Deception and the Systems Approach

Is THE systems approach a supersystem approach?

This is a summary of the last, concluding Chapter Fourteen of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which covered 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 through 13 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  The critical problem     According to Churchman, “the most critical problem we face today [is] the understanding of the systems in which we live.” (TSA 230). Decision-makers in all areas of society fail to take the right decisions, because the expert planners advising them rely mostly on non-systemic or not properly systemic intervention models. In the preface of The Systems Approach, Churchman makes a distinction between the “systems approach” of the management scientist and the systems approach of the system philosopher. Of the systems approach he says that it “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind [perspectives] with respect to society,” including those of the humanist and the anti-planner (see previous post). It is for this reason that the systems approach can also be called the dialectical systems approach. It is the last resort in man’s attempt to deal with the critical problem, which is that people – experts, decision-makers, planners, scientists, politicians, reporters and citizens alike – fail to understand the systems they live in.

2.  The scientific “systems approach”     …., or the application of science to systems design, is “the main topic of conversation of the entire book” (TSA 229) and subject to severe crticism. Churchman goes as far as stating that the scientist can be conceived as an anti-planner and a deceived scientist, who believes “that science has arrived at a plateau [of perfect inquiry] where its own change is minimized.” The ultimate meaning of the systems approach, in his view, “lies in the creation of a theory of deception and in a fuller understanding of the ways in which the human being can be deceived about his world and in an interaction between these different viewpoints” or perspectives. In other words: to perceive more clearly, we must use different perspectives to understand better how singular perspectives are deceptive.

3.  The dialectical systems approach     … is promoted by the system philosopher. He does so by contrasting and critiquing the different systems approaches. He uses – at least in this book – the scientific systems approach as a starting point. It is the management scientist who notes that the efficiency expert is deceived by his perception of idleness and slack in the system. But similarly the management scientist is deceived by his approach, “in which ´all´ of the objectives are represented and a ´proper´ compromise is created.” (TSA 228). “In the straight-faced seriousness of his approach, he forgets many things: basic human values and his own inability really to understand all aspects of the system, and especially its politics.” But then Churchman – the archetypal dialectical system approacher – admits: “I, too, am biased and deceived.” (TSA 230).

4.  All approaches limited     The systems approach is an unattainable ideal. “Each person looks at [complex problems] in such a one-sided way that the systems approach is lost. […] People are not apt to wish to explore problems in depth with their antagonists. Above all, they are not apt to take on the burden of really believing that their antagonist may be right.” So: (1) we must recognize that understanding our complex problematic systems (or situations) is our most critical problem; (2) we must admit that this problem, i.e. finding the appropriate approach to systems, is not solved and will never be solved; because (3) continuous perception and deception are in the nature of [complex, human] systems; so (4) we must resign ourselves to a continuing re-viewing of the world, of the whole system, and of its parts (or components). (TSA 230).

5. Confusion and enlightenment    … are “inseparable aspects of human living” (TSA 231). The notion of separability or non-separability is very important in Churchman’s approach. It is the belief in separability that enable us to develop clear ideas. A good example is that of the efficiency expert, who looks at slack in the system as a separate phenomenon, which he can remove without affecting the rest of the system. He feels enlightened. Then comes the management scientists, who confuses him with ideas about non-separability of different aspects of the system. The management scientist is not opposed to efficiency, but it must be embedded in the rest of the system. Finally comes Churchman, who ‘confuses’ (and ‘enlightens’!!) the management scientist and everybody else with his principles of deception-perception.

6. Principles of deception-perception:     (a) “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” The reason for this is that it enables us to realize that alternative world views have validity, while being in conflict with our own world views. It shows us the role of models in our perception and the fundamental need for dialectics. (b) “The systems approach goes on discovering that every world view is terribly restricted.” The reason is that world views tend to look at parts as if they are wholes, or wholes as if they are parts. The embedding principle works both ways, endlessly expanding and contracting. (c) “There are no experts in the systems approach.” The public always knows more than any expert. Everybody who lives in the system has a valid perspective, which some experts find hard to admit. (d) “The systems approach is not a bad idea.” This is not so, because there is no alternative (i.e. to deception), not because it is perfect (i.e. with perception only). See paragraph 4 above.

