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Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice
Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice

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3 Situations, systems and strategy

A definition developed by Open University systems academics and referred to by Morris (Open Systems Group, 2004) suggests that a system is simply:

  • a collection of entities …
  • that are seen by someone …
  • as interacting together …
  • to do something.

Activity 6 Situations and systems

Using the Open University definition of a system provided above, make notes on whether the following five items might be described as systems. First give a simple yes or no response. Second give an explanation of your reasoning.

  • health centre
  • poverty
  • garbage bin
  • washing dishes
  • local council


A system is a selection of variables based on a particular perspective. In describing a system there needs to be not only objects or variables of some kind, but a human-attached perspective with an associated purpose. So for example, a garbage bin in itself would not normally be regarded as a system. It might be considered as a microbial ecosystem but such a system arises from a perspective on the bin as something that fulfils a human-defined purpose of sustaining microbial life. More commonly the bin might be considered as part of a system associated with the purpose of refuse disposal. Similarly, poverty is best described as a situation – from most viewpoints it is a complex situation. But poverty might also be described in terms of a system for, say, ensuring ill-health, or for generating capital accumulation, or for enabling a simple life.

Box 2 introduces some basic terms associated with a systems literacy.

Box 2 Systems competencies 1: systems thinking

Systems thinking is characterised by holistic thinking, which means thinking in terms of wholes rather than parts and assessing a situation in a broad-minded way.

The adjective ‘systemic’ applies to holistic thinking. That is distinct from systematic thinking, which means taking the view that the whole can be understood by considering just the parts, and connections that only have a linear cause and effect.

Wholes or systems are not pre-given. They are selected by someone for a purpose. Someone usually selects the whole with the purpose of making an intervention that they think will improve matters. It is good practice to learn about the situation before making an intervention.

Deciding what the whole is in a given context involves making boundary judgements. Decisions are made about what parts are included or excluded. These boundary judgements distinguish the whole from its context or environment, and the whole is called the ‘system of interest’.

All judgements must be made by someone. Judgements can be made without awareness. This happens all of the time when someone uses the word ‘system’ in everyday speech, for example ‘education system’ or ‘transport system’. This everyday usage can lead to misunderstanding and conflict because different stakeholders will make different boundary judgements based on their different experiences. This is the same as saying that one person’s education system will be different to another’s.

Conflict and confusion often arises because of lack of clarity about the purpose of the system of interest.

(Source: adapted and further developed from a discussion paper among members of the Open University systems group (Open Systems Group, 2004))

Different traditions of systems thinking can be identified today, each with a particular way of handling complex issues. Their evolution was particularly marked since the mid-twentieth century, when systems approaches were employed in association with the discipline of operational research (or operations research as it is known in North America) for clearly defined strategic military purposes during the Second World War. Since then, systems approaches have developed to address many other different contexts ranging from multiple variables associated with industrial processes to global climate change, and multiple perspectives associated with family therapy to international relations.

The different traditions of systems thinking can be grouped together in different ways. Systems approaches can be grouped according to the emphasis given to the context or situation in which the approach was used, the practitioners or users of the approach, and the ideas or usefulness of the approach itself.