Conference PaperPDF Available

What Systems Thinking Means to Different Networks of Researchers



There is a growing body of literature on the applications of Systems Thinking (ST); yet, a consensus on what constitutes ST remains elusive. Various studies have demonstrated the necessity to revise the definition of ST, especially for the purpose of ST assessment. Classification of the available definitions in the literature is an essential step to reach a common language among the scholars in the field. By using Social Network Analysis (SNA), this paper identifies the main authorship networks around ST. The analysis of 1462 papers with ST in their title leads to the emergence of three large components. Looking at the main concepts, definitions and applications in each component reveals systems thinking functions differently for each network of researchers. In the first component, ST is used as the backbone of other frameworks such as Critical Systems Thinking (CST) or Open System Thinking; while, in the second component, the applicability of ST concepts and the gap from knowledge to action are highlighted. Finally, the third component points to the potential application of ST to transform different sectors.
What Systems Thinking Means to Different Networks of
Amin Dehdarian1,*, Kiumars Dorani2, Hesam Mahmoudi3, Masoomeh Khandan4
1The Learning Lab Future Transport Systems, ETH Zürich, 2Faculty of Business Administration, Memorial University of
Newfoundland, 3Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Virginia Tech, 4Labor Mobility Partnerships,
Washington DC. *the corresponding author
Extended Abstract
There is a growing body of literature on the applications of Systems Thinking (ST); yet, a
consensus on what constitutes ST remains elusive. Various studies have demonstrated the
necessity to revise the definition of ST, especially for the purpose of ST assessment.
Classification of the available definitions in the literature is an essential step to reach a common
language among the scholars in the field. By using Social Network Analysis (SNA), this paper
identifies the main authorship networks around ST. The analysis of 1462 papers with ST in their
title leads to the emergence of three large components. Looking at the main concepts, definitions
and applications in each component reveals systems thinking functions differently for each
network of researchers. In the first component, ST is used as the backbone of other frameworks
such as Critical Systems Thinking (CST) or Open System Thinking; while, in the second
component, the applicability of ST concepts and the gap from knowledge to action are highlighted.
Finally, the third component points to the potential application of ST to transform different sectors.
Considerable research has been conducted on the definitions, approaches, methodologies, and
tools of Systems Thinking (ST). A search in Scopus alone, returns more than 1500 papers that
contain the term “systems thinking” in their titles. However, ST still suffers from the lack of
common definitions and approaches. That is one of the reasons why a comprehensive revision
of ST definition is needed especially in order to improve ST assessment methods. Many papers
do not provide any specific definition or framework. A clear definition and understanding of ST
can help researchers to use ST in many contexts effectively. Since 1994, considerable efforts
have been made to form a common understanding and definition of ST. All such efforts have been
unsuccessful. A serious challenge to address this issue is that ST has been employed in different
and sometimes contradictory approaches and methods. The first step in having the ability to
create a common definition of ST and improve current approaches is to cluster current definitions
and approaches. However, ST definitions and approaches can be clustered in a variety of ways.
This paper proposes a new method for the classification of ST research based on network
Method and data
The proposed method to classify definitions and applications of Systems Thinking, is to use a list
of the most active researchers, and the definitions and applications in their publications. In this
respect, by using social network analysis, a network of authorship is created. Each node
represents a paper, and the link between two nodes highlights there is at least one author shared
between the two papers. As a result, a number of isolated sub-networks (the so-called
components) and isolated nodes emerge. In large components, there is a possibility of the
emergence of clusters, where nodes within each cluster have a stronger bond with each other
than the rest of the same component (Dehdarian & Tucci, 2021).To find clusters, here an
algorithm called modularization is used, which results in the identification of modules (Clauset et
al., 2004).
The data used in this network includes all papers with the term “systems thinking” in the titles in
Scopus, which results in a total number of 1502 papers. The biggest components with at least
two modules are considered here, which leads to a total of three biggest components.
The biggest component is composed of six modules. The main focus in this component is on
theories and approaches that emerge from systems thinking characteristics and its practical
applications. They include soft systems methodology, open systems thinking, critical systems
thinking, the Vanguard method, lean management and total system intervention. There are also
comparisons between Systems thinking and other methods or approaches such as Operations
Research (OR) and System Dynamics (SD).
The second component is composed of four modules that can be divided into two groups. The
first group includes frameworks to transform Systems thinking theories and concepts into learning
and action. Then, systems thinking potentials and functionalities are explored in the case of the
health system. There is the possibility of looking at the health system as an example of a complex
adaptive system that provides the opportunity for a systems thinking approach to grasp the
inherent complexity of such systems. However, in reality there is a gap between knowledge and
action. Furthermore, there are potential applications for systems thinking to improve functions in
the health system as a practical need, which highlights the importance of learning and experience
in using systems thinking principles.
