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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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5.2 What are systems approaches?

An approach is a way of going about taking action in a ‘real world’ situation, as depicted in Figure 20. As I have outlined earlier, an observer has choices that can be made for coping with complexity. Here I am assuming that because this unit is about systems approaches, a choice has already been made to approach the world systemically using systems thinking.

Other choices of approach could be made. Think of the everyday ways we use adjectives to describe the word approach. Some that come to mind are a scientific approach; a reductionist approach; an empirical approach; a philosophical approach; an experimental approach; a spiritual approach; a practical approach; a critical approach. You can probably think of more.

Some of these approaches to taking action seem to operate at different levels – both Systems and science could be seen as meta-disciplines and different approaches could be taken in both by an aware practitioner.

There are certainly scientists who see themselves as systems biologists, for example, just as there are many scientists who take a reductionist approach and some, such as Teilhard de Chardin who took a more spiritual approach. I have already claimed both a systemic and a systematic approach can be encompassed within a systems approach, by an aware practitioner. Please bear in mind here that I am saying these are choices to be made; I am not commenting on the appropriateness, quality or efficacy of the options nor am I saying they are exclusive options.

The question of choice is a bit like that hackneyed phrase ‘horses for courses’, although in practice it is more subtle than this. The image of juggling seems to say much more than this alternative image. It is not just a question of matching a ‘horse’ – an approach – with a ‘course’ – a ‘real-world’ situation. This is because taking a systems approach involves addressing the question of purpose. Let me explain what I mean by this.

Earlier you attempted to interpret some possible purposes a government minister might have had in engaging with the child support case study as if it were a difficulty (Activity 42). I then ascribed a purpose to the imaginary minister's behaviour. This is something we tend to do all the time. For example, one of my pet hates is people saying ‘you should’ to me – because I experience them as imposing their purpose on to me whenever they use ‘should’. The question of purpose is central to systems practice and the process of contextualising an approach.

Activity 47

Attributing a purpose to the Child Support Agency.

Can you identify situations in the child support case study where particular actors appear to have ascribed purpose to particular behaviours? Are you able to identify any particular outcomes that may be attributed to this process?

Did you recognise yourself as having a stake in the child-support issue in Activity 13? If you do not recognise yourself as having a stake in this issue choose one for the purposes of this activity. Having done this, describe from your perspective, and in no more than one or two sentences, the purpose you would attribute to the Child Support Agency. Start your sentence with: ‘The CSA is a system to …’

When you have completed this sentence you will have formulated a description of a ‘system of interest’.

Churchman has listed nine conditions that he considers necessary for assessing the adequacy of a design for a system of interest. The first of these addresses the question of purpose (Box 5). Read through Box 5 now and make notes about any points you are uncertain about.

Box 5 Conditions for assessing the adequacy of design of any system of interest

Churchman (1971) has identified nine conditions for assessing the adequacy of design of any system of interest. He argues that these conditions must be fulfilled for a system (S) to demonstrate purposefulness. The conditions are reproduced in summary below (adapted from Churchman, 1971, p.43)

  1. S is teleological (or ‘purposeful’)

  2. S has a measure of performance

  3. There is a client whose interests are served by S

  4. S has teleological components which co-produce the measure of performance of S

  5. S has an environment (both social and ecological)

  6. S has a decision maker who can produce changes in the measure of performance of S's components and hence changes in the measure of performance of S

  7. S has a designer who influences the decision maker

  8. The designer aims to maximise S's value to the client

  9. There is a built in guarantee that the purpose of S defined by the designer's notion of the measure of performance can be achieved and secured

Churchman (1979, p. 79) later reordered these nine conditions into three groups of three categories; each group corresponding with a particular social role – client, decision maker, and planner. Each category is associated with two allied categories which Werner Ulrich (1983) later termed role specific concerns and key problems. Ulrich also identified each category group with a term reflecting the primary source of influence – motivation, control, and expertise– for client, decision maker, and planner (or ‘designer’) respectively (Ulrich, 1983, p. 250). In Table 7 I have reordered the nine conditions to match the three categories Churchman later defined. The numbers refer to the same item in the list above and in the table.

Before moving on examine the system of interest you formulated in Activity 47 and try to identify the three groups of three conditions associated with motivation, control and expertise specified as necessary conditions for the design of any system of interest (Box 5, Table 7). Suggest some possible implications if the system you have described has not satisfied all the conditions for the design of a system of interest that Churchman specified (Box 5).

Table 7: Categories of ‘involved’ in a purposeful system's design
Churchman's 1971 nine conditions for a purposeful system (S)Churchman's 1979 three groups of three categories for a purposeful systemUlrich's 1983 sources of influence informing a purposeful system
Group 1
3 Are the clients, the stakeholders of S identified people whose interests and values will be served by the system?social role: clientsources of motivation: whose purposes are served?
1 Is S teleological? Does it exist to serve a purpose? (teleology means to have a purpose)role specific concerns: purpose
2 Does S have a measure of performance? Are expected performances identified and are relevant measurements available, and are they carried out? key problems: measure of performance
Group 2
6 Does S have identified designers who serve the interest and values of the stakeholders? How are these interests and values known to the designers? Who is involved in validating the design?social role: decision makersources of control: who has the power to decide?
4 Does S have teleological components that co-produce the expected performance of the system? Do these components have measures of performance that are related to the performance of S?role specific concerns: components
5 Is the system's environment clearly defined? Is the relationship, the mutual interaction patterns between the system and its environment, defined?key problems: environment
Group 3
7 Does S have a decision-maker? (The client stakeholders, the designers, and the decision-makers can be the same.)social role: planner/designersources of expertise: who has the know-how?
8 Do the designers intend to change S so as to maximise its value to the client/stakeholder? Do they maintain fidelity between the preferred/ideal design and the operationalised design?role specific concerns: implementation
9 Is there a guarantee that the designers’ intentions are realisable?key problems: guarantor
(adapted from Ulrich, 1983, pp. 245–250 and Banathy, 1996)

I will refer back to Box 5 and Table 7 but first I want to distinguish between two different forms of purpose.