Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

System types as purposeful, and displaying choice

Russell Ackoff has a four-way categorization of systems that I’ve found useful, and often shows up in my presentations.  I’ve had a history of citing a 1996 article that is peer-reviewed.  However, when I first saw him in person, speaking with an overhead slide projector in 1997, I recalled a slightly different language.  I’ve now discovered an article that is consistent with my memory.

In 1996, Ackoff & Gharajedaghi wrote (in a language consistent with the Ackoff & Emery 1972 On Purposeful Systems book):

Whatever one considers a system to be — and there is considerable agreement as to what a system is — there are obviously different ways of classifying them.  For example, they can be classified by size, by discipline (physical, biological, psychological, and so on), by location, by function, and many other ways as well.  The choice of a classification scheme normally depends on its intended use.  For our purposes — examining the consequences of mismatching systems and their models — the critical classifying variable is purpose and purpose is a matter of choice.

An entity is purposeful if it can produce (1) the same functionally defined outcome in different ways in the same environment, and (2) functionally different outcomes in the same and different environments.  Although the ability to make choices is necessary for purposefulness, it is not sufficient.  An entity that can behave differently but produce only one outcome in any one of a set of different environments is goal-seeking, not purposeful.  Servo-mechanisms are goal-seeking.  In contrast, people are obviously purposeful systems, and so are certain types of social groups.  An entity can be multi-goal-seeking if it is goal-seeking in each of two of more different environments.

Types of Systems and Models

There are three basic types of systems and models of them, and a meta-system:  one that contains all three types as parts of it (see Table 1):

Table 1: Types of systems and models
Systems and models Parts Whole
Deterministic Not purposeful Not purposeful
Animated Not purposeful Purposeful
Social Purposeful Purposeful
Ecological Purposeful Not purposeful

(1) Deterministic:  systems and models in which neither the parts nor the whole are purposeful.

(2) Animated:  systems and models in which the whole is purposeful but the parts are not.

(3) Social:  systems and models in which both the parts and the whole are purposeful.

These three types of systems form a hierarchy in the following sense: animated systems have deterministic systems as their parts.  In addition, some of them can create and use deterministic systems, but not vice-versa.  Social systems have animated systems as their parts.  All three types of system are contained in ecological systems, some of whose parts are purposeful, but not the whole.  For example, Earth is an ecological sysetm that has no purpose of its own but contains social and animate systems that do, and deterministic systems that don’t.  [pp. 13-14]

In the unreviewed 2003 paper, Ackoff & Gharajedaghi footnoted “1. This article is a revision and extension of an article we published earlier: “Reflections on Systems and Their Models,” Systems Research, Vol. 13, No. 1, March 1996, pp. 13-23″.  The table that appears in 2003 is different from that in 1996:

There are many different ways of classifying systems. Different classifications have different uses. We have found the one we present here to be the most useful for understanding the poor performances of social systems. Since we believe choice (and purposeful behavior which derives from it) is at the heart of human and social development our classification depends on whether the essential parts of a system or the whole can display choice and, therefore, have purposes. This concern yields the four types of system shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Types of systems
Parts Whole Example
Deterministic No choice No choice Clock
Ecological Choice No choice Nature
Animate No choice Choice Person
Social Choice Choice Corporation

Significant continuities exist as we come down the Table and each category contains a variety of systems with important differences between them. [footnote 2] It is important to note that there is a hierarchical relationship among the four categories shown in Table 1: each type has or uses parts that are systems of the type above it in Table 1. Nevertheless, each type has a distinct emergent characteristic that distinguishes it from all other system types.  [pp. 2-3]

[footnote 2] The classification can be elaborated by distinguishing between choice of ends and choice of means, but doing so would take us beyond the scope of this paper.

Further down in the article is Table 2 (which is not explicitly mentioned in the body text, but is essentially covered in the rest of the article).

Table 2. Possible System-Model Matches
Types of Model Type of System
Deterministic Ecological Animate Social
Deterministic DD DE DA DS
Ecological ED EE EA ES
Animate AD AE AA AS
Social SD SE SA SS

Historically, animate systems have often been treated as if they were nothing but complicated deterministic systems. Mechanistic biology dominated biology for centuries. [p. 5]

This summarizes some of the distinctions between metaphorically-oriented descriptions, and the rigours of modelling.  When an individual uses a type of model different from the type of system (in the context of purposefulness and choice), there can be a mismatch.

Since Ackoff was still alive and publishing in 2003, the 1996 version is an artifact that is journal-reviewed, but perhaps not the definitive word.  This unreviewed paper reflects a lag between scientific discovery and publication of the findings.


Footnote: My diary record says that I heard Russell Ackoff lecture in Natick, MA in a hotel venue on September 19, 1997. I seem to recall that the lecture was hosted by the Institute of Management Sciences from Boston, which was different from the TIMS/ORSA organization that today is called INFORMS.

