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Systems thinking

Systems thinking involves the use of various techniques to study systems of many kinds. It includes studying things in a holistic way, rather than purely reductionist techniques. It aims to gain insights into the whole by understanding the linkages, interactions and processes between the elements that comprise the whole "system". One problem that can be caused by of a lack of system thinking in an organization is the silo effect, where a lack of organizational communication can cause a change in one area of a system to adversely affect another area of the system.

Systems thinkers consider that:

  • a "system" is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit in equilibrium
  • information flows between the different elements that compose the system
  • a system is a community situated within an environment
  • information flows from and to the surrounding environment via semi-permeable membranes or boundaries
For further details see complex system

Why use systems thinking techniques?

Systems thinkers are particularly interested in studying systems because changing a system frequently leads to counterintuitive system responses. For example feedback loops may operate to either keep the organization in check or unbalance it.

Traditional decision making tends to involve linear cause and effect relationships. By taking a systems approach, we can see the whole complex of bidirectional interrelationships. Instead of analysing a problem in terms of an input and an output, for example, we look at the whole system of inputs, processes, outputs, feedback, and controls. This larger picture will typically provide more useful results than traditional methods.

System thinking also helps us integrate the temporal dimension of any decision. Instead of looking at discrete "snapshots" at points in time, a systems methodology will allow us to see change as a continuous process.

Systems Thinking is a worldview based on the perspective of the systems sciences, which seeks to understand interconnectedness, complexity and wholeness of components of systems in specific relationship to each other. Systems thinking is not only constructivist, rather systems thinking embraces the values of reductionist science by understanding the parts, and the constructivist perspectives which seek to understand wholes, and more so, the understanding of the complex relationships that enable 'parts' to become 'wholes' as noted in the example below.

What is a system?

Systems thinking techniques may be used to study any kind of system -- natural, scientific, human, or conceptual.


Systems thinking often involves considering a "system" in different ways:

Rather than trying to improve the braking system on a car by looking in great detail at the composition of the brake pads (reductionist), the boundary of the braking system may be extended to include not only the components of the car, but the driver, the road and the weather, and considering the interactions between them.
Looking at something as a series of conceptual systems according to multiple viewpoints. A supermarket could be considered as a "profit making system" from the perspective of management, an "employment system" from the perspective of the staff, and a "shopping system" -- or perhaps an "entertainment system" -- from the perspective of the customers. As a result of such thinking, new insights may be gained into how the supermarket works, why it has problems, or how changes made to one such system may impact on the others.


Systems thinking uses a variety of techniques that may be divided into:

  • Hard systems - involving simulations, often using computers and the techniques of operations research. Useful for problems that can justifiably be quantified. However it cannot easily take into account unquantifiable variables (opinions, culture, politics, etc), and may treat people as being passive, rather than having complex motivations.
  • Soft systems - Used to tackle systems that cannot easily be quantified, especially those involving people interacting with each other or with "systems". Useful for understanding motivations, viewpoints, and interactions but, naturally, it doesn't give quantified answers. Soft systems is a field that the academic Peter Checkland has done much to develop.
  • Evolutionary systems - the development of Evolutionary Systems Design by Bela H. Banathy integrates critical systems inquiry and soft systems methodologies to create a meta-methodology applicable to the design of complex social systems. These systems, similar to dynamic systems are understood as open, complex systems, but further accounts for their potential capacity to evolve over time. Banathy uniquely integrated the multidisciplinary perspectives of systems research (including chaos, complexity, cybernetics), cultural anthropology, evolutionary theory, and others.


Systems thinking is increasingly being used to tackle a wide variety of subjects in fields such as management, computing, and the environment.

See also


  • Bela H. Banathy (1996) Designing Social Systems in a Changing World NY: Plenum
  • Bela H. Banathy (2000) The Guided Evolution of Society NY: Plenum/Kluwer Academic
  • John Gall (1978) Systemantics Pocket Books
  • Peter M. Senge (1990) The Fifth Discipline - The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (Currency Doubleday).
  • Gerald M. Weinberg (1975) An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (1975 ed., Wiley-Interscience) (2001 ed. Dorset House).

External links


Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45