Systems is not a subject like the strength of materials or mathematics; rather, it is a way of thinking – a way of tackling problems. The three important features: holons, connectivity and a new view of process are embedded in the axioms. The systems thinker looks for a hierarchy of levels of interacting processes to build into a process model. One of the simple tools we use to do that is mind mapping. Looking deeper into the philosophy of the ideas behind systems thinking we have formulated some corollaries of the axioms and some principles for problem solving.
In overview systems thinking is joined-up thinking – getting the right information (what) to the right people (who) at the right time (when) for the right purpose (why) in the right form (where) and in the right way (how).
In order to get an integrated view of the connections between these major paramters we model the relationship as a process of
why = how (who, what, where, when)
This is not intended as a deterministic formula as used in engineering science – rather the intention is to show how questions why are the potential that drive the flow of change in the parameters who, what, where, when as operated on by methods how.
The first practical point in using systems thinking is to understand that success is all about collaboration. Consequently the first question is to find a clear and shared version of what success looks like (and that is a why attribute). All stakeholders (who attributes) need to understand and agree the purpose at every stage even if the definition of success changes over time. In order to clarify interdependencies (what attributes) between differing purposes it is imperative to address the questions why before how (the method/technique attributes) and to find ways to collaborate to add value for all.
Second, stakeholders should agree to admit that sometimes they do not know – there may be unforeseen and unrecognised sources of uncertainty (what attributes). This can be the most difficult part of the conversation.
The third aspect of systems thinking is to understand project scope and remit – the system boundaries (contextual where attributes). Systems thinkers do this by thinking through the necessary and sufficient conditions for the success of any process, understanding processes as holons that are both complete in themselves and the basis of higher level activity. This gives a new logical understanding of what we mean by practical wisdom and rigour.
One last point is that we recognise that systems is an overused word with many meanings and uses. Used loosely, it just refers to any group of connected objects.
Here we are trying to be more precise. In systems theory a system is a complex whole with a set of interacting parts as a connected network or mechanism that has emergent properties that explain why the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. A hard system is a physical one that can be explained in terms of action and reaction. As discussed in the section of underpinning philosophy a hard system is always embedded in a soft system involving people with action, reaction and intention. System identification is about deciding what is to be part of the system and what is in the meta-system of context.