Environmental management and organisations
Environmental management and organisations

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4.1 What are systems?

It is a simple question, but there is no really simple answer. However, the dictionary definitions do give us some pointers. They make clear that there are systems ‘in the world’ as things. For the most part, you can consider the bodies of animals or people, industrial processes and everyday objects like a bicycle or car as these kinds of systems. There are also systems ‘in the mind’. These are systems that are mental models, which are used to help understand how things are and how they work.

For the moment, the focus is on the second definition – systems of the mind – created by an individual or many people to help structure problems or think about difficult things.

You could also think of a system as interconnecting parts functioning as a whole. A system is 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 function properly. The arrangement of pieces is important because the parts are connected and work together. The behaviour of a system depends on its total structure. Change the structure and the behaviour changes. In other words, a set of components interconnected for a purpose.

A system is a powerful ‘model’ of a functional whole.

In this unit, systems ideas and techniques, diagrams and models are all being used as sense-making devices.

We call such sense-making devices ‘heuristics’ – a device for shaping your inquiry and learning. The easiest way to get to grips with the idea of systems as a heuristic is to use it.

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