Final note    “The Systems Approach” is not Churchman’s last book about the dialectical systems approach. On p. 43 of “The Design of Inquiring Systems” (1971) Churchman describes how the anatomy of goal seeking by whole systems can be used for developing a framework of categories (or considerations or categorical considerations) in a system of inquiry. On p. 79-100 of “The Systems Approach and Its Enemies” (1979) he develops this framework a bit further. One of his students, Werner Ulrich, adapted this framework to suit his “Critical Heuristics of Social Planning” (1983). In this latter form it has found its way, via a large community of practice in the UK (Open University, University of Hull), into “Wicked Solutions” (2016, see also below). During the writing of Wicked Solutions it became apparent how closely it follows the original ideas of Churchman. As an avid concept mapper I produced a combination of Churchman’s and Ulrich’s framework (2nd version) to clarify these relationships (see also my post on goal seeking systems). The framework didn’t exist at the time of writing “The Systems Approach” (1968) except perhaps as a mental ‘map’ in Churchman’s mind, but it is easy to recognize the framework’s elements in “The Systems Approach”. In fact, it would be useful for the reader of “The Systems Approach” to have this framework in mind, which is why I add it to this post. But beware, the below framework contains ideas of Ulrich (1983) and Williams & Van ‘t Hof (2016). Expect me to produce a more purely Churchmannian one somewhere in 2017 or 2018. This is the best I have, so far.

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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Anti-Planning vs. the Systems Approach

The contribution of anti-planning approaches to planning

This is a summary of Chapter Thirteen 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 through 12 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Planning philosophy      The idea that a planning philosophy such as the systems approach is the most appropriate philosophy to lay out the structure of a system and decide what changes should occur that best serve the customers of a system is an idea that is not shared by everybody. To the rationalist it’s hard to see how anyone could ever accept an anti-planning philosophy. The fact remains that there are a great many people that do is important. It is important not only to take that fact into account, but also to realize that “no approach to systems can stand by itself. Its only method of standing is to face its most severe opposition.” Such an opposition is mounted by anti-planning approachers. Thus, anti-planning can and must essentially be regarded as a fundamental part of the (dialectical) systems approach. This is all the more important, because the systems approach at best offers an approximation or a succession of approximations without any guarantee that it will ever result in the hoped for progress or that the progress will be really of the hoped for kind. If science cannot be the guarantor of progress, which it would seem it can’t, then it is best to subject any plans to the fiercest opposition imaginable.

2.  Anti-planning approaches     …. are in conflict in fundamental ways with some or all aspects of the (scientific) “systems approach” so they can play a very useful role in the opposition of it. They reject the idea of rationality, or the idea that something useful can be planned, or the notion of control, or the entire concept of a system. Churchman distinguishes 6 types of anti-planning approaches or approachers: (a) the ‘excellent’ manager; (b) the sceptic; (c) the determinist; (d) religion; (e) self-reflection; and (f) the non-intellectual. The (dialectical) systems approach is able to critically appreciate and these anti-planning approaches for the alternative essences of value they represent. To some extent it is also able to incorporate them in its approach.

3. The ‘excellent’ manager     …. Is the most common of anti-planning approachers. He is supposed to be a person with rich experience in the system and with a perceptive, brilliant mind. He examines a few aspects of the systems, receives some data and reports, and readily makes up his mind what should be done. “In most cases he cannot make explicit what steps he has taken and he feels no need to do so. If, as a young man, he has shown signs of being perceptive and a good leader, he is promoted. If not, he never climbs the ladder. In this anti-planning practical school, education takes place with the system and is never made explicit.” (TSA 215-216). They “know the business” and cannot see how some outsider could tell them anything significant. Nevertheless, it is hard to justify in what way they are great and perceptive decision-makers.

4. The sceptic and the determinist      … are also fairly common anti-planning types, though far less important than the ‘excellent’ manager. “The sceptic firmly believes that we can never understand even minor aspects of a system.” (TSA 217). “His approach is that there is no sound approach.” (TSA 218). We deceive ourselves when we think we are improving anything. He is the arrogant relativist, who simply shows the extreme difficulties of answering questions, which is something the dialectical systems approacher wholeheartedly agrees with, except for becoming a relativist, too. The determinist, on the other hand, believes that major human decisions are not in the hands of human decision makers, including Napoleon (Tolstoy, 1869). Everything is the product of social forces rather than the result of the doings of particular individuals. The determinist does bring up an important issue in that it is important to the planner to pinpoint the “decision makers” in the system, or else he will not have a way to produce the changes that are needed. The important issue is that this pinpointing is not as easy as it may seem. See also one of my previous posts.

