Systems thinking and practice Open University 2019 Free course What is systems thinking and practice? The essence of systems thinking and practice is in ‘seeing’ the world in a particular way, because how you ‘see’ things affects the way you approach situations or undertake specific tasks. This free course will help you to learn about the problems of defining a system and meet some of the key concepts used in systems theory: boundary, environment, positive and negative feedback, etc.
Bono, E. D., (1982) de Bono’s Thinking Course, London: BBC Books.
Buzan, T., (2002) How to Mind Map, London: Thorsons.
Stroh, D. P., (2015) Systems Thinking for Social Change, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. The systems thinking approach contrasts with traditional analysis, which studies systems by breaking them down into their separate elements. Systems thinking can be used in any area of research and has been applied to the study of medical, environmental, political, economic, human resources, and educational systems, among many others.
According to systems thinking, system behavior results from the effects of reinforcing and balancing processes. A reinforcing process leads to the increase of some system component. If reinforcement is unchecked by a balancing process, it eventually leads to collapse. A balancing process is one that tends to maintain equilibrium in a particular system.
Attention to feedback is an essential component of system thinking. For example, in project management, prevailing wisdom may prescribe the addition of workers to a project that is lagging. However, in practice, that tactic might have actually slowed development in the past. Attention to that relevant feedback can allow management to look for other solutions rather than wasting resources on an approach that has been demonstrated to be counterproductive.
Systems thinking uses computer simulation and a variety of diagrams and graphs to model, illustrate, and predict system behavior. Among the systems thinking tools are: the behavior over time (BOT) graph, which indicates the actions of one or more variables over a period of time; the causal loop diagram (CLD), which illustrates the relationships between system elements; the management flight simulator, which uses an interactive program to simulate the effects of management decisions; and the simulation model, which simulates the interaction of system elements over time.
Systems thinking originated in 1956, when Professor Jay Forrester founded the Systems Dynamic Group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems. A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that is either natural or man-made. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose or nature and expressed in its functioning. In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving optimized equifinality.
General systems theory is about broadly applicable concepts and principles, as opposed to concepts and principles applicable to one domain of knowledge. It distinguishes dynamic or active systems from static or passive systems. Active systems are activity structures or components that interact in behaviours and processes. Passive systems are structures and components that are being processed. E.g. a program is passive when it is a disc file and active when it runs in memory. The field is related to systems thinking, machine logic and systems engineering.
- System: An organized entity made up of interrelated and interdependent parts.
- Boundaries: Barriers that define a system and distinguish it from other systems in the environment.
- Homeostasis: The tendency of a system to be resilient towards external factors and maintain its key characteristics.
- Adaptation: The tendency of a self-adapting system to make the internal changes needed to protect itself and keep fulfilling its purpose.
- Reciprocal Transactions: Circular or cyclical interactions that systems engage in such that they influence one another.
- Feedback Loop: The process by which systems self-correct based on reactions from other systems in the environment.
- Throughput: Rate of energy transfer between the system and its environment during the time it is functioning.
- Microsystem: The system closest to the client.
- Mesosystem: Relationships among the systems in an environment.
- Exosystem: A relationship between two systems that has an indirect effect on a third system.
- Macrosystem: A larger system that influences clients, such as policies, administration of entitlement programs, and culture.
- Chronosystem: A system composed of significant life events that can affect adaptation.