Systems Thinking


Mark William Johnson, Loet Leydesdorff (2013)

Beer's Viable System Model and Luhmann's Communication Theory: 'Organizations' from the Perspective of Meta?Games

Beyond the descriptions of 'viability’ provided by Beer's Viable System Model, Maturana's autopoietic theory or Luhmann's communication theory, questions remain as to what ‘viability’ means across different contexts. How is ‘viability’ affected by the Internet and the changing information environments in a knowledge?based economy? For Luhmann, social systems like businesses are coordination systems that do not ‘live’ as viable systems but operate because they relieve human beings from environmental complexity. We situate Beer's concept of viability with Luhmann's through analyzing the way that ‘decisions’ shape organizations in an information environment. Howard's (1971) meta?game analysis enables us to consider the ‘viable system’ as an ‘agent system’ producing utterances as moves in a discourse game within the context of its information environment. We discuss how this approach can lead to an accommodation between Beer's practical orientation and Luhmann's sociological critique where the relationship between viability, decision and information can be further explored.

Joe McKendrick (2017)

Enterprise architecture and business planning: now joined at the hip

Thanks to cloud, lines of business are increasingly engaging in technical activity. But without deep architectural expertise, things could get very messy -- and expensive.

Rowan Conway, Jeff Masters and Jake Thorold (2017)

From Design Thinking to Systems Change

Achieving change in a world ever more defined by complexity is difficult. We face an array of complex ‘wicked’ problems, from an ageing population to climate change to intergenerational cycles of poverty. It can often seem that these challenges are insurmountable and that we lack the ability to make meaningful change. To find opportunity in challenge will require reimagining the ways that we currently think about innovation and design. The narrative around a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ risks narrowing the focus of innovation to technology which would locate innovation-led growth solely in the outputs of universities and research institutes, or technology clusters like Cambridge’s Silicon Fen. While these are a vital piece of the UK’s innovation jigsaw, they are not the whole picture. Enterprises large and small across sectors and regions need to also be part of the innovation mix. The UK has long been at the forefront of design, a rich heritage that permeates a diverse range of sectors. Design thinking methodologies are deployed in service, policy and governance design across sectors, not merely product design. Harnessing the power of this creative capacity will be crucial to generating the innovative solutions required to tackle pressing social challenges. But design thinking alone will not be enough. The core insight of this paper is that solving our most complex problems will require augmenting design thinking with a systems thinking approach as the basis for action. While design thinking has proved itself to be successful in the realm of creating new products and services, the challenge is how to support innovations to enter and actively shape the complex systems that surround wicked social challenges. Great design doesn’t always generate impact. As we show in this report, innovations attempting to scale and create systemic change often hit barriers to change, sending them catapulting back to square one. We call this the ‘system immune response’. The particular barriers will differ dependent on context, but might be cultural, regulatory, personalitydriven or otherwise. This report argues that innovations for the public good are susceptible to the system immune response because there is a deficit of systems thinking in design methodologies. This report introduces a new RSA model of ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ as a way of marrying design and systems thinking. At its most simple, this is a method of developing a deep understanding of the system being targeted for impact and then identifying the most promising opportunities to change based on that analysis – the entrepreneurial part. By appreciating factors like power dynamics, competing incentives and cultural norms, innovators can prepare themselves for barriers to change, and find the entrepreneurial routes around them to successfully affect system change.

OECD (2017)

Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change

Complexity is a core feature of most policy issues today and in this context traditional analytical tools and problem-solving methods no longer work. This report, produced by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, explores how systems approaches can be used in the public sector to solve complex or “wicked” problems . Consisting of three parts, the report discusses the need for systems thinking in the public sector.

Roger C. Conant and W. Ross Ashby (1970)

Every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system

The design of a complex regulator often includes the making of a model of the system to be regulated. The making of such a model has hitherto been regarded as optional, as merely one of many possible ways. In this paper a theorem is presented which shows, under very broad conditions, that any regulator that is maximally both successful and simple must be isomorphic with the system being regulated. (The exact assumptions are given.) Making a model is thus necessary. The theorem has the interesting corollary that the living brain, so far as it is to be successful and efficient as a regulator for survival, must proceed, in learning, by the formation of a model (or models) of its environment.

