Digital & Computing

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Systems thinking and practice

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# 5.3 Summary

The brief definition of a system is set of components interconnected for a purpose. Joseph O'Connor and Ian McDermott (1997) distinguish a system from a heap using the longer definition as follows:

A systemA heap
Interconnecting parts functioning as a wholeA collection of parts
Changed if you take away pieces or add more pieces. If you cut the system in half you do not get two smaller systems, but a damaged system that will not properly functionEssential properties are unchanged whether you add or take away pieces. when you halve a heap, you get two smaller heaps
The arrangement of the pieces is crucialThe arrangement of the pieces is irrelevant
The parts are connected and work togetherThe parts are not connected and can function separately
Its behaviour depends on the total structure. Change the structure and the behaviour changesIts behaviour (if any) depends on its size or on the number of pieces in the heap.
(O'Connor and McDermott, 1997, p. 3)

I have also used the word ‘system’ to make five points about thinking in terms of systems:

1. The intangible elements, e.g. norms and assumptions, are essential factors in understanding how a system works.

2. The boundary of a system need not correspond with recognised departmental, institutional or other ‘physical’ boundaries. Explanatory systems are identified in relation to the observer's interests.

3. Often one has to extend the boundary (take a helicopter view) in order to achieve a coherent understanding of a complex situation.

4. A system at one level of analysis can be viewed instead as a sub-system in its environment at a higher level of analysis.

5. Models and analogies of systems are powerful tools in helping to identify patterns and regularities.

## SAQ 8

Which of the following do you recognise as a system, according to the definitions given above?

1. The houses in an old village.

3. Activities needed to get this course to you on time.

4. A small wood.

5. The spare parts in the store of a garage.

6. Mathematics.

7. Meetings of the board of directors of a company.