Systems ideas

I became interested in systems ideas as a result of my experiences as a manager in the 1970s but, as I encountered authors like Fritjof Capra and Ilya Prigogine in the 1980s, my interest expanded. I studied systems ideas with the Open University and Lancaster University, going on later to work as a tutor within the Open University Systems Department.

Quite separately, my wife and I were interested in healthy eating and this led to a general interest in green issues for which systems thinking is ideally suited.

When I became a management consultant, I had many opportunities to explore systems ideas with the individuals, groups and organisations with whom I worked. One fruit of these explorations was an A2 diagram of the development of systems ideas which is here made available within an A1 PDF.

Some systems ideas

The human system

Appreciative systems

The former civil servant, Sir Geoffrey Vickers, argued that an important aspect of human systems was their ‘appreciative system’ — the collection of beliefs and values which influenced what they thought was significant and how they would respond to a new event and idea. He argued that this system could evolve depending on the decisions that a human being made in response to an event or idea.

‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ systems

Peter Checkland coined the term ‘soft’ system to describe human activity systems which he considered could not be subject to the same types of enquiry as an engineering system and developed Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) in order to research such systems. I prefer to distinguish ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ systems in terms of whether there are any value conflicts surrounding them. If there are no value conflicts in respect of a human activity system, then a ‘hard’ systems approach, such as that outlined in ‘Making things happen,’ can be used.

Dimensions of gender in systems thinking

While a member of the ‘Gender issues in systems thinking group’ in the Yorkshire Region of the Open University, I contributed to an attempt to develop some material for the Open University’s systems thinking courses which, as far as I am aware, was never used.

Using diagrams in systems thinking

Diagrams have been used by many systems thinkers but I became frustrated by the rather indisciplined way in which diagrams were often being used and, in conjunction with Wendy Fisher, a colleague at the Open University, developed a framework for using diagrams in systems thinking which was subsequently published by the Open University.