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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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3 Comparing two systems traditions

One of the key features attributed to purposeful systems is that the people in them can pursue the same purpose, sometimes called a what, in different environments by pursuing different behaviours, sometimes called a how. Note that I have deliberately not used the term goals, because of the current propensity to see goals as quite narrowly defined objectives. Certainly this was the way they were interpreted in the systems engineering tradition of the 1950s and 1960s and in the traditional Operations Research (OR) paradigm. Checkland and his co-workers, beginning in the late 1960s, reacted against the thinking in systems engineering and OR at that time and coined the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ systems to distinguish the two traditions, but which I have relabelled as systematic and systemic to fit in with the more current thinking on this distinction as already presented in this course (Table 1). These distinctions will be discussed in more detail later.

Table 1 The ‘systematic’ and ‘systemic’ traditions of systems thinking compared
Systematic systems tradition: systems as ontological devices Systemic systems tradition: systems as epistemological devices
oriented to goal seeking oriented to learning
assumes the world contains systems that can be engineered assumes the world is problematical but can be explored by using system models
assumes system models to be models of the world (ontologies) assumes system models to be intellectual constructs (epistemologies)
talks in the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ talks in the language of ‘issues’ and ‘accommodations’
Advantages Advantages
allows the use of powerful techniques is available to all stakeholders including professional practitioners; keeps in touch with the human content of problem situations
Disadvantages Disadvantages
may lose touch with aspects beyond the logic of the problem situation does not produce the final answers
accepts that inquiry is never-ending

This week you will be briefly introduced to soft systems methodology (SSM), one of a number of widely used systems approaches. Although there may be key thinkers behind a method, these methods, like any social technology, depend on many people working with it, developing and refining it, using it, taking it up, recommending it, and above all finding it useful. But not all technologies that succeed are the best – it depends on who builds the better networks, particularly of practitioners. As you experience the use of a particular systems method and strive to make it a methodology, reflect on it critically – judge it against criteria meaningful to you but above all judge it in relation to your practice of it. It will be your experience of using an approach in a situation to which it fits that matters, always being aware of the choices you have made.

A cartoon of a person following a path.
Figure 2 A conceptual model of a practitioner who brings forth their tradition of understanding as they lay down the path of their walking (doing). All humans have a personal history within a wider cultural and biological history. A systems practitioner, for example, will from some moment have a history of thinking, acting or understanding systemically.