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  1. Systems and Wholeness

A system, is a whole. It could be a whole anything; a hot water system, an educational system, a computer system, or a troop of baboons. The system is made from many parts which interact in complex ways, so in addition to parts, a system must also have structure. It is the structure which justifies the parts belonging to the whole and dictates the way that the parts can interact.

"A place for everything and everything in its place," as Mrs. Beeton said.

  1. Dealing with Wholes

One can distinguish two very broad areas in which systems thinking is useful. The one relates to the use of complex equipment, the other to complex social situations.

Equipment is no longer well behaved and compliant. It often fails not only as a result of natural wear and tear, and the customary ageing that accrues through use; equipment is now 'failing' as a consequence of inherent structural complexity. Such is the multitude of parts and the interconnectedness of complex systems, that they appear to have been endowed with a 'life of their own' that is unplanned, unforeseen and opposing the purpose for which they were designed. A number of so called 'hard' systems approaches have been developed to try and cope with these problems.

On the social level a major area for systems thinking is within management. Significant changes have occurred in businesses over the last two decades which have made the task of management considerably more complex. There has been a rapid and vast growth in information accompanied by emerging support technologies and new techniques, methods and tools all competing for the attention of the manager. Additionally, work teams are often large and multi-disciplined, difficult in themselves to constitute, organise, and manage.

Initiatives such as 'Total Quality Management' and 'Investors in People' mean that managers have to be able to think systemically in order to be able to deal with the complete situation. TQM cannot be done piecemeal, changing one area at a time. It is in response to the increasing number of 'human based' problems that are arising that a variety of 'soft' systems approaches have been developed.

  1. Key Concepts

The key concepts of systems thinking, as distinct from analytical thinking, the two being twin components of scientific thinking, are boundary, emergence, and hierarchy. These are the major frames of reference for methods of inquiry which can be described not only as systematic, but, more importantly, systemic.


It is helpful to note that we can define a whole by simply constructing a boundary, wherein lies the totality of parts, and we are free to choose the precise locus of this boundary in a way and according to a particular view (Weltanschauung) that takes our interest.

In some instances, a hot water system for instance, the boundary is pretty cleahcut, but in others , particularly social systems this is far from so. For mankind, boundaries are formed by (and

sometimes within) families, churches, football clubs, professional institutions, and nation states. Boundary construction is a matter for the observer to determine and how we position a boundary depends on what we wish to look at. In maintaining this view we can often see that one system may have parts which are systems in their own right and in its turn may be a part in a larger system.

"Observe how system into system runs, What other planets circle other suns".

Alexander Pope (1733)


Peter Checkland (1981) expresses the notion of emergence (and hierarchy) as follows:

"It is the concept of organised complexity which became the subject matter of the new discipline 'systems'; and the general model of organised complexity is that there exists a hierarchy of levels of organisation, each more complex than the one below, a level being characterised by emergent properties which do not exist at the lower level. Indeed, more than the fact that they 'do not exist' at the lower level, emergent properties are meaningless in the language appropriate to the lower level. 'The shape of an apple', although the result of processes which operate at the level of the cells, organelles, and organic molecules which comprise apple trees, and although, we hope, eventually explicable in terms of these processes, has no meaning at the lower levels of description. The processes at those levels residt in an outcome which signals the existence of a new stable level of complexity-that of the whole apple itself-which has emergent properties, one of them being the apple's shape".

When investigating systems it is often the emergent property which is what most interests us. In an educational system, the emergent property is 'education' which arises from the appropriate functioning of all its' parts. The teacher could not teach unless the student wanted to learn and unless the supporting functions were also in place. Most importantly when we encounter 'messes' where the system is not working properly, this is very often because of the interaction of the parts and not because of the failure of any one part. The 'failure' of the system is an emergent property of the system. In truth the system has only failed from our point of view; it is functioning exactly how it should given the nature of its' parts and their interaction.


Hierarchies are characterised by processes of control and communication operating at the interfaces between levels. We readily talk about management functions within an organisation having an hierarchical structure. We can go on from this to look at the nature of the communication and control functions within this hierarchy.

4. Defining a Boundary

But what of the boundary of an investigation? What does one include, and therefore exclude? A physicist, committed to the principle of reductionism, will quite happily exclude much of the phenomena of complex reality such as electromagnetism, in investigating the phenomenon of heat in attempting to discover the laws of thermodynamics, and all to no detriment in formulating the laws correctly. But in considering the cause of an aeroplane crash, can an investigator leave out the radar controller at West Drayton, or the film star's agent cutting a deal in 1st on his mobile

handset during climb out? In this example, defining the boundary is less clear, yet critical to the determination of proper cause, and the extraction of principles for future conduct. Systems thinking must pay explicit attention to boundary construction, be always prepared to defend the rationale for setting boundaries and be open to revising the boundary in the light of experience. It may be trite to say that people always see what they want to see, but the 'soft' systems thinker must be capable of seeing what others see and coming to a rational understanding of the simultaneity of all such views. This is because the systems thinker is usually required to achieve a reconciliation among them.

5. Working with Systems Ideas

"Now the body is not made up of one part, but of many. If the foot should say " because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body, " it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of then, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. ".

The Bible, 1 Corinthians Vs 14 - 20.

Systemic approaches can help both in the understanding of complex phenomena and also in the modification or design of complexity.

It is helpful for oneself to get a picture of where a boundary might lie and what information and materials travel over that boundary and also to get a picture of the parts and simultaneously the whole of which the parts comprise. More importantly, these are useful concepts for the basis of discussion. In discussing where other people place their boundaries and what they feel are the emergent properties of the system it can often bring to light differences of opinion that are not approachable by any other means.

In the area of systems design, one might suppose that these ideas could be used as a form of dictatorship. But the forcing of the individual to concede to the 'system' is not a part of systems thinking; which has to acknowledge the importance of each part in playing its' role in the whole. The responsibility of designers (technological or social) must be to ensure a wholeness of design to the extent that the objects they wish assembled (human or otherwise) will co-operate because of an affinity for the whole and an attraction to the whole's emergence. The achievement of this depends upon a deliberate mental act of switching from the part to the whole and whole to the part in an ongoing learning process. The more one understands the relationships of parts the better picture one has of the whole, and the better the picture of the whole, the clearer the relationships of the parts.


I. M. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, 1861.

P. B. Checkland, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. New York: John Wiley, 1981.

A. Pope. An Essay on Man, Epistle 1, 1733.

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