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)

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Systems thinking on “solutions” = to improve the problem situation (Hicks, 2004)

25 October 2010

The first stage in an SSM (Soft System Methodology) investigation involves the careful observation of the problem situation with all its intricate details, and the recording of all that is perceived. This involves collecting qualitative data – such as attitudes and opinions concerning the problem situation, including reactions to our intervention in matters (as external consultants) – as well as quantitative data, and recording this in the form of a “picture”. In this way we try to capture as much as possible of the richness of the real situation. Following this, the essence of these observations is encapsulated in brief descriptions of human activity systems that we hope may later provide relevant insights into the problem situation. Then models of these systems that are consistent with the different viewpoints expressed within the descriptions are drawn. Finally, several comparisons are made of the models with the observations of the real-world situation, which are used in a discussion with the problem owners to suggest systemically desirable and culturally feasible changes that it is hoped will lead to improvements in the problem situation. Note that, unlike many other problem-solving processes, SSM does not explicitly attempt to identify problems, but through its iterative “learning” process it is intended to make changes to the problem situation such that whatever the problem were they no longer exist.

(Hicks, 2004, p. 259f)


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)


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)