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What Is a Systems Approach?

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Abstract

What is a systems approach? The first step towards answering this question is an understanding of the history of the systems movement, which includes a survey of contemporary systems discourse. In particular, I examine how systems researchers differentiated their contribution from mechanistic science - but also from holistic doctrines; and identify the similarities and sharpest differences between complex systems and other systems approaches. Having set the scene, the second step involves developing a definition of 'system' consistent with the spirit of the systems approach.

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... "A System is a set of variables sufficiently isolated to stay discussable while we discuss it." W. Ross Ashby, cited in Ryan (2008) We open the discussion on systems with Ashby's quote, which introduces several important concepts, some of which are implied rather than stated. Systems are part of the larger whole. ...
... Prior to 1950s, the analytic, deterministic and mechanistic world view prevailed in science (Ryan 2008). People seemed comforted by the idea that everything was ticking over like clockwork, operating under immutable rules, and that given enough time, clever people would be able to measure all the gears, time the cycles, link up the actions and understand how it all worked. ...
... If we saw a different pattern, we might define the system as a slightly bigger or smaller whole, or if we had already defined a different whole system, we might see a different pattern. The circularity of this definition can be a little boggling, so we will adapt a definition from Ryan (2008) We are getting closer, but these points need a little more elaboration to be sure we all agree on what systems are. ...
Chapter
This chapter introduces and explains the main concepts that provide the theoretical background on how to model the ubiquitous socio-technical systems that are so important to modern life. First the notions of systems, adaptation and complexity are discussed as individual concepts before addressing complex adaptive systems as a whole. This is followed by a discussion on generative science and agent-based modelling, with special attention paid to how these concepts relate to socio-technical systems. Throughout the text examples of how the theories can be applied to real systems are provided. Armed with a solid understanding of concepts such as observer-dependence, evolution, intractability, emergence and self-organisation, the reader will have the right foundation for moving on to the practical aspects of building and using agent-based models for decision support in socio-technical systems.
... Ryan wrote that Descartes "described a scientific method, the adherence to which he hoped could provide privileged access to truth" adding "the second rule of analytic reduction, and the third rule of understanding the simplest objects and phenomena first, provided the view of scientific explanation as decomposing the problem into simple parts to be considered individually, which could then be reassembled to yield an understanding of the integrated whole." (Ryan, 2008) Rebovich wrote: ...
... His second precept, analytic reduction, was to "divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary or its adequate solution." (Ryan, 2008) INCOSE wrote that, "the best way to understand a complicated system is to break in down into parts recursively until the parts are so simple that we understand them" warning that "this approach does not help us to understand a complex system, because the emergent properties that we really care about disappear when we examine the parts in isolation." (INCOSE SEH, 2015, p. 9) Sheard noted the limitation to this approach stating, "Decomposition necessarily reduces emphasis on the aspects of the system that cannot be broken into small pieces -how the system becomes a whole that is more than the sum of its parts." ...
... His third precept, understanding the simplest objects and phenomena first, was to "conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence." (Ryan, 2008) In the Handbook of Systems Engineering and Management, Shenhar and Sauser wrote, "a simple way to define various levels of complexity is to use a hierarchical framework of systems and subsystems." (Shenhar & Sauser, 2009, p. 126) Simon wrote: By a hierarchic system, or hierarchy, I mean a system that is composed of interrelated subsystems, each of the latter being, in turn, hierarchic in structure until we reach some lowest level of elementary subsystem. ...
... This may provide the system's structure. Understanding the parts of that structure in isolation does not say anything about the whole (Ryan, 2008). Taking this into consideration, it is not useful to speak of systems in terms of simplistic and general causal relationships. ...
... Defining a 'desired goal' is obviously not a straightforward matter; it depends on the interpretation of the different actors involved. Management problems involve people possessing unique knowledge and ways of interpreting situations that form conditions for their response (Ryan, 2008). This is represented in a mental model: language, words, maps and calculations (Meadows, 2009). ...
