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Systems diagramming
Systems diagramming

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1 How to use this course

This course is a learning resource. Like all resources, there are different ways to use it depending upon what you are trying to achieve. Whatever you are trying to achieve it is important that you not only read the text thoroughly but also undertake the Activities (there are no ‘set’ answers to these Activities as they are personal to you but I have provided my own, or other people's, responses). After all, this is a course that helps with systems thinking and practice, and without practising your thinking using diagrams you may not learn how powerful such tools can be.

This course also has visual materials that deal with the mechanics of using diagrams in a way that text alone cannot convey. So further practice will come from viewing the animation.

Some people seem to have a natural talent for diagramming, just as some have a natural talent for playing the piano. But many people find it rather awkward and difficult at first. In a way, that is an encouraging sign: it shows that you are genuinely coming to grips with something unfamiliar; and, after all, there is no point in studying what you already know how to do. But it will require perseverance and you can't expect to grasp it all straight away.

In particular this course looks at how diagrams can be used to represent information and ideas about complex situations and in particular for identifying and working with systems of interest. You can often summarise how ideas or processes are connected much more neatly in a diagram than in words; you can also show someone else how something works by drawing a diagram of it. This means that you need to be confident with using diagrams in systems work. You need to learn how to read diagrams about complex situations – extracting information from them and interpreting what they mean. You also need to learn how to draw diagrams of your own, so that you can capture your own ideas and interpretations of a complex situation on paper. And finally you need to know how to present diagrams so that others can successfully read them.

The sections of this course cover the range of what? when? how? why? and who? questions on aspects of diagrams and diagramming:

  • Section 2 discusses how diagrams are representations or models of situations used to capture ‘information’ in a visual form, showing multiple relationships between ‘things’ in a non-linear fashion. It also looks at the relationships between ‘events/activities/entities’ on the one hand and between ‘thoughts’ on the other – with some diagrams mixing the two together.

  • Section 3 notes that diagrams are generally used to help your own understanding of written text; to help your own thinking about a situation; to convey understanding to others – to do that you need to be able to read them effectively.

  • Section 4 claims that diagrams are used in systems thinking and practice to capture as much information as possible about a situation, to help explore a situation, to help to analyse a situation, to represent a system of interest, to plan and implement changes to a situation, to help in decision making and to help with quantitative model building.

The course has a link to an animated tutorial [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] that covers the purposes, elements and conventions of specific types of diagrams most widely used in systems studies. It also acts as a glossary of the major diagramming types used in systems work.