Time and The Systems Approach

A key concept for planning social systems

This is a summary of Chapter Nine 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 , 7 and 8 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Capturing the future        Time is a tricky yet inescapable factor in all planning. We have no precise model of the future, nor do we have reliable data for its input. Yet, the embedding principle of systems thinking forces us to think about it. Since every system is embedded in a larger system, this “larger” system may also be the future world. In this sense of “larger,” the larger system is infinite, stretching endlessly into future generations; it also stretches endlessly into the past (TSA 137). Churchman adds that “management scientists are not interested in this sector of the larger system except as a source of data, as they somewhat naïvely think they can do nothing about it.” This remark is not unimportant, especially when we take a critical systems approach to social design. In such a context extrapolation of past data is controversial and the interpretation and revaluation of historical events can easily lead to radical new ideas.

2.  Nonseparability     … is another key systems idea that we discussed before. Nonseparability and the embedding principle are related ideas. Nonseparability simply means that there are functional relationships in and with the larger system that must be considered when improving a ‘smaller’ system. Most of us will tend to take a time-limited, spatial view of things, but there is no reason why the concept should not be extended into the temporal dimension. Most of the time when we do admit to such a temporal extension it is to look at the next stage of whatever we are planning to do or improve. But again there is no reason why the nonseparability concept should not be extended beyond the next stage to the subsequent stages, in principle ad infinitum. “Often multistage looking is called ‘dynamic’, while single-stage looking is ‘static’. “ (TSA 138).

3.  The scientific systems approach     … is that of the management scientist, who is one of the voices in the dialectical systems approach, also known as the systems approach of Churchman. Time and again Churchman shows that the management scientist is a nice, rational fellow, whose modus operandi is terribly constraining when it comes to social system design. The management scientist abhors uncertainty, so he prefers the static view over the dynamic view, whereas Everyman knows that the dynamic view is what counts. “The reason the scientist finds it impossible to go very far into the future is that he believes the error of his measurements increases with time, so eventually all his estimates become completely unreliable.” As mentioned elsewhere this applies particularly in social design (i.e. when humans are involved, including business and the ‘design’ of scientific inquiry), where different perspectives in choosing and ranking functional entities and relations are unavoidable. Now the management scientist has a trick up his sleeve as expressed by a “credo, which reads: Benefits and costs both diminish at each successive stage.” (TSA 140). This neatly helps to overcome the embarrassment of his or her preference to take a static, short-term view.

4.  Network theory      …. , or network analysis, comprises such planning techniques as CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT (Programme Evaluation Review Technique). They are project management techniques that have been created in the late 1950s to plan, schedule and control complex projects. The management scientist likes CPM and PERT a lot, but applies them mostly to physical systems. The question is to what extent network analysis techniques could be applied to social systems. This is the subject of the next chapter on planning.

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.


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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