An Invitation to Dinner with the Family of Systems Disciplines

Systems are truly a family affair. As the concept of systems becomes more significant in the way we think and solve problems, it is increasingly apparent that there are several disciplines, which “specialize” in the study and design of systems. Each discipline views systems from its own perspective, which is related to its purpose and reason for existence. Just as family members gathered for dinner approach the topics of conversation differently given their interests and backgrounds, the systems disciplines consider aspects of systems concepts differently, and use them in different ways. Each of them individually and all of them together have things to offer us in advancing our knowledge and practice of thinking about systems.

Understanding the many facets and perspectives in considering systems will help today’s systems engineers as we wrangle complexity, confront wicked problems, and craft innovative answers to problems that span the socio-technical world. It is worthwhile to consider the variety of systems disciplines and what they have to offer.

The Family
The beginning of systems theory is often traced to the work of Ludwig Bertalanffy, an Austrian biologist who, beginning in the 1930s, formulated a model of biological growth that led him across the next three decades to the publication of his formal statement of “general systems theory” in the 1968 book, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. But, as with a member of any vibrant family, Bertalanffy did not advance the conversation alone.

Others like the clinical psychiatrist William Ross Ashby, working in cybernetics, and the mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport, studying human behavior, contributed to the growth and maturity of the thinking around systems and their role in the world. One result of the work of these pioneers and many others like them was the formation of the influential Society for General Systems Research, which became a vessel for their conversations. But, even more important to the modern application of system understanding was the emergence of several systems disciplines.

These disciplines were formed around the perspectives of their practitioners largely in the service of their major work areas. So, for example, systems science became the systems field of choice of those like biologists, who were concerned with observing and understanding extant systems, while systems engineering was the preference of those whose work centered on the design of novel systems or the modification of existing systems. The family of systems disciplines approached the same system concepts but from a variety of perspectives.

These disciplines range from the obvious candidates—systems science, systems thinking, systems engineering and systems dynamics—to those not often seen as related, like cybernetics and formal axiology. Each of these has its own take on systems and its own interest in understanding them. Systems science studies systems in the observational way that a natural scientist studies the world—seeking to discern, catalogue and understand what is observed. Systems thinking examines the nature and significance of system characteristics like boundaries, stakeholder interests, properties, and problems. Systems dynamics attempts to provide a framework for understanding the non-linear causation in the behavior of complex systems. Systems engineering seek to intentionally intervene in the development of purposeful systems.

Others, often seen as sub-disciplines, have even narrower fields of specialty. Formal axiology, for example, is concerned with the development of a science of human values and their formation, while cybernetics is specifically focused on regulatory or control systems. But, whatever their differences in perspective and concentration, they all share the family characteristic of a concern with systems.

In his interesting and insightful paper, Integrating Systems Science, Systems Thinking, and Systems Engineering: understanding the differences and exploiting the synergies, Hillary Sillitto identifies the disciplines of systems science, systems thinking and systems engineering as closely and usefully related. (The paper was published at the INCOSE International Symposium in Las Vegas in 2014.) Sillitto argues that systems engineering has much to profit from drawing upon the perspectives of the other two disciplines—systems science and systems thinking—particularly as we face the convergence of what were once seen as discrete fields of inquiry in the realms of traditional engineering, natural sciences and social systems.

Just as human family members would do well to listen and learn from one another, we have much to gain from capitalizing on the accumulated experience with systems as viewed from the varying perspectives of the systems disciplines. Sillitto, in his paper wisely steers us away from focusing on the disciplinary differences in perspectives and the subject systems toward an overriding interest in the “family resemblance” in their similarities. This helps us to avoid the reductionist tendency to stovepipe our thinking and miss the opportunities to see and use and reuse patterns and principles.

The Invitation
Beginning the quest for understanding the range and scope of the family of systems disciplines is probably best undertaken with a program of reading. The resources identified here are accessible and provide a range of subject disciplines. The reader’s approach should be to address the resources with Sillitto’s question in mind. It is better to ask “How are these similar?” in approach and concepts uncovered rather than by asking, “How are they different?”

Think of this as an invitation to the family dinner-table conversation, with the important concept of systems engineering as the topic.

The Conversation Resource Table

Subject Title Author
Systems Science The Systems View of Life Fritjof Capra
Systems Dynamics The Fifth Discipline Peter Senge
Systems Thinking Systems Thinking. Applied. A Primer Robert Edson
Complexity Simple Complexity William Donaldson
Innovation Foresight Langdon Morris

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