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Successful IT systems
Successful IT systems

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2 The sociotechnical nature of IT systems

The word ‘system’ means many different things in different contexts. In a computing and IT context, it’s often taken to mean a computer system. The basic argument of this course, as exemplified in the case studies above, is that an IT system consists of much more than software, hardware or other technologies – it is a mixture of technology, people and organisation.

There are many other uses of the term ‘system’ outside of computing and IT – we talk of the financial system, the political system, the health system and ecological systems. These may seem like quite disconnected areas, but they all share a common idea – that there is some unified concept, some broad way of understanding parts of the world that are all connected to each other. The discipline of systems thinking, on which many of the ideas in the course rest, is concerned with understanding systems and their nature.

A short definition of a system, within the tradition of systems thinking that has long been used at the Open University, is ‘a set of components interconnected for a purpose’.

This is one of those definitions where almost every word has significance! The basic definition is usually expanded upon in the following way:

  1. A system is an assembly of components connected together in an organised way.
  2. The components are affected by being in the system and are changed if they leave it.
  3. The assembly does something – carries out a task, fulfils a function.
  4. The assembly as a whole has been identified by some observer who is interested in it.

The last of these points is especially important. Although the loose use of phrases such as the financial system and the health system (and even IT systems) might sound as if they are describing real entities, for the most part the systems they describe should be regarded as constructs because the way that the system is understood has been constructed (either consciously or unconsciously) by a particular individual or group who are observing a situation, and viewing aspects of it as a system. The perspective from which the situation is viewed will shape what the viewer identifies as the ‘system of interest’. As you will see later, where the boundaries of a system are defined – what is considered to be part of the system, and what is considered to be outside the system – can differ greatly according to who is defining those boundaries, the purpose they consider the system to have, and even the time when they are considering the boundaries.

For a non-IT example, consider ‘the healthcare system’. What could be included in this? Groups and organisations that might be considered part of it: general practitioners, hospitals, healthcare administrators, insurance companies, dentists, opticians, patients, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, government regulators, ‘alternative’ practitioners such as homeopaths and acupuncturists, gymnasiums … the list could go on. Which of those are part of the healthcare system and which are not? For some purposes, it would be appropriate to include some of the above list within the boundary of the healthcare system, and to exclude others. Moreover, the boundary would be drawn differently in different countries and probably by those holding different political or ideological viewpoints. To take just one example, someone working for the NHS in the UK would define the health system quite differently from someone working for one of the large health insurance companies in the USA.