Social Systems and Systems Engineering

The INCOSE Vision 2025, “A World in Motion,” traces throughout its narrative the inescapable interaction of systems engineering with “social systems.” It advocates the expansion of systems engineering involvement into such systems. It even lists, “Applying systems engineering to help shape policy related to social and natural systems” as one of six “Systems Engineering Imperatives” for the vision. As INCOSE members active in the systems engineering community we have lots of opportunity to hear about the existence of social systems in our environment.

But, what is a social system? It can be loosely thought of as the organization of some part of human society as a system. What “part” is defined by the boundary concept familiar to systems engineers. The organization might be intentional or not, but the result is a system. More formally, sociology would define a social system as “the patterned series of interrelationships existing between individuals, groups, and institutions and forming a coherent whole.” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary) In either case, the idea of a social system is that of a human organization. (We will ignore for the purpose of this article the social systems of living creatures other than humans lest it lead us into a tangential discussion of consciousness and other philosophical topics.)

Given that social systems might include anything from your book club to the World Bank, what relevance do they have to systems engineering? Systems engineering, after all, is most commonly thought of in the context of the classical engineering domains of “things.” Engineers traditionally deal in tangible materials and sources of energy. They design the structure and control of these elements to produce “products.” Systems engineers do their work using systems principles to organize the relationships among the elements. They seek to optimize the performance of their design in accomplishing the purposes that drive its creations. Again, this is a “loose” definition of the job of systems engineering, but it suffices to say here that the use of systems principles is the difference that systems engineers bring to the engineering table.

The significance of social systems for the traditional systems engineering practice appears in several ways. The first is that systems engineers must organize their own social systems in order to produce their system designs. These are the systems that Bill Schindel and ICTT Systems Sciences describe as System 2 (S2) and System 3 (S3) in their direct effort to address them through Their S*Pattern approach. The concepts of “teams” and “projects” and “programs” all speak to social systems. The “transdisciplinary and integrative” nature of systems engineering adds to the complexity of these social systems. Increasingly systems engineers are recognizing the importance of the social skills and knowledge necessary to make these internal systems effective.

In addition to these internal social systems, there are the social systems with which the systems being designed or improved must interact. These make up the environment in which the system will operate and may even directly participate in the operation of the system (e.g. – the relationship of the aircrew to the airplane). From “human factors” considerations to the potential impacts on social policy, products of traditional systems engineering efforts impact, and are impacted by, social systems in many ways.

A third avenue of intersection for systems engineering and social systems goes beyond the bounds of the common conception of the practice. Social systems can become (and already are) the subject of intentional design efforts. Often this takes place without even an acknowledgement of the existence of system design principles. Those responsible for the design would not necessarily think of themselves as “systems engineers” (if they even knew the term). And yet, in designing their systems they are doing the work of systems engineering albeit without benefit of the knowledge, skills, tools and methods native to systems engineering.

This area of practice represents a large, untapped field of opportunity for systems engineering to add value and reap rewards. How has that not been the case on any great scale to this point? The economic opportunity for systems engineering is significant. According to the CIA World Factbook, the US gross domestic product (GDP) originating from industry (the traditional domain of systems engineering) was 19.1% while the services sector (driven by social systems) produced 80% of GDP. There surely must be business to be had in this largely untapped market.

But there is resistance to venturing into this area. Lots of members of the systems engineering community don’t believe that this is a legitimate area for systems engineering to operate. At the 2021 International Symposium, Erika Palmer, Donna Rhodes, Michael Watson, Cecilia Haskins, Camilo Olaya, Ian Presland and Knut Fossum presented a superb paper titled “Putting the Social in Systems Engineering: An Overview and Conceptual Development.” One of the many things they did well in this paper was to show that the idea of social systems involvement has existed since the early days of systems engineering. Tracing the history of that idea through early pioneers (Ramo, Hall, Chestnut, Forrester and Sage) they discussed the development of social systems awareness in systems engineering.

Others have explored the idea of systems principles applied to social systems as well. Notable among them are Russell Ackoff who wrote Redesigning Society and Donella Meadows who penned the classic Limits to Growth. Ackoff himself was case study in the disciplinary cross-over in this area of study, having come to his involvement in systems work by way of architecture, philosophy, and operations research.

Palmer et al cite a worry among the systems engineering community that any foray by the discipline into the world of social sciences may be seen as invasive by those already there. It seems to this writer that the larger resistance comes from a stigma around the notion that social science problems are not suitable avenues of inquiry and work for the more rigorously “scientific” systems engineers. Systems engineers (and society at large) refer to the operating functions of social systems with the vaguely pejorative label, “soft skills,” as if they are some squishy cousins to the more rigorous and measurable functionality of the scientific (“hard”) methods of physical systems.

This leads to the assumption of a gulf between physical and social systems that does not actually exist. Systems in both sectors share the basic characteristics. Both are “an arrangement of parts or elements that together exhibit behavior or meaning that the individual constituents do not.” As INCOSE puts it, engineering is, “the action of working artfully to bring something about.” This certainly describes the process of creating social systems as well as physical ones. In fact, INCOSE plainly states, “’Engineered systems’ may be composed of any or all of people, products, services, information, processes, and natural elements.”

There is no reason why systems engineers cannot, or should not, take up the challenge of lending their shoulders to the wheel as partners in the creation of social systems. We have valuable understanding and skills to contribute. One of the nuggets of wisdom highlighted in the above cited symposium paper was a quote from Simon Ramo’s 1970 book, Century of Mismatch, “A city is a system, whether or not we choose to regard it in that light. If we choose not to, then it will simply be a bad system.” It is to the benefit of everyone to see social systems everywhere as the opportunities for good systems engineering that they are.

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