2.1 Approaches to systems thinking
All of this might seem somewhat abstract and philosophical. Does this mean there are no such things as real systems existing in the world? Yes and no. This view does not suggest that hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are unreal – rather it suggests that there are many different ways to group together those real entities (in the form of systems), and in the process of doing so we construct a particular model of reality at a particular time.
It is worth saying that there are many different approaches, both academic and practical, which use the idea of a ‘system’ as a way of understanding the world. Some of them would agree with the above definition, others would not. However something like the above (and especially the points about the observer, systems of interest, and systems as constructs) has become widely accepted over the past few decades. Ramage and Shipp (2009) provide an overview of systems traditions and the different approaches to systems thinking.
Each of these four perspectives are forms of systems thinking, in that they all look at whole systems and seek to understand the relationship between the parts and the whole, but they use these ideas subtly differently. This is a course about successful IT systems, not about systems thinking as such, and so the ideas we use here are presented pragmatically, in ways that are intended to be useful, rather than as a theoretical discussion of ideas around systems.
Have you previously encountered systems thinking in some form? Did it match the Open University definition of a system found on the previous page?
Systems thinking can be found in a number of different forms in different places, and approaches that take a holistic perspective but don’t use the term system in even more places. Although the language is different, the ideas of interconnection between components and of purpose will be found in many understandings of systems.
One concept missing from this definition is the idea of feedback or circularity, which some approaches to systems thinking regard as fundamental. In our view this is an important concept, but it is secondary to the ideas of components, interconnection and purpose.
It is worth observing that you may come across the use of the word ‘system’ to refer solely to technology (such as software). Although this may fall within the strict definition of a set of components interconnected for a purpose, it wouldn’t qualify as an IT system as discussed in this course.
Before looking at what systems thinking can tell us about the nature of IT systems, we will introduce the concept of sociotechnical systems thinking. This is a strand of systems thinking that dates back to the early 1950s and is highly relevant to this course. It is framed around the idea that the social and the technical aspects of a system are inextricably linked. This course has, at its foundation, the idea that all IT systems are sociotechnical – they cannot be understood without a sense of the relationship between the social aspects (organisational and people) and the technical aspects (hardware and software) of the system.
One of the long-standing practitioners of sociotechnical systems thinking, Ken Eason, has written of the usefulness of the ideas and its importance in making sense of IT systems, as follows:
What is important to me about sociotechnical systems theory is that it provides a way of understanding the complex way in which people at work co-operate and use tools and technology to get their collective work done. It helps us understand how the operational reality of working life achieves the goals of the organisation. It does so by treating the collection of human and technical resources in the organisation as a system producing work and focuses on the interdependencies between the people in their respective work roles and the technical artefacts they use to get the work done. Two properties of this work system seem to me to be all-important. First, if you change one part of the system (say bring in a new technical system) the interdependencies mean there are knock-on effects that may be positive for performance but equally may lead to dysfunction in the overall system. The second point is that the work system is an open system; it is subject to changes in its environment, to the inputs it takes in and to the market for its outputs. A successful system is one that can adapt to the turbulence of the outside world and it is the people in their work roles who do most of the adapting. An important question is whether the technical systems they use are capable of supporting this adaptation; if the technology is not flexible it can become an obstacle to adaptive behaviour.