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Systems engineering: Challenging complexity
Systems engineering: Challenging complexity

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4.3 The use of systems engineering in organisations

The development of systems engineering was contemporaneous with that of systems analysis in public policy. Though its origins can be traced back to the 1930s and 1940s (Hall, 1962, p. 7), its more widespread application can be dated from the early 1950s. The earliest formal teaching of systems engineering was a course presented in 1950 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by G.W. Gilman, who was then Director of Systems Engineering at Bell Laboratories. Gilman was a strong promoter of the use of systems engineering at Bell Labs and was instrumental in developing training material that was used in company courses (Hall, 1962, p. vii).

One of the Bell Labs executives, Arthur Hall, was closely associated with the introduction of systems engineering into the organisation, and considered that it was necessary because:

  • products were increasing in complexity

  • the needs of consumers were expanding

  • the business environment was expanding rapidly in terms of markets, technology and concerns

  • there was an acute shortage of technically and scientifically trained people.

It is interesting to note that, half a century later, the argument has not changed a great deal. Stevens et al. (1998, p. 2) state that:

Systems engineering is the ‘key technology’ to manage complexity created by:

  • increased complexity of products

  • globalisation of the market-place

  • the erosion of trade barriers

  • reduction of product development cycles

  • software as the dominant force for change in almost all new products

  • worldwide deployment of new technology in ever shorter timescales

  • systems constructed from bought-in technology and components

  • reuse of components, information and knowledge across projects

  • partnerships for product development leading to worldwide teams

  • the transition from paper-based control to control through electronically managed information

  • an understanding that intellectual capital often is the major part of the assets of a modern organisation.

Question 4

What are the main differences between Hall's justification of systems engineering and that provided by Stevens et al.?


Perhaps the main difference is the emergence, over the last half-century, of the importance of computing, which features in one way or another in three of the items on the list of Stevens et al. A second difference is that Stevens et al. regard ‘time’, or the lack of it, as a significant factor leading to increased complexity. Hall cites shortages of technically and scientifically trained staff. Essentially, however, both justifications are that ‘things’ are getting more complex.

The five-stage systems engineering methodology adopted in Bell Labs consisted of:

  1. Systems studies: programme planning

    During this phase a comprehensive range of environmental factors is investigated with the aim of laying out a possible broad development programme for the organisation. Senior managers can then make an informed choice of which projects to accept and the amount and type of resources to devote to them. A secondary aim is to increase the knowledge in the organisation of trends and developments in its business environment.

  2. Exploratory planning: project planning 1

    This phase of the methodology is focused on a single project. This may be one of the possibilities laid out in the programme defined in the previous stage, or the systems engineering methodology may start at this stage if the need for the project has been separately defined.

    Exploratory planning starts with analytical work to define the problem, or need, that the project is addressing. The second step is then to select the objectives of the system in relation to the problem or need that has been denned. The objectives will guide the subsequent selection of alternative solutions and the associated analyses.

    The next step, termed systems synthesis, is concerned with compiling or devising alternatives that might satisfy the objectives that have previously been defined. Each alternative is then tested during the systems analysis step. The results of the testing are used during the selection stage to choose the best solution. Finally, the results of the work during this stage are communicated to senior management and others having an interest in the project, with a recommendation to go ahead, do no further work, or that more investigation is required.

  3. Development planning: project planning 2

    If the decision is to proceed with the project, the systems engineering team would then produce a detailed plan which would be used to guide subsequent work.

  4. Studies during development: action phase 1

    The project is then handed over to development engineers responsible for undertaking the detailed design. The role of systems engineering during this stage is to assist engineers with any special studies that might be required during development and implementation.

  5. Current engineering: action phase 2

    This stage covers any follow-up work undertaken when the system is in use.