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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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2.1 Drawing boundaries

Drawing boundaries is a very common and familiar way of simplifying (and often a key feature of systems diagrams as you will see in Week 4); boundaries separate what is of direct interest and concern from what can be considered as wider, external influences. For example, the boundary of a National Park separates an area of countryside thought to be deserving of special protection from the more ordinary countryside around. Dictionary definitions set out boundaries between the meanings of words (and that is what is partly done here).

There are a lot of boundaries which are conventionally drawn and accepted as uncontroversial. For example, many firms have pretty rigid boundaries between different departments. But often they grew up for reasons which have passed into history, and the key functions which need to be carried out may now span two or more departments.

Sometimes boundaries are less tangible. For example until the 1980s computing was for experts – people trained as programmers. When microcomputers were first developed they were still designed for trained computer users because the designers had not recognised that they had implicitly drawn a boundary round those they considered to be the potential users, excluding those without special expertise. Those who developed personal computers re-drew that boundary.

Sometimes boundaries are very hard to spot. Most people assume that stocks and shares are part of a highly developed system of providing capital for companies, and do not consider them in any other light. But some investors realised that the investment of money can be part of a system to divert capital away from industries and enterprises which, in their opinion, are unethical towards the manufacture, for example, of environmentally safe products. It is clear that this novel view ‘makes sense’, but it is not a system that is publicly or commonly recognised. In one sense, it obviously exists ‘out there’; or rather, the various elements in the ‘system’ obviously exist. But the focusing on this particular purpose is simply a way of re-conceptualising the various elements and their relationships in a way that is of interest to the investors in this case.