But before we get there, we must first take a closer look at the fundamental pattern that characterizes system teleology.
Nine conditions In Chapter 3 of The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman distinguishes nine conditions for conceiving human activity as a teleological system (S, see below concept map). First of all S has a Purpose P (1) or goals or objectives, otherwise it would not be teleological. It must also have a Measure of performance M (2), or else we cannot know how well the purpose is achieved. The purpose must serve somebody’s interests according to his or her values (3a). This somebody is the Client (C) or beneficiary, whose value pattern (motivation, aspirations, ethics, and aesthetic sensibility) is the standard for M (3b). The system has components (4) and an Environment (E, 5), which together coproduce M. The components are managed by the Decision-maker (Dm), who is in a position to improve M (6a). Dm can do so by assigning Resources (R) under his or her control (6b) to be used by one or more components. The Designer (D) conceptualizes the system (i.e. the elements and relations listed so far, including himself and whatever follows) (7) with the intention to maximize the satisfaction of C. This conceptualization is the plan, which activates Dm. D must consider by what Guarantee (G) S can best ensure its Implementation (I) or ultimate realization (9), because without it human activity is pointless.
Radical doubt In Chapter 2 of The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman develops the idea of Leibnizian ‘fact’ nets after starting his inquiry on the design of inquiring systems with Descartes and Spinoza. The notion of radical doubt by Descartes inspired Spinoza and Leibniz, but also Churchman. How can we know anything for sure? Who is actually the client, who the designer, and who the decision-maker? Who else benefits? Are the roles not overlapping? Are there not multiple clients etc.? Who ought to be the client etc.? What ought to be the measure of performance? What transformation or change do we actually desire? What things outside the system (E, environment) constrain it from delivering its purpose to the beneficiaries? Churchman gives many examples of how these critical questions can lead to surprising and novel insights that can help one to redesign a system (or plan or intervention) and increase its overall and ultimate effectiveness. All other systems or management ideas and concepts can fit into this, so it is a good idea to have the systems approach precede any other systems or management methods.
Practical application By way of a simple example of how the systems approach can be applied in practice, Churchman gave the initial, ‘conventional’ specification of a college as follows (he also gave a very interesting example of ‘basic research’, see his ‘The design of inquiring systems’): (1) the college has a set of goals; (2) the measure of performance is the number of student credit hours per dollar of expenditure per semester; (3) the client is the set of people who can potentially attend the college plus those who pay the tuition; (4) the components are the curricula of the college, plus administration and services; (5) the environment consists of legal constraints, budgetary policy, community reaction to the college, etc.; (6) the decision maker is composed of trustees, administration, and faculty; (7) the designer is (say) the planning committee of the college; and (8) the planning committee’s intention is to recommend changes in the college programs that will maximize the college’s benefit to the client. After this, Churchman goes on to show how the systems approach framework can be used as a basis for critical inquiry. A very weak point in the initial statement is the measure of performance, because this can be increased simply by making classes larger. What is not evident is a more adequate measure (try to figure one out! For instance, that a college ought to foster every student’s unique style of learning). Other weak points are (4) and (6), see concept map. That is not the end of the critique, but just the beginning. In fact, the critique could be endless if it wouldn’t be bounded in some way by e.g. a lack of resources or willingness to continue any further.
Definition In the introductory text of this post I ventured a first attempt at defining the systems approach as “an approach that applies system teleology to human activity in order to improve value creation.” Maybe it’s not a bad definition, but I couldn’t help trying to formulate another one, according to which the systems approach is a “critical approach for the inquiry and (re-)design of problematic situations and human activity in general by following the pattern of a goal-oriented system in its quest of justification.” This definition is better because it makes explicit that: (1) it is critical because it addresses fundamental (systemic) where other approaches are not; (2) it is aimed at inquiry and design; (3) it is particularly useful for addressing problematic situations, also known as wicked problems; (4) it may be applied to human activity in general (one might even say that it clarifies what human activity is about); (5) it uses a critical framework that is based on a fundamental pattern of a teleological (or goal-oriented) system, which it makes explicit, too (this framework is shown to suit intuitive thinking patterns as well as to have firm philosophical foundations); (6) the ultimate aim of a goal-oriented system is the creation of (additional) value, but the design of the system follows from an attempt to develop a critical framework for debating whether value is created or not. This may be called a quest because it works by way of approximation, not by way of ultimate achievement; and (7) the systems approach is in many ways illustrative of its own definition, so its design is tentative, but that doesn´t mean that it will be simple to improve on its design.
The categorical scheme Churchman was not only a management scientist, who pioneered operations research, but was also a philosopher. His sources of inspiration are his own decades-long experience as a management scientist, his close association with other management organization experts, and a wide range of classical, American and European philosophers. He borrowed the term ‘category’ from Kant (and perhaps Peirce) to design his teleological heuristic, which originally contained 9 concepts in a 3 x 3 configuration with three teleological issues of role, of central concern, and of assurance each. So, the three issues of central concern are: purpose, resources and implementation. The three issues of role are: client (or beneficiary or, in a negative sense, victim), decision-maker, and designer (or expert or planner). The three issues of assurance are: measure of performance, environment, and guarantor. Later, Churchman added 3 more categories (Kant, too, boasted a 3 x 4 scheme) centered around the concern of “enemies of the systems approach.” Werner Ulrich adapted the categorical scheme to what he called “social planning”. Ulrich’s scheme is somehow easier to understand than Churchman’s, which makes it useful for the involvement of the general public in public policy design or for training purposes. Wicked Solutions adopted Ulrich’s scheme, too.
Linking the categories A few years ago I linked the 12 categories of Ulrich’s scheme in a way that it could be used for business or project planning. As you will notice it expands on the concept map with Churchman’s nine conditions for conceiving human activity as a teleological system. Several words of warning are in place: (1) the concept map is not a representation of Ulrich’s critical heuristic; (2) I added several concepts that can only be found in Wicked Solutions, and I added others that were gleaned from some of Churchman’s ideas; (3) an attempt has been made to limit the number of arrows. In quite a few cases it is worthwhile to look at several concepts at a time. A good example is that of the measures of performance that monitor the transformation that is achieved by an intervention. By this monitoring an eye must be kept on whether the clients indeed perceive the purpose, which typically takes the form of clients (and not others!) enjoying certain benefits, and on whether there are not victims somewhere that suffer the costs of the transformation. Well, have a good look at it and if you notice anything wrong, please let me know. A final warning is in place: the diagram is not enough to let you apply the systems approach. The easiest way to start is by reading Wicked Solutions. Churchman’s trilogy (The systems approach, The design of inquiring systems, and The systems approach and its enemies) is also packed with ideas and examples. Furthermore, there is a vast secondary literature on the systems approach, though not all of it equally “Churchmannian.”