5.  Religion and self-reflection     “The religious approach says that the real planning of the world lies in a power or mind that is greater than the mind of all men combined.” This implies that it is no longer up to a human being to try to decide on his own how the whole system must change using a rational approach. Rather he must uphold God’s plan, which is unalterable. This poses three main problems to the rationalist: (a) the lack of evidence for such a plan or its originator; (b) the conflict of dogmatic belief with scientific proof of the nature of reality; and (c) the conflict of dogmatic belief with rationally derived human values as in the Kantian ethics. On the other hand, the rational planner cannot possibly believe to have the correct plan. He must keep thinking of his activity as a series of approximations, in which each approximation is in principle better than its predecessor. But why should such a series of approximations lead anywhere? (TSA 219-223). The second anti-planning approach is based on the central position of the self. It has a great many varieties: the power-dominated self, the conservative self, the revolutionary self, the annihilated self (for whom all existence becomes trivia) etc. “The ‘recommendations’ of the management scientist are an expression of his inner being and have nothing to do with ‘optimal’ changes in reality.” (TSA 223). The debate becomes interesting when applying psychoanalytic theory to the “systems approach”: if “poverty” could be redefined in something other than economic terms, we might discover how many poor people there are in our rich culture. (TSA 225).

6. The non-intellectual approach     … does not belief that thinking in any of its senses is important in the development of human life. It is the approach that finds the essence of value in the song, the painting, the vision, the myth, the feminine, and ultimately the unspoken. Must we admit that the basic aspects of human values never can be represented by the scientific or behavioral systems approaches? It is a deep reminder that what systems approachers create or propose is deeply irrelevant or perhaps even partially destructive for the person who finds his life in the religious, or in the search for the self, or in the completely nonintellectual. Thus, anti-planning must essentially be regarded as a fundamental part of the (dialectical) systems approach.

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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Behavior in the Systems Approach

Adding some ‘soft’ empiricism to ‘hard’ rationality

This is a summary of Chapter Twelve 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 through 11 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Behavioral science     …. tries to bridge between the economic-feasible approach to the change of systems and the humanist demand for the representation of “real” human values. It investigates what the human being is like in terms of his or her behavior. As an empiricist, the behavioral scientist is much less interested in model building. He focuses on the individual rather than the whole system. He tries to observe how and why the individual makes his or her choices, sets goals, has beliefs, develops concepts of reality, and expresses values. Combined these types of behavior form patterns that structure the way groups, societies and cultures are organized. The systems approach rather works the other way around. In theory the behavioral scientist´s approach could complement the systems approach. 

2. Human conflict     …. Is one of two key problems that need to be addressed in the systems approach. No matter how well-balanced systemic interventions are designed, there is always the risk of non-implementation. Behavioral science may offer a way out. One way to study human conflict is by means of game theory. It is sometimes defined as “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” But there is more to it. Some of its findings have been tested under controlled conditions (in laboratories) or semi-controlled conditions. This has resulted in theories involving cooperative and conflict types. Human conflict can also be studied in real cases. These studies have given rise to ideas concerning possible principles of organization and group motivation with direct relevance to applying the systems approach in practice.

3.  Resistance to change     … is the other key problem that needs to be addressed in the systems approach. It is perhaps even more about non-implementation than human conflict. It is a topic in the field of social psychology. It could help develop an approach to systems that combines the best of both worlds and that could be called the sociotechnical systems approach. Churchman points out that one of the best ways for handling resistance to change is by avoiding the problem of alienation of the planning system (see Ch. 10). This implies the need for companies to transform into learning organizations, an idea that was successfully promoted by Peter Senge and others a quarter of a century afterwards.

4.  Gaming and social accounting     … are two other fields of study in which behavioral science could play a role. Both are of direct practical relevance. Business games and international games are examples of serious or applied games that can give entrepreneurs and diplomats a direct feel of and insights in the conflictual situations they are operating in. One could surmise that such games may also help the system approacher in ensuring actual implementation of his or her proposals. Social accounting has grown considerably in importance since Churchman wrote The Systems Approach. It is useful in supporting concepts and ways of thinking that are used in the systems approach.