W. Ross Ashby (1956)

An Introduction to Cybernetics

Cybernetics is here defined as "the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine"-in a word, as the art of steersmanship; and this book will interest all who are interested in cybernetics, communication theory and methods for regulation and control. W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. His two books, "Design for a Brain" and "An Introduction to Cybernetics," were landmark works. They introduced exact and logical thinking into the nascent discipline and were highly influential. Contents include: What is new -- Change -- The Determinate Machine -- The Machine with Input -- Stability -- The Black Box -- Quantity of Variety -- Transmission of Variety -- Incessant Transmission -- Regulation in Biological Systems -- Requisite Variety -- The Error-controlled Regulator -- Regulating the Very Large System -- Amplifying Regulation

W. Ross Ashby (1958)

Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems

Recent work on the fundamental processes of regulation in biology (Ashby, 1956) has shown the importance of a certain quantitative relation called the law of requisite variety. After this relation had been found, we appreciated that it was related to a theorem in a world far removed from the biological—that of Shannon on the quantity of noise or error that could be removed through a correction-channel (Shannon and Weaver, 1949; theorem 10). In this paper I propose to show the relationship between the two theorems, and to indicate something of their implications for regulation, in the cybernetic sense, when the system to be regulated is extremely complex. Since the law of requisite variety uses concepts more primitive than those used by entropy, I will start by giving an account of that law.

Daryl Kulak and Hong Li (2017)

The Journey to Enterprise Agility: Systems Thinking and Organizational Legacy.

This is the first book to seriously address the disconnection between nimble Agile teams and other groups in the enterprise, including enterprise architecture, the program management office (PMO), human resources, and even business executives. When an enterprise experiments with practice improvements, software development teams often jump on board with excitement, while other groups are left to wonder how they will fit in. We address how these groups can adapt to Agile teams. More importantly, we show how many Agile teams cause their own problems, damaging scalability and sustainability, by requiring special treatment, and by failing to bridge the gaps between themselves and other groups. We call this phenomenon Agile illth. Adopting a set of best practices is not enough. All of us, Agile teams and the corporate groups, must change our intentions and worldviews to be more compatible with the success of the enterprise. Join us on the journey to enterprise agility. It is a crooked path, fraught with danger, confusion and complexity. It is the only way to reach the pinnacles we hope to experience in the form of better business value delivered faster for less cost.

Steven Alter: Work System Basics

The following summary is based on Work System Theory: Overview of Core Concepts, Extensions, and Challenges for the Future, which was published in 2013 in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems. The summary covers the following topics: Work system definition and special cases, Work system framework, Work system life cycle model, Work system method, and Work system metamodel (an more detailed version of the work system framework).


Exploring Designs for a Process Prioritisation Method

Jens Ohlsson (doctoral dissertation): Process prioritisation is an ill-structured and complex problem that remains a mystery phase in business process management (BPM) research. More explorative approaches are called upon to tackle process management problems, to facilitate process innovation and to design new processes in dynamic environments. This dissertation aims (i) to design and evaluate a Prioritisation and Categorisation Method (PCM) for addressing process prioritisation problems; and (ii) to explore process innovation by disruptive technologies.

Ilia Bider, Erik Perjons, Mturi Elias, and Paul Johannesson (2016)

A fractal enterprise model and its application for business development

This paper suggests a new type of enterprise models called fractal enterprise models (FEM), with accompanying methodological support for their design. FEM shows interconnections between the business processes in an enterprise by connecting them to the assets they use and manage. Assets considered in the model could be tangible (buildings, heavy machinery, etc.) and intangible (employees, business process definitions, etc.). A FEM model is built by using two types of patterns called archetypes: a process-assets archetype that connects a process with assets used in it, and an asset-processes archetype that connects an asset with processes aimed to manage this asset (e.g., hiring people, or servicing machinery). Alternating these patterns creates a fractal structure that makes relationships between various parts of the enterprise explicit. FEM can be used for different purposes, including finding a majority of the processes in an enterprise and planning business change or radical transformation. Besides discussing FEM and areas of its usage, the paper presents results from a completed project in order to test the practical usefulness of FEM and its related methodological support.

Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action

Dubberly Design Office Projects Clients Concept Maps Models Articles About Contact ddo Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro: Working for decades as both theorist and teacher, Ranulph Glanville came to believe that cybernetics and design are two sides of the same coin. Working as both practitioners and teachers, the authors present their understanding of Glanville and the relationships between cybernetics and design. We believe cybernetics offers a foundation for 21st-century design practice. We offer this rationale:

John Gøtze and Anders Jensen-Waud (2013)

Beyond Alignment: Applying Systems Thinking in Architecting Enterprises

This book is a comprehensive reader about how enterprises can apply systems thinking in their enterprise architecture practice, for business transformation and for strategic execution. The book's contributors find that systems thinking is a valuable way of thinking about the viable enterprise and how to architect it. Edited by John Gøtze and Anders Jensen-Waud, the book features contributions from 32 international experts in the fields of systems thinking and enterprise architecture. Contributors: Adrian Campell, Alex Conn, Dennis Sherwood, Don deGuerre, Erik Perjons, Gene Bellinger, Harold Bud Lawson, Ilia Bider, Jack Ring, James Lapalme, James Martin, Jan Dietz, Jan Hoogervorst, Janne J. Korhonen, John Morecroft, Leo Laverdure, Linda Clod Præstholm, Mesbah Khan, Mikkel Stokbro Holst, Namkyu Park, Olov Östberg, Olusola O. Oduntan, Patrick Hoverstadt, Per Johannisson, Per-Arne Persson, Peter Sjølin, Rasmus Fischer Frost, Sally Bean, Tom Graves, and Tue Westmark Steensen.



VSMod is the software created to facilitate the application of the Organizational Cybernetics and more specifically the Viable System Model to the design or diagnosis of organizations from the point of view of their viability. VSMod helps, in first place, to design a new organization, by providing the means to create its structure and to guide the designer during the process of identification of the functions required for its viability, as well as the communication channels required by those functions to work properly. The other fundamental use is to help the diagnosis of any organization from the point of view of its viability.

Conway's Law

Mel Conway: In 1967 I submitted a paper called How Do Committees Invent? to the Harvard Business Review. HBR rejected it on the grounds that I had not proved my thesis. I then submitted it to Datamation, the major IT magazine at that time, which published it April 1968. The text of the paper is here.

Conway's Law Revisited: Successfully Aligning Enterprise Architecture

David M. Dikel, David Kane: For investments in enterprise architecture to pay off, they must be based on a clear understanding of the organization. Whatever approach you choose to implement your enterprise strategy, an understanding of Conway's Law can help to make your alignment efforts successful.

Melvin E. Conway (1968)

How do Committees Invent?

The original article defining Conway's Law, which states: Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce system which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

MIT Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges

Addressing Complexity and Innovation in Healthcare, Education, and Product Development, October 24-25, 2011, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Across industries and government organizations around the globe, a systems-based approach is increasingly seen as critical to addressing the urgent and complex problems we face today. For many organizations, the question is not whether to employ systems thinking, but how to apply it before it is too late. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's annual Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges, sponsored by the System Design and Management Program, will focus on addressing complexity and innovation in healthcare, education, and product development. MIT has carefully chosen speakers not only for their expertise in addressing complex systems challenges, but also for their role in leading the implementation of the day-to-day tasks that produce results.

Harold 'Bud' Lawson (2010)

A Journey Through the Systems Landscape

Systems are everywhere and affect us daily in our private and professional lives. We all use the word system to describe something that is essential but often abstract, complex and even mysterious. However, learning to utilize system concepts as first class objects as well as methodologies for systems thinking and systems engineering provides a basis for removing the mystery and moving towards mastery even for complex systems. This journey through the Systems Landscape has been developed to promote learning to think and act in terms of systems. A unique aspect is the introduction of concrete system semantics provided as a "system survival kit" and based upon a limited number of concepts and principles as well as a mental model called the system-coupling diagram. This discipline independent presentation assists individuals and is essential for building a learning organization that can utilize a systems approach to achieving its enterprise goals. The eight chapters are presented as stops along a journey that successively build system knowledge. Each chapter terminates with a Knowledge Verification section that provides questions and exercises for individuals and groups. Case studies reflecting the utilization of the system related concepts, principles and methodologies are provided as chapter interludes.

