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2.4.1 Five key ideas about systems

Systems thinking will enable you to analyse complex issues in an illuminating way. It takes a whole (or holistic) view of a situation.

When you think of a system, bear in mind the following five ideas:

  1. Everything in a system is connected The elements of a system are interconnected. The members of a department or a voluntary group constitute a system. There are connections between the members. A system can comprise people, material objects, and even such intangible elements as ideas or common sets of beliefs. The idea of a system emphasises the interconnections between the elements.

  2. A system does something A system is defined by what it produces. Every system has an output of some kind. Once again, the outputs may be tangible or intangible. When you think of a hospital as a system, then the outputs will include measurable improvements in health as well as immeasurable outputs in the improvements in people's feelings about themselves. The only valid components of a particular system are those that contribute to the specified output.

  3. Systems have a boundary and an environment The system boundary encloses those elements that make up the system. Think of the hospital again. The boundary of the system will separate the elements that make up the system and interact with each other, from the elements that are outside the boundary. The elements that are outside the boundary constitute the environment in which the system operates. Elements in the environment affect the system but are not affected by it.

  4. The system is defined by your interest What goes into and what remains outside a system is decided by your interest. In the local hospital, the system that provides care for accident victims may include counselling support if you feel it is important. Your system may differ from someone else's if they feel counselling is not essential. The way that you express the local hospital as a system will reflect different understandings and different points of view.

  5. Systems and subsystems A system can have one or more subsystems within it. Your local hospital, for instance, could include a catering subsystem (a tangible subsystem), as well as a subsystem which encompasses ‘the values and standards that inform the medical practice in the hospital’ (an intangible subsystem).

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