References

Russell L Ackoff and Fred E. Emery (1972), On Purposeful Systems. Aldine-Atherton.  http://books.google.com/books?id=R-RSHfnS7VcC

Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi (1996), “Reflections on systems and their models”, Systems Research v.13 n,1 pp.13-23. DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1735(199603)13:1<13::AID-SRES66>3.0.CO;2-O, also republished in Russell L. Ackoff (1999), Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Chapter 2), John Wiley & Sons http://books.google.com/books?id=6ZAoAQAAMAAJ

Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi (2003), “On the mismatch between systems and their models”, Ackoff Center Weblog at http://ackoffcenter.blogs.com/ackoff_center_weblog/2003/08/on_the_mismatch.html

On the mismatch between systems and their Models


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS qoto.org/@daviding (Mastodon)

    • New status by daviding April 1, 2019
      Afternoon break in 200-year-old mid-lake pavilion included zhong, quail eggs, kumquats, sesame peanut blocks, preserved plums. Following afternoon visiting two art museums, the snack re-energized us into discussing philosophy, following the tradition of those frequenting Chinese teahouses. (Yuyuan Tea House, Yu Garden, Shanghai, PR China) 20190331 @marcocataffo
    • New status by daviding April 1, 2019
      Here in Shanghai, @marcocataffo has a Thinkpad T430 , which I&apos;ve now brought up to date with Manjaro Linux (and Kubuntu LTS as a backup) alongside Windows 7. He&apos;s now 2 days jet lagged from Italy. Eventually, maybe @antlerboy will meet somewhere.
    • daviding shared a status by antlerboy@mastodon.social February 9, 2019
      @daviding Wittgenstein:"6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"
    • New status by daviding February 9, 2019
      Dinner with @rms @fsf inviting the activists #CivicTechTO to gain some insight into discussions on privacy concerns #QuaysideToronto. We outlined but didn&apos;t delved into the complexity of three levels of government involved in #WaterfrontTO. (Royal Myanmar, Homer Avenue, Etobicoke, Ontario) 20190208
    • New status by daviding January 24, 2019
      Each of us can find different meaning from the same words. > The poetic prose of ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, for example, is a stunning piece of compressed thought and meaning with a deft touch of humour: ”The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. […]
  • RSS on IngBrief

    • Contextual dyadic thinking (Lee, 2017)
      Contextual dyadic thinking is proposed by Keekok Lee in her 2017 The Philosophical Foundations of Classical Chinese Medicine. This is as a way of appreciating Chinese implicit logic, as an alternative to dualistic thinking that has developed over centuries in Western philosophy.
    • Dao, de, wei, wuwei (Lai 2003)
      Appreciating wei and wuwei has led to the context of dao and de, in the writings of Karyn L. Lai. The scholarly review acknowledges prior interpretations of de and dao.
    • Engineering Resilience vs. Ecological Resilience (Holling, 1996)
      For @theNASciences in 1996, #CSHolling clarified definitions of resilience, with engineering seeking one equilibrium state, while ecology recognizes many. Those who emphasize the near-equilibrium definition of engineering resilience, for example, draw predominantly from traditions of deductive mathematical theory (Pimm,. 1984) where simplified, untouched ecological systems are imagined, or from traditions of engineering, where the motive […]
    • Service coproductions as reciprocal activities
      In addition to extrinsic economic exchange, #JohnMCarroll #JiaweiChen #ChienWenTinaYuan #BenjaminHanrahan @ISTatPENNSTATE say service coproductions relying on all participants to collaborate in both economic exchange and social exchange. Service coproduction is a special case of service provision in which the roles of service provider and service recipient both require active participation. Examples include healthcare, education, and […]
    • Science and Society in East and West | Joseph Needham | 2004
      In researching #SystemsChange, fundamental differences in science and philosophy in the west and the Chinese were surfaced by #JosephNeedham. A useful translation of wéi and wú wéi (i.e. 為 and 無為 , or 为 and 无为) is the ways of "human will" and "nature" as juxtaposed.
    • Wiki as computational platform
      Thinking forward on #federatedwiki, rather than backwards by @wardcunningham. > [Federated wiki] is a computational platform for the collaborative construction of things that work and will continue to work as platform technology evolves underneath it. > Too much thinking about wiki as a note-taking system will just hold it back.
  • RSS on Media Queue

  • RSS on daviding.com

    • 2019/03 Moments March 2019
      Month of intensive lectures and research meetings, in Toronto and then in Shanghai, with social breaks on local excursions to clear minds.
    • 2019/02 Moments February 2019
      Reduced exercise outside with a cold and snowy February, with excursions out of the house to warm places with family, friends and colleagues.
    • 2019/01 Moments January 2019
      January in Toronto has lots of intellectual offerings and artistic exhibitions to attract the curious out of warm homes, through cold and snow.
    • 2018/12 Moments December 2018
      Tried to have a normal month, with a busy social calendar of birthdays, a funeral plus Christmas season, while daily temperatures hovered just above freezing.
    • 2018/11 Moments November 2011
      Mentally busy month with a conference coming to town, and maintaining the regular pattern of local meetings, travel around town only by bicycle.
    • 2018/10 Moments October 2018
      October had more bicycling cross-town as fall temperatures declined, plus a 6-day trip to Portland Oregon for pattern language conferences.
  • Meta

  • Creative Commons License
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
    Theme modified from DevDmBootstrap4 by Danny Machal