System thinking, problem solving as learning (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

Regarded as a whole, the soft systems methodology is a learning system which uses systems ideas to formulate basic mental acts of four kinds: perceiving (stages 1 and 2), predicating (stages 3 and 4), comparing (stage 5), and deciding on action (stage 6). The output of the methodology is thus very different from the output of hard systems engineering: it is learning which leads to a decision to take certain actions, knowing that this will lead not to “the problem” being now “solved” but to a changed situation and new learning …

Overall, the stages of the methodology for work on ill-defined problems (which do not have to be followed in fixed sequence) constitute a learning system, a system which finds things out in a situation which at last one person regards as problematic. For ill-structured problems involving a number of people the very idea of “a problem” which can be “solved” has to be replaced by the idea of dialectical debate, by the idea of problem-solvlng as a continuous, never-ending process.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 17)

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System thinking on “solutions” (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

Firstly, unstructured problems though”recognizable”, cannot be “defined”. Secondly, in problems in human activity systems history always changes the agenda. The contents of such systems are so multivarious, and the influences to which they are subject so numerous that the passage of time always modifies the perception of the problem (such problems really do sometimes “go away”!). Such perceptions of problems are always subjective, and they change with time. This is something which the research had to take into account. In fact a number of studies have been completed which are successful in the sense that they are judged so by both client and systems analyst but in which “the problem” was never defined throughout the whole course of the work.

In formal terms the research proceeds on the basis of the following definition of the word “problem”.

A problem relating to real-world manifestations of human activity systems is a condition characterised by a sense of mismatch, which eludes precise definition, between what is perceived to be actuality and what is perceived might become actuality.

In the early stages of the research it was accepted that whereas the definition of structured problems implies what will be accepted as “a solution”, unstructured problems – the concern of the research – must not be pressed into a structured form but must somehow be tackled in the absence of any firm definition of them. They are conditions to be alleviated rather than problems to be solved.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 155)


Open and closed systems – to maintain a system (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

In treating the living organism as a whole, as a system, rather than simply as a set of components together with relationships between components, von Bertalanffy drew attention to the important distinction between systems which are open to their environment and those which are closed. He defined an open system (1940) as one having import and export of material. More generally, between an open system and its environment there may be exchange of materials, energy, and information. Organisms, he pointed out, are unlike closed systems in which unchanging components settle in a state of equilibrium; organisms can achieve a steady state which depends upon continuous exchanges with an environment. What is more, the steady state may be thermodynamically unlikely, creating and/or maintaining a high degree of order, where closed systems have no path to travel but that towards increasing disorder (high entropy). In a hierarchy of systems such as that represented by the sequence from cell organelle to organism, or, in general, in any hierarchy of open systems, maintenance of the hierarchy will entail a set of processes in which there is communication of information for purposes of regulation or control.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 82f)


System def (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

The systems paradigm is concerned with wholes and their properties. It is holistic, but not in the usual (vulgar) sense of taking in the whole; systems concepts are concerned with wholes and their hierarchical arrangement rather than with the whole.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 14)


Checkland on problem solving as learning (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

There are no absolute positions to be reached in the attempt by men to understand he world in which they find themselves: new experience may in the future refute present conjectures. So the work itself must be regarded as an on-going system of a particular kind: a learning system which will continue to develop ideas, to test them out in practice, and to learn from the experience gained.

(Checkland, 1981, p. xii)


Problem def (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

By “problem” is meant not the puzzle, paradox or conundrum which exercises the philosopher, but simply any situation in which there is perceived to be a mismatch between “what is” and what might or could or should be.

(Checkland, 1981, p. xii)


Systems thinking (Checkland, 1981)

18 October 2010

Answers to the question: What is a systems approach? tend now to be of the kind: an approach to a problem which takes a broad view, which tries to take all aspects into account, which concentrates on interactions between the different parts of the problem. (Checkland, 1981, p. 5)

Systems thinking is about a particular way of thinking of the world, one which although broadly a part of the science movement, uses some concepts which are complementary to those of classical natural science. This book is about systems thinking, and about the use of a particular set of ideas, systems ideas, in trying to understand the world’s complexity. The central concept ‘system’ embodies the idea of a set of elements connected together which form a whole, this showing properties which are properties of the whole, rather than properties of its component parts. (The taste of water, for example, is a property of the substance water, not of the hydrogen and oxygen which combine to form it.) The phrase ‘systems thinking’ implies thinking about the world outside ourselves, and doing so by means of the concept ‘system’ … Systems thinking makes conscious use of the particular concept of wholeness captured in the word ‘system’, to order our thoughts. ‘Systems practice’ then implies using the product of this thinking to initiate and guide actions we take in the world. (Checkland, 1981, p. 3) […]

Science provides us with the phrase ‘a scientific approach’ just as systems provides ‘a systems approach’. Both are meta-disciplines, and both embody a particular way of regarding the world. The scientific outlook assumes that the world is characterized by natural phenomena which are ordered and regular, not capricious, and this has led to an effective way of finding out about the regularities – the so-called ‘laws of Nature’. The systems outlook, accepting the basic propositions of science, for it is a part of the scientific tradition, assumes that the world contains structured wholes (which include soap bubbles, slow-worms and social systems) which can maintain their identity under a certain range of conditions and which exhibit certain general principles of ‘wholeness’. Systems thinkers are interested in elucidating these principles, believing that this will contribute usefully to our knowledge of the world.

The best understanding of the new subject comes from examining the history of the scientific method. There we observe that the idea of connected wholes emerges as something worth studying as a result of some intractable problems which defeat the classical scientific method, with its emphasis on reducing the situation observed in order to increase the chance that experimentally reproducible observations will be obtained.(Checkland, 1981, s. 6)