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Systems engineering: Challenging complexity
Systems engineering: Challenging complexity

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4.4 The use of systems engineering in organisations: different organisational arrangements

Hall identified three different organisational arrangements that might provide a framework within which systems engineering work could take place within the organisation. The first of these, which he termed the departmental form and regarded as the lowest level of arrangement, was essentially a temporary team of specialists brought together, under the management of a team leader, to undertake a specific project. The team consisted of members of each of the specialist development departments and was what would now be called ‘multifunctional’. It does not seem that the team was co-located since ‘Problems uncovered by the team would [then] be brought back to the regular department for development’ (Hall, 1962, p. 14). Hall seems to have been proposing a form of weak matrix organisation, with team members responsible to their departmental head and to the team leader. The team was dissolved on project completion.

Hall's second structural arrangement was the task force. In this form the organisation was divided into separate projects with service departments that the projects could call on. This was probably an early form of project organisation. Hall's third form was a mixture of the two. In Bell Labs, systems engineering was established as a separate department, headed by a vice-president, and had equal status to the research department and the development departments.

As part of AT&T, Bell Labs was a noted pioneer in management methods, and it cannot be assumed that it was representative of the use of systems engineering at that time. Nevertheless, the approach gained acceptance rapidly, and a flavour of the type of problem to which it was applied can be gained from the case quoted in Box 8.

Box 8 The development of colour television

At the outset, the systems engineers concerned with this complex project were faced with a series of basic conditions and problems. They had to establish first that there was a need for colour television. Then it was necessary to determine that colour television was both technically possible and economically feasible.

Subsequently, they had to consider the environment in which colour television would start, grow, and continue. This was a most important consideration since, for practical reasons, black-and-white television came first, creating a large and growing public investment in black-and-white television receivers. In this environment, the systems engineers concluded that the new colour system must be compatible with the existing black-and-white service. In other words, the colour system must be so designed that colour broadcasts could be received in monochrome on existing black-and-white receivers, while the new colour receivers could receive black-and-white as well as colour broadcasts.

In retrospect, the choice of a compatible system seems utterly logical, but it was not so in the earlier development period. In fact, an incompatible system urged by some in the industry was approved as standard by the government regulatory body. This move later had to be undone before further progress could be made towards establishment of a practical colour television service.

Another broad problem for the systems engineering team was the definition of technical specifications. Involved in this question were such considerations as balancing the requirements of human vision for picture detail and colour characteristics against the potentials of apparatus performance and the availability of channel space for broadcasting stations.

In the latter case, early analysis indicated a need for basic advances in technology and invention to fit picture information into a narrower frequency band than could be achieved by earlier straightforward communication techniques. It was evident, too, that new apparatus would have to be invented or developed – particularly the picture tube – for reproducing colour images. There was a clear need as well for broad experience in propagating the radio signals and transmitting colour programs.

As the work moved beyond these initial determinations into the more practical stages, a host of more detailed problems had to be solved. These related to practical apparatus design, practical operation under broadcast service conditions, industry participation in determining the signal specifications for transmission, and approval of these specifications as standards by the Federal Communications Commission.

Finally, there came the problems of establishing the colour television service, expanding studios, interconnecting networks, installing transmitters, and creating programme production groups. In the final stage, too, arose the matters of selling colour to television advertisers, marketing the new receivers, and measuring public reaction.

Thus, from concept to fruition, the colour television system presents a ‘text-book’ example of the systems concept in action. All of these matters required full consideration by the systems engineering team, working toward the single defined objective.

Source: Engstrom (1957)

There were other pioneering and influential organisations that embraced systems engineering philosophy and practice. Notable among these were the US Department of Defense and NASA.

At about the same time, in the UK, the application of systems ideas was taking a different form. A group of consultants based at the Tavistock Institute in London developed the idea of looking at an organisation as what they termed a socio-technical system. Two of the main proponents of this approach stated:

In our earliest study of production systems [in coal mining] it became apparent that ‘so close is the relationship between the various aspects that the social and psychological can be understood only in terms of the detailed engineering facts and of the way the technological system as a whole behaves in the environment of the underground situation’.

An analysis of a technological system in these terms can produce a systematic picture of the tasks and task inter-relations required by the technological system.

(Emery and Trist, 1960)

The socio-technical systems approach can be summarised in three principles:

  • ‘… the basic unit for the design of socio-technical systems must itself be a socio-technical unit and have the characteristics of an open system.’

  • the second aspect of systems design was the recognition that the arrangement of parts, and the principles on which that arrangement were based, were important principles

  • the third principle was that ‘… higher levels of organization can be achieved only by the fuller use of the inherent properties of parts as co-determinants of positional values. […] what this principle means is, quite simply, that the best design for any productive system will be that which not only allows that the goals of any subsystem, any part, embody in some manner the overall system goals … and allows that any such part is self-managing to the point that they [sic] will seek to cope with external variances by firstly rearranging their own resources …’

(Emery, 1981, pp. 387–88)

The work of the researchers at the Tavistock Institute was immensely influential, finding application in a number of progressive European companies such as Philips and Volvo. Its focus was shop-floor production processes rather than products and, as the above list suggests, it was based on principles rather than a methodology.

A sustained attack on systems engineering came through the development of the ‘soft systems methodology’ introduced in Section 3. The Department of Systems Engineering at the University of Lancaster was founded in the mid-1960s with initial funding from Imperial Chemical Industries, then the UK's largest industrial company.

ICI was realising at that time that the operation of a petrochemical complex, in which the output from some plants is the input to others, entails engineering the whole as a single complex system. This was different from building and operating a plant to make a single product, and it seemed to some forward-looking managers in ICI's then Agricultural and Heavy Organic Chemicals Divisions that it would be useful if this kind of problem were being addressed by some university-based group: hence the gift to Lancaster.

(Checkland and Scholes, 1990, p. 16)

At the forefront of the development of systems ideas was Peter Checkland, who was recruited to investigate the application of systems engineering methodology, which he characterises as being concerned with developing a system to satisfy a defined need (Checkland and Scholes, 1990, p. 17) to less well-defined problems. This was found to be problematic, and in response Checkland developed a soft systems methodology. This was advocated as a ‘broad approach to examining problem situations in a way that would lead to decisions on action at the level of both “what” and “how” ’ (Checkland and Scholes, 1990, p. 18). Checkland argues that ill-defined problems are the most common situation faced by managers and that they need first to determine what needs to be done. ‘This means that naming a system to meet a need and denning its objectives precisely – the starting point of systems engineering – is a special case.’ (Checkland and Scholes, 1990, p. 17)