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We analysed how an improbable project of building a new river through a suburban area came to fruition after all. The project is called the ‘Blue Connection’. We deployed systemic causal diagrams as a tool to visually show the structure of a system. The diagrams were derived and synthesized from interviews with participants. They then reflected upon the results. As such, the diagrams served a dual purpose: to understand why the Blue Connection project gained momentum whilst simultaneously contributing to the momentum by providing a coherent diagram of the systemic whole beyond the bounded mental models of individual actors. We identified the mechanisms that enabled or restrained the project as a complex system. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
... It was Ludwig von Bertalanffy's theory of open systems that introduced the idea of a General Systems Theory (GST), which rose to prominence in the mid twentieth century and then helped to define the core principles of the systems approach along with the closely related field of cybernetics. 16 The basic methods of the systems approach are to treat the object under study as a system, analyze the structure and function of the system, and study the relationships between the system, its components and its environment. The objective of the systems approach is not only to understand the characteristics and laws of the system, but also to use them to control, manage, and transform the system; adjust the system structure; coordinate the relationships of various components; and make the system achieve the optimization targets. ...
... A system is defined as a complex whole that affects and is affected by its environment. 16 Modern holistic medicine treats the human body as a complex system, and emphasizes the organic connection within the system. The body's components are seen as interdependent parts of the complex whole; illness is viewed as a manifestation of a dysfunction of the whole person, rather than an isolated event. ...
... Prerequisite to systems approach is that every component must be interrelated and codependent with each other. This interrelation and dependency form a working and efficient systems (Ryan, 2008). For a systems to work smoothly, it must have a hierarchical order of subsystems. ...
... It also acts as a continuous measure of quality improvement through responses, either positive or negative feedbacks. Aside from the primary use of feedback, systems analysis is mainly independent of developments in systems theory (Ryan, 2008). In Figure 2, feedbacks are sought from internal as well as external sources through lead agencies, acting as the medium of information transfer. ...
Conference Paper
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Muslim-Friendly Hospitality (MFH) is considered a new trends in tourism and hospitality which has gained attention among industry player, locally and abroad. The attraction is due to the growing number of Muslim's who requires their faith-based needs, satiated when travelling and engaging in activities beyond their home. MFH adoption is far less strict than Shariah Compliance (SC), which commands to the adherence of Islamic teaching on every aspect of the hospitality operation and management. To ensure the integrity of MFH practices, a regulatory framework for MFH is proposed. Extensive literature and documents analysis were conducted as primary methodology for this paper. Data gathered, were coded and analysed qualitatively, to grasp the relationship between every element in the MFH regulatory framework. An MFH regulatory framework is then proposed and benchmarked upon the regulatory framework used in the Malaysian Halal industry. A systems based approach was chosen to be the illustrative apparatuses to explain better the regulatory framework as a continuous, robust systems that will be the core of the MFH ecosystems. The regulatory framework consists of Government Policy, Laws and Regulation, comprises of Implementation Guidelines, Manual procedures and Circulars and the lowest level, Quality Standards & Term of References. At the operational level, the MFH Management Systems will the guiding-governing tools, keeping the Muslim-Friendly practices intact. The adoption of MFH practices as a fully functioning and organised systems is still in its infancy, although some of its elements have been practices unintentionally over the years by industry player. Realigning of efforts and resources through creating comprehensive regulatory framework will ensure the sustainability of MFH practices, and ultimately will give Malaysia an added advantages as a premier destination for Muslim tourist.
... It was Ludwig von Bertalanffy's theory of open systems that introduced the idea of a General Systems Theory (GST), which rose to prominence in the mid twentieth century and then helped to define the core principles of the systems approach along with the closely related field of cybernetics Ryan [15]. The basic methods of the systems approach are to treat the object under study as a system, analyze the structure and function of the system, and study the relationships between the system, its components and its environment. ...
... Ludwig Von Bertalanffy's emphasis on flows of energy and information into and out of an open system also brought attention to the environment of the open system. A system is defined as a complex whole that affects and is affected by its environment Ryan [15]. Modern holistic medicine treats the human body as a complex system and emphasizes the organic connection within the system. ...
... Seriously adopting the sociotechnical systems perspective as the system idea for infrastructures implies an immense system scope which relates to a vast realm of knowledge domains, theories and tools to be used and integrated when we want to construct models. At the same time, we must understand " the real challenge posed by the systems idea: its message is not that in order to be rational we need to be omniscient but, rather, that we must learn to deal critically with the fact that we never are " (Ulrich, 1988; Ryan, 2008). So, even given this vast scope, we still must limit ourselves if only to deal with limited time, data, information and knowledge. ...
