Connection: The Theme of 21st Century Systems Engineering

Systems engineering is entering a new era. The publication Systems Engineering Vision 2025: A World in Motion, originally published in 2014 by the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), called for a shift in direction to include previously uncharted territory for systems engineering. This shift recognized new realities and needs in the context system of our changing world. Its opening paragraph stated, “The vision for systems engineering in 2025 is shaped by the global environment, human and societal needs, policy and business challenges, as well as the technologies that underlie sys­tems. The evolving work environment, following global trends, both constrains and enables the manner in which systems engineering is practiced.” The vision goes on to challenge systems engineering to address problems from across industry domains that touch social and natural systems, all while embracing a diversity of approaches.

Recognizing the import of the changing context for systems engineering and the vision being cast by INCOSE, INCOSE Fellows stood up The Fellows’ Initiative on System and Systems Engineering Definition in 2016. Using insights from taking a fresh look at what was already afoot in systems engineering, the initiative posited that the shift in the systems engineering world, recognized in World in Motion, was significant enough to warrant a redefinition of the fundamental terms “system” and “systems engineering.” They cited three “drivers” for the change that developed as we moved from the 20th to the 21st century. The first was a shift from deterministic systems to non-deterministic, adaptive or “evolutionary” systems.

The second saw a movement from stand-alone systems solving specific problems, to systems that are “networked” parts of larger systems addressing complex problems.

The third addressed the expansion from purely bounded and controlled technological systems to include social and natural systems operating beyond the control of systems designers.

The changes outlined by INCOSE and its Fellows call for a renewed focus on connections. Each aspect of the transition creates a need for new, stronger connections. Addressing those avenues of connection is the subject of this post.

Connection 1 – The Full Integration
The first avenue of connection is that of the full integration required to obtain a systems view of the new, broader problems. Attacking this challenge is predominantly becoming the realm of models, particularly where there is networking and complexity. Systems engineering must capture and communicate the system and its context. This is necessary to enable the engineer to make a prediction about the system’s behavior in producing “behavior or meaning that the individual constituents do not.”

“A system is an arrangement of parts or elements that together exhibit behavior or meaning that the individual constituents do not.” This is the new INCOSE definition approved from the Fellows’ recommendation as contained in the document “Systems Engineering and Systems Definition,” presented to the INCOSE Board of Directors in December 2018.

In order to make such a prediction accurately and with confidence, the picture used must be drawn from a model rigorously organized and disciplined by a systems metamodel, preferably one tested and tried in actual practice and demonstrated to accurately depict system behavior. Because the system behavior is the product of the relationships and interactions among all its elements, the model must capture those relationships in an integrated and consistent fashion. This is controlled by the metamodel which provides the framework for the model in a sufficiently nuanced form for such a capture. The first avenue of connection is through the intra-model integration provided through the systems metamodel.

Connection 2 – Connecting Differing Disciplines and Constituencies
The second avenue for connection is across the differing disciplines and constituencies called for in the vision. The Fellows described this need for connection in an article in the October 2018 issue (Vol. 21 Issue 3) of the INCOSE Insight magazine titled A Fresh Look at Systems Engineering—What is it, How Should it Work? In it, they wrote:

(To) be effective in the new collaborative landscape, systems engineers must focus on “enabling the success of others,” achieving success through influence and collaboration, rather than seeking to impose a pre-defined systems engineering process by “command and control,” and similarly, acting as interpreter and “glue” between different communities and speaking on behalf of others, so that stakeholders can continue to work as much as possible in their familiar language.

This avenue calls for systems engineers to look well to the interfaces between their system models and the systems related to them. Where the first avenue of connection called for intra-model integration, this one requires inter-model or system-to-system connection. This calls for a robust modeling capability that can translate system relationships and interfaces among systems. Like the first avenue of connection, this one is paved by a system metamodel robust and nuanced enough to allow for translation and connection.

Connection 3 – Expanding SE Across Industry Domains
The third avenue of connection arises from the Vision 2025 imperatives to expand systems engineering across industry domains and to embrace a diversity of systems engineering approaches. Both of these heighten the level of contact among engineers and others of many stripes. When the variety of technologies and disciplines involved in these widening circles is considered, it is clear that systems engineering must establish ways of sharing information and expertise across an array of boundaries and what were heretofore siloes.

The new INCOSE definition of systems engineering created by the Fellows Initiative calls systems engineering a “transdisciplinary and integrative approach.” Of “transdisciplinary,” they said:

The transdisciplinary approach originated in the social sciences. It “transcends” all of the disciplines involved, and organizes the effort around common purpose, shared understanding and “learning together” in the context of real-world problems or themes. It is usable at any level, from complex to simple, from global to personal. A transdisciplinary approach is needed when the problem cannot readily be “solved” and the best that can likely be achieved is instead a “resolution.” The participants in the endeavor need to “transcend” their particular disciplinary approach to instead come to some overall useful compromise or synergistic understanding that their disciplines cannot come to on their own (even when working together in a normal integrative approach with other disciplines).

They described integrative as the traditional systems engineering approach to incorporating the invaluable contributions of other disciplines. By assigning both of these to systems engineers, it is made clear that there is a strong need for systems engineers to embrace their role as connectors, translators and integrators. This necessitates an avenue for connecting across disciplinary lines to allow the multi-directional flow of information.

In the terms of software tools, this is the province of a strong, open Application Programming Interface (API) which allows disciplinary tools to connect and share critical design information. But this connection requires not only the transmission of data, it also requires that the systems engineers responsible for integrating the inputs and outputs flowing across the interfaces develop an understanding of the significance and meaning of what is communicated. The API and the attendant ability to understand what is communicated is the third avenue of connection.

It becomes apparent when we look at these three avenues of interaction that the concept of connection is an important theme of systems engineering in the 21st century. While this has always been the case, its importance is amplified by the increasing complexity and disciplinary expansion of the systems engineering world. Intra-model, inter-model and extra-model connections all feed the effort to be responsive in a complex, transdisciplinary world. The need for fully integrated models grounded in a robust, proven system metamodel and embodied in a tool capable of multi-disciplinary interaction and information sharing is apparent. The fully-featured robust API provides the means of connecting those models across disciplinary boundaries to communicate with a variety of colleagues, experts and stakeholders. Taken together, these avenues of connection realize the vision of systems engineering in the 21st century as “a transdisciplinary and integrative approach to enable the successful realization, use, and retirement of engineered systems, using systems principles and concepts, and scientific, technological, and management methods.”

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