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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Values in the Systems Approach

The difference between soft and hard systems approaches

This is a summary of Chapter Eleven 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 through 10 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Evaluation    Many may wonder whether the systems approach pays off in practice. Adherents of the “systems approach” – aka the scientific systems approach of management scientists and the like – showcase savings of millions of dollars or claim increased effectiveness as a result of a more rational approach. Others point to the lack of implementation. Any evaluation of the systems approach depends on how we value. For an answer to this we must turn to the ‘real’ objectives of the system. The problem is that the ‘inhabitants’ of the system hide or don’t know the real objectives and constraints. They emphasize the positive aspects to garner support or admiration.

2. Roles      …. in the systems include those of the customer, the decision-maker and the planner. These are intricately linked. The decision-maker engages the planner to help him or her serve the customer (or client or beneficiary) better by changing the system. So it is up to the planner to clarify the real objectives of the system. The systems approach (the dialectical systems approach) argues that it is difficult to distinguish the roles very clearly. There may be considerable overlap, even in the case of a single person or group. Customers can be clients in a shop, stockholders, employees, union representatives etc. The planner cannot always ask customers what they want. Some of the system customers may not even been born yet.

3.  Real objectives          Finding out the real objectives of a system is a complex issue. It carries us directly into the minefield of design. An example is that of the planner-architect who asks the client-house builder what he wants. Another example is that of the planner-ICT expert who asks a client-website builder what he wants. It may seem simple at first, but is in fact a complicated and sometimes frustrating learning process of trial and error. Clarifying the real objectives resists verbal probing, whether by eliciting verbal statements or indicated behavior, esp. if it is about risk taking and risk aversion. The problem is that words or behavior can only express people´s values and preferences indirectly. And none of it is final, because we cannot interview future or past clients. Besides people are fickle or hold on to their ideas – or not – with varying degrees of intensity. Moreover, much depends on the information people have about the system and the worth of alternatives available to them.

4. Feasible problems     The natural inclination of most planners is to adopt a so-called engineering philosophy to problems. Two strategies stand out: (1) getting rid of multiple decision-makers by finding or designing a representative who is assumed to be able to represent the real objectives of the system; (2) getting rid of multi-stage problems by making other assumptions to reduce the objectives of the system to a single, simple goal. Both are tempting and practical, but deceptive. It is has a parallel in scientific inquiry which is also based on creating a controlled environment to enable precise measurements. This has enabled great learning in the physical domain, but not so much when social problems are concerned. And just as a reminder: the word social here is used as in ‘social institutions’ and includes administration, business, communication, development, education, finance, geography, history and so on.

5.  SS versus MM     Churchman makes a useful distinction between single-stage problems with a single decision-maker (SS) and multi-stage problems with multiple decision-makers (MM). The basic idea of the dialectical systems approach is that it is much more rational to approach MM types of problems as such and not to attempt to deal with them as if they are SS types of problems by making a panoply of assumptions, i.e. by using a hard systems approach to soft systems. This poses certain difficulties to the approach, especially in terms of the way we think about certain classes of problems, also known as wicked problems. According to Churchman we must recognize “that all real problems are MM.” (TSA 191). One year earlier he wrote that: “the membership in the class of nonwicked problems is restricted to the arena of play: nursery school, academia and the like.” (Churchman 1967). In ‘Wicked Solutions’ (see below) we suggest framings as a key step in dealing with MMs without falling in the trap of assumption making. Chapter 11 of TSA provides a key part of the theoretical basis for this.

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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Planning and the Systems Approach

A planning system is part of the systems approach

This is a summary of Chapter Ten 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, 8 and 9 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Whole system planning       The systems approach is about planning with a view to the whole system. In spite of the fact that everybody uses planning, the act or policy of planning can be quite controversial. Planners are not necessarily to be trusted. Some people associate negative forms of planning with the control over everything as in communism or fascism. Far better, says the anti-planner, if freedom of choice determines what happens. This in turn may also pose a threat as demonstrated by the Great Depression or widespread illegitimate acts, pointing at the need for some form of freedom curbing control for the greater good. The best forms of control, according to democrats, are those where people are free. Freedom is also needed for progress. Freedom-generated progress can be ‘hijacked’ by the anti-free. Planning, freedom (including that of anti-planners), progress, stability and control are inter-related and require prudency in planning, control, progress, stability and freedom.

