Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Currently Viewing Posts Tagged systems

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.  

Read more (in a new tab)

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.  

Read more (in a new tab)

Revisiting the Socio-Ecological, Social-Technical and Socio-Psychological Systems Perspectives

A report, plus a contributed article, on the socio-ecological, socio-technical and socio-psychological systems perspectives is now available.

The Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, from the 1950s through the 1980s, developed a legacy of research based in systems thinking that has had lasting impact on theories of organization design and change.  The International Federation for Systems Research biannually hosts a conversation event in Austria where systems researchers have the luxury of time to share in mutual learning.  A trigger question for a team was proposed:

  • In which ways is the Tavistock legacy still relevant, and which ways might these ideas be advanced and/or refreshed (for the globalized/service economy)?

Pointers to some of the relevant literature were provided.  Joining the team, at Linz, were:

Minna Takala led the development of the team report for the proceedings, as well as contributing an independent article extending learnings from the group.  An excerpt of these two publications is a repackaging from the full proceedings that comprise the work of four teams meeting in parallel.

A report, plus a contributed article, on the socio-ecological, socio-technical and socio-psychological systems perspectives is now available.

The Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, from the 1950s through the 1980s, developed a legacy of research based in systems thinking that has had lasting impact on theories of organization design and change.  The International Federation for Systems Research biannually hosts a conversation event in Austria where systems researchers have the luxury of time to share in mutual learning.  A trigger question for a team was proposed:

  • In which ways is the Tavistock legacy still relevant, and which ways might these ideas be advanced and/or refreshed (for the globalized/service economy)?

Pointers to some of the relevant literature were provided.  Joining the team, at Linz, were:

Minna Takala led the development of the team report for the proceedings, as well as contributing an independent article extending learnings from the group.  An excerpt of these two publications is a repackaging from the full proceedings that comprise the work of four teams meeting in parallel.

Is that affordance essential? (HSSE)

For the 1st International Conference on Human Side of Service Innovation, I had been asked  by Kelly Lyons to contribute an article for a session on Frameworks for Service Systems.  I had worked on the article in fall 2011, but leading a 6-day conference in San Jose immediately before the start of the HSSE meeting in San Francisco made completion improbable.  Having prepared an abstract and outline for “Is That Affordance Essential? Pathology in service systems and redesigns for sustainability”, I couldn’t squeeze in an article by the winter publication deadline. I was, however, prepared to share a presentation on research-in-progress.  I expect that I’ll be able to finish this research paper over the next year, (and hope that I’ll get a longer time slot to present than the 15 minutes allotted at HSSE).

The original abstract for my presentation reads:

A service systems may exhibit pathologies, i.e. an abnormal, unhealthy, maladjusted or inefficient state that is maintained in a living system for a significant period. Correcting a pathology may require a history-making change where significant capital investment is needed.

As a way of reframing the definition of a service system, interactions between parties are expressed as an interaction where a provider offers affordances and clients may have varying levels of ability. The needs and expectations of high-ability clients can be contrasted to those of low-ability clients. Portraying affordances as essential or discretionary may enable segmentation of client target groups into coproducing or full-service arrangements.

Read more (in a new tab)

For the 1st International Conference on Human Side of Service Innovation, I had been asked  by Kelly Lyons to contribute an article for a session on Frameworks for Service Systems.  I had worked on the article in fall 2011, but leading a 6-day conference in San Jose immediately before the start of the HSSE meeting in San Francisco made completion improbable.  Having prepared an abstract and outline for “Is That Affordance Essential? Pathology in service systems and redesigns for sustainability”, I couldn’t squeeze in an article by the winter publication deadline. I was, however, prepared to share a presentation on research-in-progress.  I expect that I’ll be able to finish this research paper over the next year, (and hope that I’ll get a longer time slot to present than the 15 minutes allotted at HSSE).

The original abstract for my presentation reads:

A service systems may exhibit pathologies, i.e. an abnormal, unhealthy, maladjusted or inefficient state that is maintained in a living system for a significant period. Correcting a pathology may require a history-making change where significant capital investment is needed.

As a way of reframing the definition of a service system, interactions between parties are expressed as an interaction where a provider offers affordances and clients may have varying levels of ability. The needs and expectations of high-ability clients can be contrasted to those of low-ability clients. Portraying affordances as essential or discretionary may enable segmentation of client target groups into coproducing or full-service arrangements.

