A Revolution All Dressed Up for Dinner

At its recent International Symposium the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) released its Systems Engineering Vision 2025 report titled aptly “A World In Motion.” This document is a bold and forward-thinking vision of an exciting future. On the surface it appears innocuous enough. However, it is only on close examination that the truly disruptive power of the document emerges. The authors have cleverly sowed the seeds of revolution in well-written paragraphs of seemingly sedate reflection.

A look at two areas of its vision will serve to reveal the power that truly moves the world of this report. The report points out that systems engineering lives a comfortable life as “a recognized discipline within Aerospace and Defense” with some application in a variety of other domains. Anyone familiar with the history and development of systems engineering knows the story of a discipline that grew up in Mil-Aero and still dutifully plays mostly in its own backyard.

If you suggest to most systems engineers that their discipline needs to expand they will agree and promptly suggest applications that look very much like what they are doing now. Even bold steps outward like the foray into the world of healthcare have largely resulted in a restricted move- in that case to medical device design. Device design- really? Don’t get me wrong- medical device design is both critical and cutting edge. I quite literally wouldn’t be here but for an implantable defibrillator that stands watch over my heart. But, is designing equipment the most adventurous extension that systems engineering could make into the world of healthcare? How about healthcare delivery process systems? Do we have something to offer the VA or our local hospitals?

Fortunately the vision document brooks no such timidity. Observing that “(e)mbracing the diversity of practice while leveraging practices that deal with common system challenges enriches the discipline,” the report looks forward to a discipline “broadly recognized by global economic and business leaders as a value-added discipline related to a wide variety of commercial products, systems and services, as well as government services and infrastructure.” (A World in Motion, pp.17 and 25) In other words expanding our discipline is good for us and good for the world.

The other radical, disruptive proposition advocated in the vision is also related to how we see ourselves as a discipline. Most of us tend to view systems engineering as an engineering discipline living and working in the same colleges and office buildings as metallurgists, mechanics, and electricians. This is not surprising- many of us trained originally as engineers in those and other base engineering disciplines. Even the INCOSE definition of systems engineering begins “Systems Engineering is an engineering discipline . . . “ and then proceeds to relate it to our engineering kinfolk.

The vision document suggests that there is more to the story. The engineering axis just one of the two on which systems engineering turns. The other is often honored more in the breach than in its observance. While it seems obvious that systems engineering is as much a systems discipline as an engineering field that concept often gets lost. The vision document calls it back to mind.

Perhaps the strongest illustration of that call is in the treatment of the role of systems engineering in the world of public policy. A World in Motion points out that, “Public policy decisions are often made without leveraging a well-defined systems approach to understand the diverse set of stakeholder needs and the implications of various policy options.” (p. 26) That’s a huge understatement. Regulation often advances strictly from one “fix” for an unintended consequence to another. We all pay the price for the limited perspective born of the lack of a systems view in the original formulation.

The report calls “(a)pplying systems engineering to help shape policy related to social and natural systems” an “imperative” and advocates moving from public policy decisions made without “a well-defined systems approach to understand the diverse set of stakeholder needs and the implications of various policy options” to “the addition of a formal systems approach help(ing) decision-makers to select cost effective, safe, and sustainable policies that are more broadly embraced by the stakeholder community.” (A World in Motion, p. 26)

Implementation of this value-add turns on “Systems engineering tak(ing) its place with other systems-related, integrative disciplines such as economics, human ecology, geography, and economic anthropology to structure more objective cost, benefit and risk assessments of alternative policy executions.” (A World in Motion, p. 26) In other words, we have to see ourselves differently in order to leverage the benefits that we have to offer in this and other non-traditional problem spaces.

Paradigm shifts are never easy. This well-turned-out, lucidly written vision document advocates nothing less than such a shift. It subtly invites us to boldly go where no (few?) systems engineers have gone before. If you don’t take it in you will miss something very important. It can be found at http://www.incose.org/newsevents/announcements/docs/SystemsEngineeringVision_2025_June2014.pdf but the printed version is a joy to flip through. Encourage your INCOSE Chapter to lay its hands on enough to go around. May we all read and heed its innovative direction.

Leave a Reply