The Generalist Specialty, Part 2

The new machine model of the universe brought the Enlightenment to a reductionist point of view seeking causation and explanation at the “parts” level. Increasingly it was thought that the true explanation for the operation of natural systems lay in the understanding of the characteristics and the operation of their parts. That understanding became correspondingly valuable and those who held it, the specialists, became the “experts” whose knowledge commanded the respect and compensation commensurate with that value.

As this world-view became ingrained in western society so did the status of the specialist. This found expression in the medical profession and has led to the shortage of primary care providers. But family practitioners are not alone. In the engineering world the same bias in favor of the specialist is alive and well.

The systems engineer is the family practitioner of the engineering profession. Just as the primary care physician is supposed to coordinate the patient’s care and act as the conduit between the specialists, the systems engineer is supposed to act as the “glue” for the design team communicating and facilitating the interaction and work of the basic engineering disciplines.

The family physicians and the systems engineer face similar challenges. Just as the family physician’s familiarity with the patient allows her to guide the treatment combinations to optimize the patient’s health, the systems engineer uses his knowledge of the system design to coordinate the design of the system and sub-system components to optimize them for system performance.

Russell Ackoff famously warned system designers that improving the performance of system parts is not a path to improving overall system performance. In fact, he pointed out, such measures might actually degrade system performance. This is due to the fact that system performance arises from the interactions between the system parts. Therefore any alteration of the parts must be done with an eye to the overall effect on system performance.

The family physician knows that a treatment which would greatly improve the health of one body system might interact with other conditions or treatments to actually harm the patient. Just as with a system design, any medical treatment needs to be considered in light of an overall knowledge of the system — in this case the patient.

The focus on the system level is a common characteristic of the work of a family physician and a systems engineer. The family physician faces the disincentives of pay and respect. The systems engineer also faces subtle signs of this diminished respect.

Often systems engineering is treated as some truncated subset of itself. Systems engineers find themselves relegated to requirements. They may be expected to limit their role to record keeping or document production. Little effort may be paid to understanding the role and function of systems engineering. In any of these cases and others the systems engineer is hampered in her work by the misinterpretation of her role.

Even at the stage of educating the systems engineer there are differences made that set the field apart. There are very few undergraduate programs available for directly educating the systems engineer. Most engineers believe that in order to practice systems engineering some underlying engineering degree should be obtained. Systems engineering is treated as an add-on. Adding this to the diminished role of the systems engineer places him in the position of obtaining additional graduate education only to be confronted with restricted opportunities to practice what he has studied. This is reminiscent of the primary care physician laying out the substantial cost of medical training only to be compensated at a level below their specialist colleagues.

So the systems engineer is the engineering counterpart of the primary care physician. The causes can be traced to a societal disposition to undervalue the generalist despite the fact that it is becoming clear that the generalist perspective and systems view has an equal if not greater value than that of the specialist. Be they systems engineer or family physician, the systems practitioner merits greater respect and recognition of the value of their role and knowledge.a

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