Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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Mastering systems thinking in practice

Week 3: Identifying systems of interest


In Week 2 you looked at how we describe and talk about complex situations in general. You also learned about systems of interest as having perceived complexity and that people can perceive the same situation differently.

This week you will take these ideas further by examining again the language we use to name or define systems of interest and introducing ways that you can begin to identify different systems of interest within a complex situation. In other words how systems thinking in practice includes making explicit boundaries within situations where the prime boundary is one of purpose. You will use this identification of systems of interest again in Week 4, when you will be introduced to a key tool in the system practitioners’ toolkit – the use of diagrams to represent such systems of interest and also in Week 5 on multiple perspectives where you will include other people’s views.

Watch the following video which highlights what is involved in identifying a system of interest.

Download this video clip.Video player: mstp_1_video_week3_intro.mp4
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Many real-world situations can be experienced differently as either a difficulty or a mess, depending on the viewpoint of the observer. However, I could not call it a system unless I had tried to make sense of it using systems thinking and found or formulated a system of interest within it. This means I would need a purpose for engaging with the real-world situation. When I do not have such a purpose in mind, I'm using the word "system" in its everyday sense rather than its technical systems practice sense.
The act of making a distinction is quite basic to what it is to be human. When we make a distinction, we split the world into two parts-- this and that. We separate the thing from its context or a system from its environment. This is the same as drawing a circle on a sheet of paper. When the circle is closed, three different elements are brought forth at the same time-- an inside, an outside, and a boundary.
The fundamental choice that faces systems practitioners is choosing to see systems either as something that exists, that can be discovered, measured, and possibly modelled, manipulated, or maintained, as does the first system practitioner in this cartoon, who jumps to the conclusion that this is clearly a manufacturing system; or as something we construct, design, or experience because of the distinctions or theories we embody, as does the second systems practitioner, who is open to the complexity of the situation-- the factory, river, dairying-- and sees systems as mental constructs formulated as part of a systemic inquiry. You will now learn how to define and identify systems of interest for yourself.
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By the end of this week, you should be able to:

  • use appropriate language to define and distinguish systems of interest within complex situations as epistemological devices rather than actual ontological things.
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