Putting the “Systems” back in systems engineering

In thinking about systems engineering we often set up a framework in which engineering receives a much stronger emphasis than the system aspects of the discipline. The INCOSE definition of systems engineering sets it apart from other engineering disciplines. In part it calls systems engineering, “. . . an engineering discipline whose responsibility is . . . .” This implies an emphasis on the engineering nature of the discipline and sets it squarely among the other engineering disciplines.

Many of the common starting points for system design are oriented to the technical, physical aspects of the design. Although the discipline has four domains the “logical architecture” or behavioral domain is frequently given short shrift or completely skipped in the design process. All of this points up the more traditional engineering orientation and heritage of the discipline. After all, engineers are folks who have consistently expressed an interest in “things” and who have sought to study and practice solving problems through tangible means.

Systems engineering is a discipline which has emerged fairly recently in the engineering world. Its emphases on integration and holistic approaches run counter to the Enlightenment themes of understanding through analysis and deconstruction. Where the traditional engineer seeks understanding of the whole through the study of the constituent components the systems engineer looks to the interaction and relationships among those components for the essence of the system embodied in that whole. But because of the heritage of systems engineering as an engineering discipline and its relative youth as a profession it is easy to slip from the holistic systems view into the analytic emphasis on components.

How can that slippage be prevented/reversed? Perhaps the starting point is emphasizing the place of systems engineering as a “systems” discipline. There are a variety of “systems thinking” disciplines emphasizing the systems thinking approaches to understanding the problems, solutions, and context. By and large these disciplines are interested in mastering the complexity of the systems they study. Most systems disciplines are observational and seek understanding of systems. Systems engineering stands pretty much alone as an “interventional” enterprise seeking to use the systems understanding to construct or alter systems as a response to problems.

This sets systems engineering apart from other systems disciplines but in so doing it underscores the place of systems engineering among those disciplines. Where the INCOSE definition sets systems engineering in the engineering world the recognition of its interventional dimension recognizes its place as a systems discipline. There are important aspects of systems engineering embedded in both of those relationships. As an engineering disciple systems engineering brings the systems view to the engineering conversation. Rather than existing as separate entities to be optimized for their own performance the systems engineer understands components as integral parts of the whole performing so as to maximize the performance of the greater system. In this way the systems engineer breaks the silos of “separate” disciplines and uses the systems understanding to avoid the unintended consequences that can plague a disjointed design.

To the world of the systems disciplines the systems engineer brings the interventional tools and methods of the engineer’s craft. The engineer uses the systems viewpoint to apply those tools to solving problems in ways that do not destroy the desirable aspects of the system context. By spanning the systems and engineering disciplines the systems engineer is able to intervene in systems problems in ways that help without hurting.

Diminishing either of the two heritages of systems engineering robs the discipline of part of the essence of its power. In our dedication to engineering we must not lose sight of the integrative nature of our practice. In short, we must put the “systems” back into systems engineering.

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