Systems Thinking Certification 2nd Segment Striving for Better Understanding

The second segment on the STIA Systems Thinking Certification course is titled Systems Thinking. The first, Web of Wonder, gave a general introduction to systems, some of their overall characteristics, described properties of what was termed ‘elements’ or what other have referred to as ‘stuff’ making up the systems, and means as to how systems could be perceived through models or as analogies to plays. This segment attempts to change how you think about the world, how you can think about changing that world starting with your community, a longer and deeper change and could be daunting.

The essential point to be made is that changes in perspective, both in what people think and, more importantly, how people think, multiplied by a significant number of people making up a community is a foundation for a paradigm shift within that community.

Community dissatisfaction can often be with the processes of complicatedness exhibited by many institutions, particularly by those of the local public sector. This form of entrenched institutional behavior is often unresponsive to public concerns and incapable of dealing with the challenges of a complex world.

First item, ‘What is a System?’. This, to my mind, is where many start to have difficulty wrapping their heads around systems thinking because the thinking can get pretty abstract. Regardless of how dissatisfied we may claim to be of the processes or systems of complicatedness in our institutions we find the ‘certainty’ reassuring and often choose the devil we know over the more suspect, unknown one. An operational definition of systems thinking is “A system is an entity that maintains its existence through the mutual interaction of its parts.”, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy.

Okay, it is not a concrete object but it is a concrete rule. No matter how many ways there are to think about the many different types of systems and regardless of the number of specific examples for each the rule applies. A system can be distilled down to just a few very simple concepts. Any further apparent complexity arises either from multiple interactions iterated over multiple time steps.

Mutual Interaction – A system is made up of parts, those parts interact with each other (they can also interact with the external environment) and the system itself exists via the mutual interaction of these parts.

The letters of this post if placed randomly would be incomprehensible but instead form words which combine into sentences, paragraphs, and the post itself. One could take out words or sentences out of context but the information conveyed by the entire post would be lost. One could also summarize or distill the ideas into a shorter or simpler form, retaining the basic ideas in the post but that is more like creating a model of the post.

Feedback – According to Wikipedia, “…is a process in which information about the past or the present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future. As part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop, the event is said to “feed back” into itself.”

The reaction to an initial action, whether within or outside the system, which in turn influences that initial action, is defined as feedback. This means that the parts of a system are not only connected in a structural or even mechanical sense but also in an organic sense in that the system can evolve. Feedback can be extended to involve the reader of this post.

Boundary – Setting the boundary on a system can be a more abstract exercise than discerning the mutual interactions between parts of a system. Boundary is defined to make explicit, from an operational perspective, what is part of the system and what is part of that system’s environment. Boundaries can also be used to explicitly define areas of responsibility among stakeholders within a community system when appropriate. Boundaries help determine what can be addressed and what needs to be addressed.

There is an obvious boundary for this blog post in terms of length but there is also a boundary on the number of new concepts that will be introduced.

Emergence – From the mutual interaction of the parts of a system arise characteristics which cannot be found in any of the individual parts of the system. These characteristics are said to emerge from the interaction of the parts within the system, and are responsible for the system’s behavior over time.

Once you have a deeper meaning and hopefully understanding of what a system is what then is systems thinking? How do we think about systems? There are two basic ways to think about systems.

Analysis – is essentially the scientific method of reductionism which means taking things apart, studying those parts, and then attempting to understand the whole from an understanding of its parts.

This works well in many situations that are complicated in nature or have an algorithmic aspect to them, questions of ‘how?’. It does not do as well in addressing complex situation or in addressing questions of ‘why?’ and if they begin to demonstrate increasing complicatedness then it can be detrimental to the organization’s intended purpose. This does not mean that analysis can be ignored. It is that you must also incorporate synthesis when studying systems.

Synthesis – Is endeavoring to understand something through the nature of its interactions within its larger environment. The rest of the course will basically be on developing this capacity.

Original Post: Systems Thinking 2nd Segment – Striving for a Better Understanding

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