Read more (in a new tab)

An interview on “Service Systems, Natural Systems” and the systems sciences

An interview by Performance magazine — with an issue focused on systems in architecture and related disciplines — has now been published. Since the content has been translated into German (as well as reduced for length) — the original interview is posted below, in English.


  • David Ing is the president (2011-2012), of the International Society for the Systems Sciences. He welcomes deep thinkers from around the world to join in an interactive learning experience at the annual meeting of the ISSS, scheduled for July 15-20, 2012, in San Jose, California. David Ing responded to this interview from his home in Toronto, Canada.

Performance, 2012, number 2

1. Could you please, in just a few words, explain to us what the systems sciences deal with and what your specialty area is?

The systems sciences — many of us prefer sciences in the plural — study the nature of parts and wholes. People may say that they are systems thinkers: they view the world primarily as relations of part-whole, part-part and whole-whole arrangements in space and time. Systems thinking enables a basic foundation across a wide variety of domains, including (i) natural systems in geographic and biological domains, and (ii) man-made systems in social and informatic domains.

In 2011-2012, I am serving as the president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). Our annual meeting for July 2012 will be at San Jose State University, in California. We expect a broad range of systems researchers and practitioners to come together for interdiscipinary and transciplinary discussions over five days.… Read more (in a new tab)

An interview by Performance magazine — with an issue focused on systems in architecture and related disciplines — has now been published. Since the content has been translated into German (as well as reduced for length) — the original interview is posted below, in English.


  • David Ing is the president (2011-2012), of the International Society for the Systems Sciences. He welcomes deep thinkers from around the world to join in an interactive learning experience at the annual meeting of the ISSS, scheduled for July 15-20, 2012, in San Jose, California. David Ing responded to this interview from his home in Toronto, Canada.

Performance, 2012, number 2

1. Could you please, in just a few words, explain to us what the systems sciences deal with and what your specialty area is?

The systems sciences — many of us prefer sciences in the plural — study the nature of parts and wholes. People may say that they are systems thinkers: they view the world primarily as relations of part-whole, part-part and whole-whole arrangements in space and time. Systems thinking enables a basic foundation across a wide variety of domains, including (i) natural systems in geographic and biological domains, and (ii) man-made systems in social and informatic domains.

In 2011-2012, I am serving as the president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). Our annual meeting for July 2012 will be at San Jose State University, in California. We expect a broad range of systems researchers and practitioners to come together for interdiscipinary and transciplinary discussions over five days.… Read more (in a new tab)

Systems thinking, systems that learn, and learning in service systems

Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)? How does a service system continue to learn about purposes (and objectives and goals) in its wholes and its parts? When a service system learns that change is called for, can that system consciously act to evolve (or devolve)?

Focusing on definitions of science and of systems thinking can lead to thinking about a static thing, rather than intellectual virtues that changes over time. Applying systems thinking to science, the intellectual virtues of episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know where, know whom) can each or all evolve. Actually, they coevolve, because the why, how, when, where and whom are all changing simultaneously.

Many of today’s services systems are under stress, possibly reaching a point of unsustainability. Does (or would) systems thinking help? To be concise, let’s try some responses to the three questions at the outset of this essay.

  • Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)?
    • A system in which systems thinking has contributed towards its design should have had features or properties included that are appropriate for its environment. If the environment changes, the fitness of the system may or may not degrade. A system intended for volatile environments may be have been designed to respond to change, or to fail — potentially gracefully — with signals that a more appropriate replacement should be put in place.
Read more (in a new tab)

Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)? How does a service system continue to learn about purposes (and objectives and goals) in its wholes and its parts? When a service system learns that change is called for, can that system consciously act to evolve (or devolve)?

Focusing on definitions of science and of systems thinking can lead to thinking about a static thing, rather than intellectual virtues that changes over time. Applying systems thinking to science, the intellectual virtues of episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know where, know whom) can each or all evolve. Actually, they coevolve, because the why, how, when, where and whom are all changing simultaneously.

Many of today’s services systems are under stress, possibly reaching a point of unsustainability. Does (or would) systems thinking help? To be concise, let’s try some responses to the three questions at the outset of this essay.

  • Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)?
    • A system in which systems thinking has contributed towards its design should have had features or properties included that are appropriate for its environment. If the environment changes, the fitness of the system may or may not degrade. A system intended for volatile environments may be have been designed to respond to change, or to fail — potentially gracefully — with signals that a more appropriate replacement should be put in place.
Read more (in a new tab)

Science, systems thinking, and advances in theories, methods and practices

Post-2013 addendum:  Many of the ideas in this January 2012 blog post — particularly around episteme, techne and phronesis — were more formally published in October 2013 as “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and Coevolving with the World”, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Please cite that article, rather than this preliminary blog post.