2.  Planning systems      …. are needed to optimize plans. It is mostly ‘planning for planning’. For a plan – as understood by the planner – it is necessary that: (a) the decision-maker is studied (without an understanding of the decision-maker the remaining steps are pointless); (b) goals are set; (c) a group of alternatives is created; (d) each alternative is scanned as to whether it will or will not effectively lead to the goals; (e) one of the alternatives is selected; (f) the plan is implemented; and (g) the decision-maker checks to see how well the plan worked. The last piece of information will be used to control the operation of the plan, as well as to plan better in the future. A detailed description of the planning system can be subdivided into three subprograms: (i) social interaction, which concerns the ongoing relationship between the planning system and the decision-maker(s); (ii) measurement (identification, classification, prediction, etc.); and (iii) test (verifying the plan). Of these three major subprograms of planning, “the second […] occupies the most attention at the present time, and this may account for the fact that planning so often fails in its mission.” (TSA 152).

3.  Social interaction        The first step in this subprogram (1a. justification) is primarily concerned with the overall assessment of the worthwhileness of the planning effort. The key measure of performance (MoP or key performance indicator) is: net gain (esp. in money). The paradoxical question to be answered here is also: how much planning is really needed? The next component of the planning function is the one that selects staff and places the function in the organization (1b). One of the critical problems of organizing for planning is the potential isolation or alienation (the non-adoption of sensible plans) of the planning function, no matter how it is organized. The third component is that of communication, i.e. the promotion of acceptance & understanding by all persons who have some role in the plan. It has three basic strategies: persuasion (involving good salesmanship with MoP: degree of acceptance), education (MoP: degree of understanding, and politics (which is mostly about forming (win-win) coalitions (MoP: reduction in resistance). The fourth component is the design of a detailed, stepwise plan of implementation: who should do what, and when.

4.  Measurement     … is not just about putting numbers to things, but rather the activity of creating precise, accurate, and general information. Precision and accuracy enable us to make refined choices and hence reduce the risk of error. General information is information that can be used in a wide variety of circumstances. It all presupposes ‘sensitivity’ of choice, including sensitivity of making the wrong choice, e.g. of alternative or decision-maker or goal. The overall  MoP is simply that – if quantification is possible – one choice results in a better result than another. The decision-maker (2a, e.g. labor unionists, stockholders, may require influence mapping) and alternatives (2b, may be simple, if most decisions have already been taken, or difficult, in the case of new policies or products) must be identified by the planner (uses best innovative, creative, radical, unreasonable thinking). The components of goals and objectives must be considered in various kinds of conferences between managers and planners. Objectives give ‘meaning’ to goals and strongly affect their effectiveness. Good planners imaginatively use long-term scenarios (“stories”) to keep the distant future alive in the minds of decision makers. The environment (attitudes of customers, financial environment) determines to a large extent the effectiveness (2e/f) of alternatives. Hidden goals often come to light after selection (2g) esp. in the form of the need to look at the goal to minimize a particular problem from occurring.

5.  Test       This subprogram has three components: (3a) simulation to test the selected alternative; (3b) counter-planning to prevent serious errors in making basic assumptions about the selected alternative; and (3c) control, which includes feedback of information about the operation of the plan and change of plan when needed. What the planner strives for is something comparable to the cybernetician’s ‘negative feedback’, i.e. a situation in which information coming to the manager arrives at the correct time for him to take the appropriate course of action. This phase of planning does require capitulation of all the steps, so that, as additional information pours in, correct change can occur.

Final notes    The above planning system may seem rather elaborate. For some kinds of organization (e.g. stabilized organizations or activities based on individual initiative, e.g. research) the need for planning may be quite small. For other organizations (government, military, large corporations) it should be large. But these judgments could be all wrong: perhaps a nation should undertake a systematic planning of research, in order to rationalize the very chaotic and inconsistent ways in which research activities are funded. This brings us back to component 1a. above. Finally, planning must not only ‘pay’ for itself, but it must also compensate for the opportunity cost of planning, i.e. for the use of the planning funds in some other program of the system.

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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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.

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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.

Posted in General | Leave a comment