... The issue of knowledge management relates to how we integrate, connect and reuse information. This will be described much further in the next section and will focus on the fact that embracing a systems view means that we must deal critically with the fact that we cannot be omniscient about systems (Ulrich, 1988; Ryan, 2008). While we cannot be omniscient, we are finding better ways to aggregate information and foster a collaborative exploring of complex systems. ...
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To support stakeholders involved in infrastructure development, we develop evolutionary models of these complex systems, which is a formidable task with respect to data requirements, information representation and knowledge management. Re-addressing a case on bio-electricity infrastructure evolution, we demonstrate first a series of visualisations of economic and ecologic system parameters as they change during infrastructure development over simulated decades. This setup allows us to demonstrate to stakeholders a means to anticipate the consequences of decisions on (dis)investment of power generation options available. In developing these tools, our approach needed to be expanded to better handle the complexity of infrastructure systems, due to the multiple relevant social and technical contexts from which these systems need to be considered. The second part of this paper describes our work on enabling collaborative mapping of our knowledge of infrastructure systems to help integrate diverse types of knowledge. Current internet-enabled developments such as Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web offer tremendous scope to lower the transaction cost of gathering and assembling data. Already, these are changing the ways scientific collaboration is conducted. Finally, we suggest to connect this to evolutionary models to elucidate the dynamics of these systems.
... That specific organization gives the system its structure. It is the structure or the whole with its interdependencies and not the discrete parts that determine a systems outcome (Ryan, 2008). While a bureaucratic approach seeks to control outcomes often through narrow performance metrics (Hoggett, 1996, Dieffenbach, 2009) a systemic approach seeks to understand outcomes which are often no more than symptoms of the underlying structure (Sterman, 2000) The understanding that outcomes or behavior are latent within the structure of a system, serves as a starting point for how the system works. ...
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An important ability of institutions is their capacity to recognize new external knowledge so that they can revitalize outdated routines and stay clear of institutional lock in. However not much is known about what determines the absorptive capacity of institutions. By analyzing mental models of agents within an institution through Group Model Building. We contribute to literature on absorptive capacity and show how institutions could potentially increase absorptive capacity at the micro agent-level while circumventing problems of institutional lock-in. The experiment shows that Group Model Building provides an avenue for reflecting on the internal logic of the institution. It is able to show the limited applicability of the internal logic in producing a desired outcome for certain messy problems. Although the agents acknowledged the shortcomings of the internal logic, they also accepted them and found dealing with them too complex. The article also reflects on how the experiment can be made more effective for future endeavors.
... These parts can be individuals or even groups of individuals or non-human elements (Cilliers, 2004). As a dynamic network of many agents with multiple objectives (Dijkema et al., 2013;Van Dam et al., 2013), constantly acting and reacting, in non-linear relations (Augustinsson, 2006), in parallel to what other agents are doing, the control of a complex adaptive system (CAS) is highly dispersed and decentralized (Ryan, 2008). Coherence of behaviour in the system emerges from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves (Waldrop, 1992;Deming, 1994, p. 50). ...
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Purpose This paper aims to understand social entrepreneurship (SE) business model design to create values whilst undertaking public service delivery within the complex environments of local governments in South Africa. Design/methodology/approach Face-to-face semi-structured interview was conducted with 15 purposively selected social entrepreneurs in Gauteng and Western Cape provinces. The interview guide consisted of main themes and follow-up questions. Themes included SEs’ general history, the social business model; challenges faced and how these were overcome; scaling and growth/survival strategies. These enabled the evaluation of SEs in terms of identifying key criteria of affordability, availability, awareness and acceptability, which SEs must achieve to operate successfully in low-income markets. Social enterprise owners/managers within the electricity distribution, water reticulation and waste management services sectors were surveyed. Findings Most respondents focus on building a network of trust with stakeholders, through communication mechanisms that emphasize high-frequency engagements. There is also a strong focus on design-thinking and customer-centric approaches that strengthen value creation. The value creation process used both product value and service value mechanisms and emphasized quality and excellence to provide stakeholder, as well as societal value, within their specific contexts. Practical implications This study builds upon other research that emphasizes SEs’ customer-centric approaches to strengthen value creation and on building a network of trust with multiple stakeholders. It contributes to emphasizing the business paradigm shift towards bringing social values to the business practice. Social implications Social good, but resource providers are demanding more concrete evidence to help them understand their impact (Struthers, 2013). This is because it is intrinsically difficult for many social organizations to document and communicate their impact in more than an anecdotal way. The research has contributed to the understanding of how SEs can provide evidence of value creation. Originality/value This study contributes to the understanding of how business models are designed to create value within the context of the overwhelming complexity of local government services in South Africa.
