Management Information Systems: an example

A political opportunity for studying the systems approach

This is a summary of Chapter Eight 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, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map. 

1.  Application of the Systems Approach        In the early 1960s, Governor Pat Brown of California issued an invitation to the aerospace firms of the state to respond with proposals for a “systems approach” to some important social problems. The idea was that if systems scientists could do wonderful things for NASA then they could do the same for critical problems of the state. For those of you who don’t know the ‘Browns’: Pat was succeeded in 1967 by Ronald Reagan, who was succeeded in 1975 by Pat Brown’s son Jerry Brown. The latter ran again for governor in 2010 to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011. The social problems the systems scientists were asked to address included information, transportation, crime, and welfare (according to Churchman it was sanitation, but that seems unlikely, considering the recollections of Hale Champion, who had worked closely with Pat Brown at the time).

2. Purposes      The governor indicated that he expected the Californian information system to become computer-based. Officially the purpose was “to provide the public and managers of the various agencies with the right kind of information at the right time and with the right precision and in the right form as the needs require.” In reality the idea was to propose a system that was capable of providing the same information as the present manual system, but to provide it within the time of the present system, and at least within the costs of the present system. Churchman emphasizes that the difference between both definitions has enormous consequences for the design. The hidden purpose of it all was to make use of the “think tank capacity” in the Californian aerospace industry as a result of “one of the great lulls in government contracting,” so the statewide information system study was carried out by Lockheed, Palmdale.

3. The design       The systems scientists were mostly computer specialists, who went to work enthusiastically to design the information system. After having considered various configurations they settled on decentralized storage with a central catalogue to indicate where the different databanks were located. The challenge was to stay within budget, so they budgeted the cost of the programmers and other manpower required to develop and run the system as well as all the hardware. The system had to be capable of accurate and speedy information transmittal in a relatively easy manner (what we now call ‘user-friendliness’), at least most of the time.

4. Political support        … was limited. As already mentioned above the idea was to provide some form of temporary employ to make sure that aerospace teams would stay together. At the same time the idea of applying the systems approach to other areas such as social problems took hold of some farsighted politicians, who were also considering long-term cost savings. Whosoever came up with the idea seems to be unknown, perhaps it was Churchman himself. None of the proposals reached the implementation stage. Churchman considers political support to be a hidden resource, for obvious reasons: “One can scarcely say that a systems approach has been taken if a large part of the design is bound to die on the vine for lack of political fertilizer.” Politicians did seem to have had some understanding of the systems idea that went well beyond the use of computers. Hale Champion said that the criminal justice study had to take a look “from crime to outcome of punishment, all the way through the system.”

5.  Points not considered       Churchman mentions a number of aspects that were left out of consideration: (a) the risk of ‘uncontrolled information accumulation’ that besets any information system, so why not prevent that risk being transferred to the computer-based information system by adding a ´forgetting´ function; (b) the question of whether future needs are to be taken into consideration or just the present needs (the subject of the next chapter); (c) the privacy or confidentiality issue; and (d) the use of a statewide information system to support decision-making. Ronald Reagan figures in The Systems Approach as the next state governor who, rather unsystemically, chose across-the-board cost savings of the government apparatus. Churchman suspects that a highly sophisticated statewide information systems would in all likelihood not have convinced Reagan of a more rational approach to achieve savings.

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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