Finally, the third component focuses on interventions and practical solutions facilitated by systems
thinking to address practical challenges in different sectors. They range from health system issues
to different aspects of systems engineering such as planning or education, as well as examples
of large infrastructural systems such as energy and maritime systems.
Looking at the results of network analysis shows that in the largest networks of authorship and
co-authorship, which can be interpreted as the network of the most active ST researchers, ST
and some other concepts are being used interchangeably. These concepts range from
frameworks and methods such as critical systems thinking and open systems thinking, to
definitions that highlight one aspect of ST such as connection between parts, or a holistic
approach. In addition, ST is understood as a required mindset to resolve issues in complex
adaptive systems or large engineering systems. In this respect, our results show that instead of
providing a clear definition of ST and the requirements to make the best use of ST principles and
mindset in different contexts, practical issues arising in these systems are attributed to the lack of
ST, which can be resolved by filling the gap from knowledge to action or apply ST for system
This research is a first step to analyze the structure of the research community around ST
definitions, concepts and application, and different patterns emerging from different types of
collaboration. This research can be complemented by looking at other modes of collaboration and
knowledge exchange through the network of co-authorships (authors as nodes), main path
analysis of the ST research strands and their knowledge trajectories, and citation networks. Each
of these networks can shed light on the evolution and dissemination of knowledge about ST and
help us understand why the ST community, even though equipped with ST as a critical asset for
analyzing complex issues, has not reached consensus about its associated concepts, skills and
definitions, that can differentiate ST from other relevant theories and frameworks.
Arnold, R. D., & Wade, J. P. (2015). A definition of systems thinking: A systems approach.
Procedia Computer Science, 44(C), 669678.
Atun, R., & Menabde, N. (2006). Health systems and systems thinking. In Health systems and
the challenge of communicable diseases: experiences from Europe and Latin America (p. 266).
Open University Press.
Bastian, M., Heymann, S., & Jacomy, M. (2009). Gephi: An Open Source Software for Exploring
and Manipulating Networks. Third International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media,
Best, A., Hiatt, R. A., & Norman, C. D. (2008). Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing
communications in cancer control systems. Patient Education and Counseling, 71(3), 319327.
Best, A., & Holmes, B. (2010). Systems thinking, knowledge and action: Towards better models
and methods. Evidence and Policy, 6(2), 145159.
Best, A., Terpstra, J. L., Moor, G., Riley, B., Norman, C. D., & Glasgow, R. E. (2009). Building
knowledge integration systems for evidence-informed decisions. Journal of Health Organization
and Management, 23(6), 627641.
Boardman, J., & Sauser, B. (2008). Systems thinking: Coping with 21st century problems. In
Systems Thinking: Coping with 21st Century Problems. CRC Press.
Cabrera, D., & Cabrera, L. (2015). Systems Thinking: Made simple. Odyssean Press.
Checkland, P. (1978). The origins and nature of “hard” systems thinking. Journal of Applied
Systems Analysis, 5(2), 99110.
Checkland, P. (1999). Systems thinking, systems practice: Includes a 30-year Retrospective.
Chichester, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons.
Checkland, P., Challender, S., Clarke, S., Haynes, M., Hoebeke, L., Leemhuis, J., … Wood, P.
(2000). The Emergent Properties of SSM in Use: A Symposium by Reflective Practitioners.
Systemic Practice and Action Research, 13(6), 799823.
Churchman, C. W. (1971). The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and
organization,. Basic Books.
Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York: Basic Books.
Clauset, A., Newman, M. E. J., & Moore, C. (2004). Finding community structure in very large
networks. Physical Review. E, Statistical, Nonlinear, and Soft Matter Physics, 70(6 Pt 2), 6.
Dehdarian, A., & Tucci, C. L. (2021). A complex network approach for analyzing early evolution
of smart grid innovations in Europe. Applied Energy, 298, 117143.
Dorani, K., Mortazavi, A., Dehdarian, M. A., Mahmoudi, H., Khandan, M., & Mashayekhi, A.
(2015). Developing Question Sets to Assess Systems Thinking Skills. Proceedings of the 33rd
International Conference of the System Dynamics Society. Cambridge MA, USA.
El-Jardali, F., Adam, T., Ataya, N., Jamal, D., & Jaafar, M. (2014). Constraints to applying systems
thinking concepts in health systems: A regional perspective from surveying stakeholders in
Eastern Mediterranean countries. International Journal of Health Policy and Management, 3(7),
Emery, M. (1999). Searching: the theory and practice of making cultural change. John Benjamins
Publishing Company.
