‘Systems Thinking’: just another jargon ‘brand’ vocabulary?

Comments on a discussion on a LinkedIn “Systems Thinking” Forum

Looking at the impressive effort of a group of ‘Systems Thinkers’ on the Linked-In forum “Systems Thinking World” to respond to the call by the UN Secretary General for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ from one or two steps removed, it is interesting and instructive to note certain underlying assumptions that govern it — and that may have to be re-examined.

The first assumption is that the assessment by the UN Secretary is justified, by the threats and dangers of current developments, to call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action’.

The ‘revolutionary’ statement there is remarkable in itself, and should have caused some critical examination. Does it assume that past and current institutions and approaches have been fundamentally wrong — and that this might include the very institution he is heading? Would it suggest that these structures and approaches should be subject to ‘revolutionary’ reassessment, thinking — and action? What would such action possibly look like?

The admirable decision on the part of the group of (‘self-defined’?) systems thinkers to respond to the call with more than some superficial or standard blog comments must surely be seen as an indication that these thinkers are convinced that they can contribute something of value to the problem. One naive interpretation would be that they feel able to produce revolutionary thinking if not action that would solve the problems.

How would a systems approach (if this slightly outdated term is still acceptable) go about doing this? The textbook answer suggests that the systems analyst would examine the system, meaning: to identify its components, the relationships between the components (some views are speaking of components as ‘stocks’ and the relationships as ‘flows’ between them, and to first describe these entities and relationships: to ‘understand’ the system. The analysis and understanding might mean to develop ‘models’, preferably ‘mathematical models’ of the system structure, and to carry out calculations and simulations of system behavior, testing the models to see if the model behavior matches observed behavior in the real system. The understanding then is supposed to enable the analyst to identify critical system components where appropriate intervention might produce desired results. It is always a little unclear whether the systems analyst /thinker is able and/or entitled to define what system behavior (outcomes) are desirable, or where these determinations would come from. So has the effort of 1150 systems thinkers posts done this? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. There is not only a strange dichotomy of responses: On the one hand a willingness, even eagerness to pronounce basic conditions that must be met, achieved, before meaningful system transformation (which is almost universally seen as desirable, while the nature of the transformation is hotly disputed) can be attempted. Most of those had to do with the thinking, attitudes, beliefs, values and ethics of mankind (not the systems thinkers). On the other hand, one could observe a reluctance to engage in the development, and recommendation of more coherent and detailed system structure designs — with the argument that ‘first, we must understand the system’. Instead of such proper systems approach, there were a host of contributions providing links. Links to writings: reports, books, blogs, talks (videos), studies about the subject, all with their own recommendations, and links to reports of actual initiatives and projects that are already being undertaken, that represent ‘change’ from current normative practices and processes. If the contributor went as far as attaching a recommendation to such links beyond pointing out that it is an ‘interesting’ effort or view, it was inevitably an explicit or implied suggestion that ‘more’ such actions should be encouraged. The basis of such recommendations, interestingly, was rarely a demonstration of resulting superior system performance — according to a valid measure of performance — but the insistence that the effort is guided by valid , desirable principles. (Though the call for examining and clarifying principles was a frequent one as well). So the discussion did not — as might be expected just on the basis of the fact that none of the participants nor the group as a whole was paid and provided the time and resources to actually conduct a proper analysis — produce any recommendations for revolutionary solutions to the concerns of the Secretary General.

A closer, less naively optimistic and more sober assessment of what such a discussion could produce, might focus on the ‘understanding the system’ precondition for action. Again, since no actual collection of system behavior data was carried out (searching the internet for reports and activities by others, however admirable and certainly useful, does not qualify as such) recommendations for system understanding could only be based on the judgment of the participants, participants whose judgment presumably is honed by training and experience with such work. So far, no effort has been made to systematically examine the 1150 posts to arrive at reliable patterns (consensus?) of insight by the participants, much less for looking at how such insights might translate into recommendations for solutions — even for subjecting solution proposals to rigorous systems analysis testing. The current state of the discussion seems focused on developing a system for organizing, classifying the material from all the posts and links, and relating the items to topics such as the UN list of threats to survival. Data mining, data clustering, “synergising of data into “bubbles” of information much like the synergisms than seem to appear at the boundary conditions of chaos” are seriously being proposed as vehicles for culling meaning and sense (solutions?) from the 1150+ posts. The few actually new and creative ideas that have been proposed in the course of the discussion are studiously ignored in the resulting compilation of data — because they haven’t come from links and can’t be referenced…

A skeptical observer may therefore be justified invoicing some doubts about the effectiveness and usefulness of ‘Systems Thinking’. Indeed, one feature observed in the discussion was the preponderance of different vocabularies used not only by the studies and reports in the list of links and references — especially commercial companies offering management or analysis services seem to feel that a separate ‘brand’ terminology is a necessary requirement for competitiveness in the market — but also by participants in the discussion itself. This proliferation of terms and associated acronyms created considerable misunderstanding and confusion, and the conversation is in many places entirely unintelligible to any outsider who might be straying by looking for wisdom in this group. The “Systems Thinking World” is very far from having achieved a common conceptual frame of reference . This was the very central goal of the first systems thinkers in the middle of the last century: to find a common way of talking about the similarities in the structures studied by very different disciplines so that they could be represented in the new analysis tools of the computer. It raises the heretical question: is systems thinking, systems talk itself just a ‘brand’ phenomenon and vocabulary, and as such spawning ever more jargon brands by each new thinker? If so, it is little wonder that the impressive effort of the Systems Thinker discussion has — at least so far — not been able to produce any interesting, convincing results.

2 Responses to “‘Systems Thinking’: just another jargon ‘brand’ vocabulary?”

  1. 1 Nicolas Stampf May 23, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Nice analysis (!) of which I agree a lot. I tried to have participants of STW decide on something (at least on some easy responses to simple questions) but each time it ended in debates over vocabulary of some details it seemed I overlooked (or others that commented on my initial question). Probably a consequence of the very large areas of interest of systems thinkers.

    Funnily, when I asked a somewhat complicated question, I got rather simple responses (I asked them to devise a question whose answer would inform us as to what could be done to raise public interest in systems thinking).

    Now, isn’t this whole blog post another rant about what you’re precisely commenting? 🙂

  2. 2 abbeboulah May 23, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Nicolas, thanks for the comment. You are right, there is a reluctance to get entangled in the task of reaching an agreement — I think understandable, since it would take more work — combined with the proliferation of brand names and jargon that is reaching babylonian dimensions. It is easier to just comment and google more references; and that is quite worthwhile too, besides the very necessary action of letting off steam… We’ll see; I think it will take the effort of a few people to hammer out some coherent summary statement from all this; even if more general agreement is not likely. My sense is that the only thing the group might yet agree upon would be a package of process suggestions for how to get there. Whether ST is a superior approach to get better results more quickly is not well demonstrated by the now 1300+ post discussion.

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