Commenting on the Overview of Systems Science (draft version 0.5) for the Guide to the Systems Engineering Book of Knowledge is problematic. Applying systems thinking on systems thinking constitutes a mess of ideas that is difficult to tease apart. Breaking the idea of “systems science” in its parts of (i) “systems” and (ii) “science” is reductive. The more compatible approach is to view “science” with a larger context of “systems thinking”.

I’ll attempt to shed some more light on concerns and perspectives in the following sections:

  • 1. The definition of science often tends towards disciplinarity; systems thinking aims for transdisciplinarity
  • 2. Science is part of thinking, which can be philosophically framed as episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know when, know whom)
  • 3. Domains of systems thinking can be categorized into systems theory, systems methods, and systems practice
  • 4. Incomplete systems thinking may suggest paths through which gaps may be filled
  • 5. Systems thinking has evolved with roots of linear causality, circular causality, complexity theory and reflexivity theory
  • 6. Opportunities to refresh ties between systems thinking and action science, theory of practice and social learning could be pursued

The discussion of science and systems thinking leads to perspectives at another level.… Read more (in a new tab)

Post-2013 addendum:  Many of the ideas in this January 2012 blog post — particularly around episteme, techne and phronesis — were more formally published in October 2013 as “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and Coevolving with the World”, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Please cite that article, rather than this preliminary blog post.

Commenting on the Overview of Systems Science (draft version 0.5) for the Guide to the Systems Engineering Book of Knowledge is problematic. Applying systems thinking on systems thinking constitutes a mess of ideas that is difficult to tease apart. Breaking the idea of “systems science” in its parts of (i) “systems” and (ii) “science” is reductive. The more compatible approach is to view “science” with a larger context of “systems thinking”.

I’ll attempt to shed some more light on concerns and perspectives in the following sections:

  • 1. The definition of science often tends towards disciplinarity; systems thinking aims for transdisciplinarity
  • 2. Science is part of thinking, which can be philosophically framed as episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know when, know whom)
  • 3. Domains of systems thinking can be categorized into systems theory, systems methods, and systems practice
  • 4. Incomplete systems thinking may suggest paths through which gaps may be filled
  • 5. Systems thinking has evolved with roots of linear causality, circular causality, complexity theory and reflexivity theory
  • 6. Opportunities to refresh ties between systems thinking and action science, theory of practice and social learning could be pursued

The discussion of science and systems thinking leads to perspectives at another level.… Read more (in a new tab)

  • RSS qoto.org/@daviding (Mastodon)

    • daviding: “Pre-announcing April 30 Dialogic Drinks session I'm leading …” April 23, 2024
      Pre-announcing April 30 Dialogic Drinks session I'm leading on "#Yinyang and Daojia into #SystemsThinking through Changes", online 18:30 Singapore, 11:30 London, 6:30am Toronto. Repeating May 2, 8:00pm ET. Official #EQLab notifications https://www.eqlab.co/newsletter-signup
    • daviding: “Diachrony (or diachronic shifts) resurrects a word from 1857…” April 10, 2024
      Diachrony (or diachronic shifts) resurrects a word from 1857, better expressing *changes through time*. A social practice publication in 1998 contrasts synchronic with diachronic. https://ingbrief.wordpress.com/2024/04/10/diachronic-diachrony/
    • daviding: “Web video introduction of 15 minutes for 1-hour Lunch and Le…” March 22, 2024
      Web video introduction of 15 minutes for 1-hour Lunch and Learn #CentreForSocialInnovationToronto on "Systems Changes Dialogues for Social Innovation" invites practitioners for upcoming monthly meetings. Evocative animated images, details deferred to conversations with mentors. https://coevolving.com/blogs/index.php/archive/systems-changes-dialogues-csi/#SystemsThinking
    • daviding: “Web video of slides from "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Sys…” March 21, 2024
      Web video of slides from "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Systems Changes Learning" for Dialogic Drinks of #EQLab represents only 1/5 of the time compared to peer-led discussions. Concise hosting called for brevity, and richer presentations. https://coevolving.com/blogs/index.php/archive/from-unfreezing-refreezing-eq-lab/ #SystemsThinking
    • daviding: “Hosting multiple Dialogic Drinks on "From Unfreezing-Refreez…” March 8, 2024
      Hosting multiple Dialogic Drinks on "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Systems Changes Learning" online, March 12 (Europe), March 14 (Americas), March 15 (Australia). #Leadership meets #SystemsThinking . Short presentations, longer discussions https://www.eqlab.co/from-unfreezing-refreezing-to-systems-changes-learning-david-ing
  • RSS on IngBrief