Emery, M. (2000). The Current Version of Emery’s Open Systems Theory. Systemic Practice and
Action Research 2000 13:5, 13(5), 623643.
Flood, R. L. (1990). Liberating Systems Theory: Toward Critical Systems Thinking. Human
Relations, 43(1), 4975.
Flood, Robert L., & Jackson, M. C. (1991). Creative problem solving : total systems intervention.
Holmes, B. J., Finegood, D. T., Riley, B. L., & Best, A. (2012). Systems Thinking in Dissemination
and Implementation Research. In Dissemination and Implementation Research in Health:
Translating Science to Practice.
Ison, R. L., Maiteny, P. T., & Carr, S. (1997). Systems methodologies for sustainable natural
resources research and development. Agricultural Systems, 55(2), 257272.
Jackson, M. C. (1991). Systems methodology for the management sciences. Plenum Press.
Jackson, M. C. (2003). Systems thinking: creative holism for managers. J. Wiley.
Mahmoudi, H., Dorani, K., Dehdarian, A., Khandan, M., & Mashayekhi, A. N. (2019). Does
Systems Thinking Assessment Demand a Revised Definition of Systems Thinking? The 37th
International Conference of the System Dynamics Society. Albuquerque NM, USA.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Ramage, M., & Shipp, K. (2009). Systems thinkers. Springer London.
Reynolds, M. (2016). Towards Praxis in Systems Thinking. In Systems Thinking: Foundation,
Uses and Challenges (pp. 333).
Reynolds, M., & Holwell, S. (2010). Systems approaches to managing change: A practical guide.
Springer London.
Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from command & control: a better way to make the work work.
Vanguard Education Ltd.
Seddon, J. (2008). Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: The Failure of the Reform Regime....
and a Manifesto for a Better Way. Triarchy Press.
Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organization. New York:
Sharif, A. M., Alshawi, S., Kamal, M. M., Eldabi, T., & Mazhar, A. (2014). Exploring the role of
supplier relationship management for sustainable operations: An OR perspective. Journal of the
Operational Research Society, Vol. 65, pp. 963978.
Sterman, J. D. (2006). Learning from evidence in a complex world. American Journal of Public
Health, 96(3), 505514.
Swanson, R. C., Cattaneo, A., Bradley, E., Chunharas, S., Atun, R., Abbas, K. M., Best, A.
(2012). Rethinking health systems strengthening: Key systems thinking tools and strategies for
transformational change. Health Policy and Planning, 27(SUPPL. 4).
Ulrich, W. (1983). Critical heuristics of social planning : a new approach to practical philosophy.
P. Haupt.
Valerdi, R., & Rouse, W. B. (2010). When systems thinking is not a natural act. 2010 IEEE
International Systems Conference Proceedings, SysCon 2010, 184189.
Wilkinson, J., Goff, M., Rusoja, E., Hanson, C., & Swanson, R. C. (2018). The application of
systems thinking concepts, methods, and tools to global health practices: An analysis of case
studies. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 24(3), 607618.
Wolstenholme, E. F. (1993). A Case Study in Community Care Using Systems Thinking. The
Journal of the Operational Research Society, 44(9), 925.
Zhou, T., Ren, J., Medo, M., & Zhang, Y. C. (2007). Bipartite network projection and personal
recommendation. Physical Review E - Statistical, Nonlinear, and Soft Matter Physics, 76(4).
... We humans live in a period new to human history, the Anthropocene world. From late 2019, humanity has been subjected to the perturbations of pandemic, economic disruption, including massive global inequality (Figure 1; Dixson-Declève et al., 2022;Wilkinson & Pickett, 2022), civil unrest including war and changes in whole-Earth dynamics associated with a human-induced Anthropocene (Ison, 2016(Ison, , 2022. These perturbations are like wave-fronts breaking on the shore of our institutionalised ways of thinking and acting, buffered only by our as yet unrealised capacity to invent new institutions (norms and rules) and governance systems. ...
... It is unprofitable to fall into practices that define and redefine what a concept is, or is not (Dehdarian et al., 2022). Too often these are disguised exhortations 'to do it my way because I am right'. ...
Full-text available
In his 1970 report to the Club of Rome, Hasan Özbekhan compiled an extensive collection of intersecting issues confronting humanity—the Global Problématique. Alas, half a century later, we find ourselves even further entrenched in this network of complex, systemic issues that some have framed the Anthropocene, a period new to human history. Collectively, we must take seriously the question: what purposeful action will aid human flourishing, create and sustain a viable space for humanity, in our ongoing co-evolution with the Anthropocene-Biosphere? Through ongoing reflections to this prompt, the theme of the IFSR's 2023 agenda is community. At the heart of this community, we place emphasis on the role of conversation to enable the co-creation of a common (yet not necessarily shared) understanding. Collective efforts to grow and participate in this diverse cyber-systemic community of conversation and understanding will enhance the capacity to shift from stasis towards transformative actions demanded by the Global Problématique. In the Batesonian sense, the prospect of making a meta-difference that makes a difference is the emergent promise of our enterprise made collective.
