‘The Systems Approach’ revisited

 The ‘Preface’ in a nutshell

I have decided to start blogging, chapter by chapter, 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. For those of you who have never heard of Churchman (1913-2004), let me quote what is written on the back cover: “C. West Churchman is Professor of Business Administration and Associate Director of the Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley. He has published many articles and books on operations research, management science, and philosophy of science.” The promotional text on the front reads: “A leading systems analyst presents the first nontechnical study of the space-age science that is revolutionizing management and planning in government, business, industry, and human problems.” As you will find out, as I blog along, this arguably represents the true revolutionary aspect of the book in a wrong way, but it does also provide a reasonably accurate period background (Cold War, manned moon landings, Vietnam War). So let’s begin by blogging the preface. The paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.   Inadequate decision-making      Since the early 1960s, citizens blame decision-makers in all areas of society for not taking the right decisions. Many decision-makers adopt non-systemic approaches that address only one aspect of the problems that beset modern society, whereas the majority of people will recognize that most of these problems have more than a single aspect. Moreover, non-systemic interventions tend to lack a proper basis for judgment of the effectiveness of the chosen approach for the situation as a whole. Without such as basis it impossible for decision-makers to make informed decisions about ongoing interventions, projects or policies. As an example of different decision-makers Churchman uses political proponents and opponents of the Vietnam War. The hawks emphasized the need to contain the Communist threat, while the doves keep saying that the war was a miserable failure. From their mutual positions of entrenchment they argue against each other on the basis that the others are failing to sense the true situation (TSA viii).

2.  ‘Objective’ science     … claims to be able to take a neutral position between the wrangling opponents. It seeks to disentangle the essential factors in a messy situation that lead to discord among those involved. Churchman’s own work in operations research of the U.S. Army during World War II clarifies how science works. Scientists keep asking ‘stupid’ questions, which over time help develop alternatives that are hopefully more effective. This purported effectiveness is then put to test. Normally the scientist will be challenged to defend the right to ask such ‘stupid’ questions. A common answer involves the questioning of ‘stupid’ assumptions in the original, problematic way of doing things. In the early years of operations research, scientists used mental models of the problem they were working on.

3.   Management science     After the war, business and industry leaders saw the utility of operations research. Churchman was among its most influential pioneers. Increasingly the computer was used, first for military purposes, later also in business and government administration. “As the scientist’s perspective widened, he began to think of his approach as the ‘systems approach.’” He even thought he could avoid the narrow-minded fallacies from clouding decision-making and expected to be able to develop measures to give adequate information about the system. “In practically every office of the government there are operations researchers, management scientists, system scientists, all attempting to look at the problems of the United States government from the so-called systems approach” (TSA x).

4.  The systems approach       According to Churchman the social systems in which we live 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 systems approach, the humanist approach, the artist’s approach, or the engineering approach. At this point Churchman makes a distinction between the so-called ‘systems approach’ of the management scientists and the systems approach, which is the subject of the present book with the same title. Of the systems approach he says that it “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind [perspectives] with respect to society.” This debate – the systems approach – should enable us to ask the right questions for guiding the best use of scientific tools and techniques in decision making.

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.

Another summary of ‘The systems approach’ can be found here: http://www.perflensburg.se/Privatsida/cp-web/index.htm. Scroll down to Churchman in the frame on the left.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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