... Here, the purpose or outcome is equivalent to the fulfilment of a specified function -for example, to enable the flow of a specific amount of water from A to B. In this, it is acknowledged that the designed system is nested in systems of governance or in a cultural setting, yet the latter are analyzed as external to the system that is being designed. Methodologies such as systems engineering of complex projects that were developed as a method to deal with engineering challenges that span multiple engineering disciplines (Ryan, 2008) but are well defined in their scope, fall into this category. ...
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The necessity to recognize the subsurface or underground and all its current and potential uses as part of our urban environment, to integrate this into urban planning and governance, and to foster conscious allocation of subsurface space has been increasingly recognized over the last century. At the same time, systems thinking as a ‘buzz-word’ has gained relevance for approaching complex problem areas in all kinds of disciplines including those preoccupied with the subsurface. This paper reviews the literature about urban underground planning through a systems-lens. To set this in context, it is outlined how organizational principles for the urban subsurface have evolved, and the main aspects of systems thinking are introduced followed by a discussion of how this thinking could be applied to the urban underground. Strategies and tools presented in the recent literature in the field are then reviewed based on this perspective, asking how systemic the proposed strategies and tools are when the local geology, as well as legal and institutional settings are accepted as a baseline for analysis or intervention. Systemic approaches built on this premise have the potential to capture existing and evolving complexities, foster a better understanding of the value of subsurface space for a city and ultimately enable an efficient and fair allocation of underground space. However, propositions for holistic solutions remain dispersed, interventions often remain based in an engineering mindset, and a shift in mind-set remains a challenge. More research in collaboration with local and regional administrations or authorities based on systems thinking frameworks could help to facilitate this shift.
... The systems perspective must take off when reductionist thinking gets stuck. Ryan [26] chronicles the development of "systems approaches" and the "systems movement" starting with the introduction of von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory (GST) in the mid-twentieth century, the development of cybernetics, nonlinear dynamic systems, synergetics, complexity science and systems engineering. ...
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Abstract. This paper investigates whether a superior perspective (out of two perspectives) for management thinking in complex issues exists. Two prevailing thought-styles/perspectives are contrasted: reductionist and holistic. Complex issues require the right management perspective because wrong interventions informed by an inferior perspective may exacerbate complex problems. Scholarly literature is reviewed that highlights the effectiveness of a superior perspective in the management of complex phenomena ranging from business management to social policy. From the literature it is discovered that although reductionist thinking has its benefits when dealing with simpler phenomena, it has severe limitations and can be a blind-spot for managers when complex issues are at stake. As the world we live in now is characterized by increasing complexity, managers must switch from reductionist to holistic thinking (the superior perspective) in order to make the right interventions in complex issues.
... This subsection presents basic system properties. These properties are idealization, multiple components, interdependent components, organized interactions, system environment, states, inputs, and outputs, time, actions, and non-trivial behavior [7, 8, 1, 2]. ...
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While the phrase “system-of-systems” is commonly seen, there is less agreement on what they are, how they may be distinguished from “conventional” systems, or how their development differs from other systems. This paper proposes a definition, a limited taxonomy, and a basic set of architecting principles to assist in their design. As it turns out, the term system-of-systems is infelicitous for the taxonomic grouping. The grouping might be better termed “collaborative systems.” The paper also discusses the value of recognizing the classification in system design, and some of the problems induced by misclassification. One consequence of the classification is the identification of principal structuring heuristics for system-of-systems. Another is an understanding that, in most cases, the architecture of a system-of-systems is communications. The architecture is nonphysical, it is the set of standards that allow meaningful communication among the components. This is illustrated through existing and proposed systems. © 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Syst Eng 1: 267–284, 1998
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