Full-text available
This paper investigates how the strategic decisions of innovative firms to collaborate with other firms in research and development projects shape the early evolution of smart grid technologies as an emerging technological system across Europe. The early innovations and developments in an emerging technological system are crucial for understanding further developments of the system. This early stage is highly influenced by the strategic decisions and lobbying power of the firms experimenting with different technological innovations, and the policies trying to maintain competition and steer the direction of innovative activities. Therefore, it is important to analyze how innovative firms behave in terms of collaborating with other firms and doing research on specific energy solutions, which reflect their strategic priorities. By taking a complex network approach, this paper investigates a network of smart grid R&D projects to analyze the convergence of smart grid research activities towards a stream of innovative solutions, and the variety of innovative activities branching out from these solutions. The results verify the convergence of smart grid activities towards one specific stream of innovations, and reveal the existence of four variations centered around different technological applications. The results can guide strategy development in innovative firms to take part in research collaborations or focus on specific smart energy technologies, and have implications for policy makers aiming to influence the direction of smart grid research programs, as well as for researchers in the field of smart grid innovation and technological innovation systems.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
A number of different systems thinking assessment methods have been proposed in the literature, each based on a specific definition of systems thinking. We argue that these systems thinking definitions tend to see the nature of systems thinking as a system methodology in line with system dynamics; whereas, systems thinking is essentially an unconscious worldview which helps with understanding complex systems rather than modelling and analyzing a phenomenon. A literature review reveals that the available definitions vary considerably in terms of interactions and sequence of systems thinking skills; while most of the definitions ignore the emergence of systems thinking as a worldview from the skill set. Finally, it is demonstrated that the flaws in the systems thinking definition are inherited by the systems thinking assessment method that adopts that definition and thus, the first step towards developing a well-established assessment method is revisiting and honing the systems thinking definition.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
After a brief look at the nature of systems thinking the paper goes on to consider in detail the history of systems thinking in the management sciences. This is followed by a brief overview of 'critical systems thinking' as it has developed at Hull University, and an outline of the critical systems methodology known as 'Total Systems Intervention' or TSI.
Increasingly, the literature highlights the benefits of systems thinking in approaching dissemination and implementation efforts and associated research in health. This chapter draws attention to features of systems thinking that are most pertinent to dissemination and implementation research, including how we think about dissemination and implementation objects and strategies. It covers main features of dissemination and implementation research–its purpose and questions, conceptual frameworks, study designs and methods, and the research process. In doing so, it provides an overview of a systems-oriented approach to dissemination and implementation research. The chapter provides two dissemination and implementation research examples that demonstrate the applicability of the approaches described in this chapter across a range of health issues, especially the complex health problems–of today and the foreseeable future–that cause the greatest health, social, and economic burden to individuals and societies worldwide.
Objectives: This review of systems thinking (ST) case studies seeks to compile and analyse cases from ST literature and provide practitioners with a reference for ST in health practice. Particular attention was given to (1) reviewing the frequency and use of key ST terms, methods, and tools in the context of health, and (2) extracting and analysing longitudinal themes across cases. Methods: A systematic search of databases was conducted, and a total of 36 case studies were identified. A combination of integrative and inductive qualitative approaches to analysis was used. Results: Most cases identified took place in high-income countries and applied ST retrospectively. The most commonly used ST terms were agent/stakeholder/actor (n = 29), interdependent/interconnected (n = 28), emergence (n = 26), and adaptability/adaptation (n = 26). Common ST methods and tools were largely underutilized. Social network analysis was the most commonly used method (n = 4), and innovation or change management history was the most frequently used tool (n = 11). Four overarching themes were identified; the importance of the interdependent and interconnected nature of a health system, characteristics of leaders in a complex adaptive system, the benefits of using ST, and barriers to implementing ST. Conclusions: This review revealed that while much has been written about the potential benefits of applying ST to health, it has yet to completely transition from theory to practice. There is however evidence of the practical use of an ST lens as well as specific methods and tools. With clear examples of ST applications, the global health community will be better equipped to understand and address key health challenges.
The importance of system management for the improvement of organization's performance is discussed. System thinking represents a better logic for the design and management of work. The management thinkers suggests that there is need to think beyond the command and control management method for managing work more efficiently. The better way is to manage an organization as a system which simplify the work and opposed to command and control thinking. The new system approach is to design, in line with customer demand instead of in functional hierarchies.