    • The Nature and Application of the Daodejing | Ames and Hall (2003)
      Ames and Hall (2003) provide some tips for those studyng the DaoDeJing.
    • Diachronic, diachrony
      Finding proper words to express system(s) change(s) can be a challenge. One alternative could be diachrony. The Oxford English dictionary provides two definitions for diachronic, the first one most generally related to time. (The second is linguistic method) diachronic ADJECTIVE Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “diachronic (adj.), sense 1,” July 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/3691792233. For completeness, prochronic relates “to […]
    • Introduction, “Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2”, edited by F. E. Emery (1981)
      The selection of readings in the “Introduction” to Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2, Penguin (1981), edited by Fred E. Emery, reflects a turn from 1969 when a general systems theory was more fully entertained, towards an urgency towards changes in the world that were present in 1981. Systems thinking was again emphasized in contrast […]
    • Introduction, “Systems Thinking: Selected Readings”, edited by F. E. Emery (1969)
      In reviewing the original introduction for Systems Thinking: Selected Readings in the 1969 Penguin paperback, there’s a few threads that I only recognize, many years later. The tables of contents (disambiguating various editions) were previously listed as 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings. — begin paste — Introduction In the selection of papers for this […]
    • Concerns with the way systems thinking is used in evaluation | Michael C. Jackson, OBE | 2023-02-27
      In a recording of the debate between Michael Quinn Patton and Michael C. Jackson on “Systems Concepts in Evaluation”, Patton referenced four concepts published in the “Principles for effective use of systems thinking in evaluation” (2018) by the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group (SETIG) of the American Evaluation Society. The four concepts are: (i) […]
    • Quality Criteria for Action Research | Herr, Anderson (2015)
      How might the quality of an action research initiative be evaluated? — begin paste — We have linked our five validity criteria (outcome, process, democratic, catalytic, and dialogic) to the goals of action research. Most traditions of action research agree on the following goals: (a) the generation of new knowledge, (b) the achievement of action-oriented […]
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS on daviding.com

  • RSS on Media Queue

    • What to Do When It’s Too Late | David L. Hawk | 2024
      David L. Hawk (American management theorist, architect, and systems scientist) has been hosting a weekly television show broadcast on Bold Brave Tv from the New York area on Wednesdays 6pm ET, remotely from his home in Iowa. Live, callers can join…Read more ›
    • 2021/06/17 Keekok Lee | Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 2
      Following the first day lecture on Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 1 for the Global University for Sustainability, Keekok Lee continued on a second day on some topics: * Anatomy as structure; physiology as function (and process); * Process ontology, and thing ontology; * Qi ju as qi-in-concentrating mode, and qi san as qi-in-dissipsating mode; and […]
    • 2021/06/16 Keekok Lee | Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 1
      The philosophy of science underlying Classical Chinese Medicine, in this lecture by Keekok Lee, provides insights into ways in which systems change may be approached, in a process ontology in contrast to the thing ontology underlying Western BioMedicine. Read more ›
    • 2021/02/02 To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems | Zeynep Tufekci with Ezra Klein | New York Times
      In conversation, @zeynep with @ezraklein reveal authentic #SystemsThinking in (i) appreciating that “science” is constructed by human collectives, (ii) the west orients towards individual outcomes rather than population levels; and (iii) there’s an over-emphasis on problems of the moment, and…Read more ›
    • 2019/04/09 Art as a discipline of inquiry | Tim Ingold (web video)
      In the question-answer period after the lecture, #TimIngold proposes art as a discipline of inquiry, rather than ethnography. This refers to his thinking On Human Correspondence. — begin paste — [75m26s question] I am curious to know what art, or…Read more ›
    • 2019/10/16 | “Bubbles, Golden Ages, and Tech Revolutions” | Carlota Perez
      How might our society show value for the long term, over the short term? Could we think about taxation over time, asks @carlotaprzperez in an interview: 92% for 1 day; 80% within 1 month; 50%-60% tax for 1 year; zero tax for 10 years.Read more ›
  • 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