Systems have always been a topic of interest to me ever since studying sociology because it changed the way I look at and understand my environment. To further educate myself on Systems, Systems Theory enthusiast Jeff Lindsay recommended “Ackoff’s Best“, by Russel L. Ackoff. This book is a compilation of Dr. Ackoff’s writings on management and is divided into four sections: Systems, Planning, Applications, and Science.
So let me begin by asking the question “What is systems thinking?” Systems thinking is one of many ways to understanding an object. This object can be a physical object, an institution, an idea, etc. Before I get too specific, let me introduce another concept in which we will use to contrast: machinist thinking, or analysis. Analysis is the act of breaking an object apart into smaller pieces to better understand it. It is believed you can better understand an object if you understand the parts that make it up. Systems thinking, on the other hand, is a way to understand something by seeing how an object fits into a larger picture. Although both concepts may seem contradictory, they are actually complimentary because both describe the same object, but with different points of view.
So now that we have introduced the idea of Systems thinking, it begs the question “What is a system?” A system consists of dependent elements that interact with each other to make up and contribute to a greater whole. These elements alone cannot function and the system without one or more of the elements cannot properly function.
Confusing? Let’s look at some real life scenarios. A general example can be project management. Each person in the project has a specific task that leads to an outcome or results. However, if one person leaves the project, the overall outcome lacks the results from that one person’s work. Further, a person’s work alone cannot produce the full outcome of the project.
To contrast this scenario, let’s go back to analysis. If you’re going to analyze the project, you’re going to take a top-bottom approach. First you look at the goal of the project. Next, you’ll look at the tasks that need to be done and analyze how they’re performed. A systems thinker doesn’t care about how a task is performed, because the task has been delegated to another element(person) within the system(project). Since systems thinking only cares about managing the project, we’re concerned about the outcome of the project (the bigger picture), not how the smaller tasks are performed.
A more specific and current example can be the “console-wars.” In my opinion, Sony had a machinist (analysis) approach to the design of the PS3 while Nintendo and Microsoft had more of a systems approach to the design of their respective consoles. Sony concentrated more on the specifics of the hardware and the performance of the console. Nintendo and Microsoft on the other hand concentrated on a much larger picture. Nintendo concentrated more on the overall user experience and interactivity with the console. This is seen through their original and revolutionary controllers that requires physical interaction. Microsoft on the other hand wanted to get into the media center market, so they introduced media center features (now including IPTV!). The only thing the PS3 really had going for it was the power of the system, but even that somewhat failed due to cost and time constraints. If we look at the demand for the respective consoles, the system thinkers got the upper hand.
As shown, systems theory has a practical use in the way we look at objects in our everyday lives. It’ll be interesting to see how I’ll interpret things as I continue reading more about systems and systems theory.