Peter Senge (2006)

The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization: Second edition

Peter Senge, founder and director of the Society for Organisational Learning and senior lecturer at MIT, has found the means of creating a 'learning organisation'. In The Fifth Discipline, he draws the blueprints for an organisation where people expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nutured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are contually learning together. The Fifth Discipline fuses these features together into a coherent body of theory and practice, making the whole of an organisation more effective than the sum of its parts.


Forget your people - real leaders act on the system

John Seddon: A real story of a curious public sector leader, a pugilist and a contrarian, who chose to do the right thing and design his system entirely around the needs of the customer - against the advice of inspectors. What happened? Costs fell, morale soared and best practice got better.


System Failure, 2nd edition

The current model of public policy making is no longer right for a government that has set itself the challenge of delivery. Improvements are driven by central policy initiatives which assume a direct relationship between action and outcome - but this is a false assumption. Public services are complex adaptive systems which are subject to the law of unintended consequences, so intervention can make problems worse. That is why the carrot-and-stick approach to reform which links increased funding to tougher performance targets will not succeed in the long run. Renowned systems thinker Jake Chapman describes how the government's energetic attempts to force change from the centre are becoming counter-productive. The alternative is government based on continuous learning. This is increasingly important as the impact of communication technology and other accelerating social trends offers a moving target for public service reformers. Systems thinking offers a better model for change in complex organisations such as the health service or the railway network. Case studies provided by the NHS Confederation show the unintended and often bizarre consequences of introducing new policies without considering their impact on the whole system.


Systems thinking in the public sector

Lean Enterprise Research Centre was recently commissioned to undertake an evaluation of systems thinking in the public sector on behalf of the Wales Audit Office, as part of its programme focusing on efficiency and the constrained public sector financial environment. The Wales Audit Office is working with public sector partners on innovation and efficiency, which the research will inform. It involved three public sector organisations, in which systems thinking has been deployed and each was assessed in terms of the results that have been achieved so far, as well as investigating the improvement approach used.

Claudio Ciborra (2001)

From Control to Drift: The Dynamics of Corporate Information Infrastructures

Firms are investing considerable resources to create large information infrastructures able to fulfil their varied information-processing and communication needs. The more the drive towards globalization, the more such infrastructures become crucial.The 'wiring' of the corporation should be done in a way that is aligned with its corporate strategy-it is global and generates value. This book presents six in-depth case studies of large corporations-AstraZeneca, IBM, Norsk Hydro, Roche, SKF, and Statoil-which offer a rich picture of the main issues involved in information infrastructure implementation and management. Far from being a linear process, the use of the information infrastructure is in fact an open-ended process, in many cases out of control. Current management models and consulting advice do not seem to be able to cope with such a business landscape. This book provides the reader with interpretations and theories that can foster a different understanding and approach.

Claudio Ciborra (2004)

The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems

How to use information and communication technologies in organizations and how to manage their impact has been the traditional domain of computer specialists and management consultants. The former have offered multiple ways to represent, model, and build applications that would streamline and accelerate data flows, while the latter have been busy linking the deployment of ICT's with strategy and the redesign of business processes. This book takes quite a different approach altogether. In a series of essays, Ciborra uses a string of metaphors--such as Bricolage, Krisis, Gestall, etc. -- to place a concern for human existence and our working lives at the center of the study of ICTs and their diffusion in business organizations, and looks at our practices, improvizations, and moods. He draws upon his own extensive research and consulting experience to throw a fresh light on some key questions: why are systems ambiguous? Why do they not give us more time to do things? Is there strategic value in tinkering even in high-tech settings? What is the value of age-old practices in dealing with new technologies? What is the role of moods and affections in influencing action and cognition? Labyrinths of Information presents an alternative to the current approaches in management, software-engineering, and strategy that will be of interest to all those concerned with the deployment of ICTs in society today -- whether as users, managers, designers, policy makers or the merely curious.

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