Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

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:

October 28th, 2015

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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.

December 6th, 2012

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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.

Some example service systems, in municipal services, pension plans and open source communities are described to illustrate considerations of pathologies towards potential pursuits of sustainability.

Alternative approaches to correct the pathologies are related to theories of ecological complexity, in panarchies and supply-side sustainability. Directions for further development are outlined.

The slides are available on the Coevolving Commons.  The 15 minutes gave enough time to describe some motivating cases, and then work my way down a list of definitions supplemented by pointers to originating sources.

As the presentation was ending, time was allowed for one question.  Jim Spohrer asked about the definition of affordances (with abilities) that I used.  My initial response wasn’t sufficient, so he probed some more.  A moment later, I figured out that Don Norman — who is renowned for the idea of affordances in The Design of Everyday Things — was sitting beside Jim.  We didn’t get a chance to complete that conversation, as the next speaker came on.  Not recognizing Norman in the audience probably saved me from being intimidated and more self-conscious during the presentation.

While I had researched Norman’s view on affordances previously, the citation that is in the working paper is not in the 15-minute presentation.  In an essay on “Affordances and Design” on Norman’s web site, he revises the label of “affordances” in his book to “perceived affordances”.

July 25th, 2012

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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. For 2013, we have plans for the meeting to convene in Hai Phong, Vietnam, led by the next ISSS president, Alexander Laszlo.

My interests are in (i) social systems — particularly in the context of work in business organizations and government — and in (ii) information systems — most recently transformed through the rise of the Internet, globalization, and social computing. Much of my current research is centered on the emerging science of service systems — often called service science — as the world has shifted from industrial age into global service economy.

2. In which areas of research can conclusions and consequences be drawn from the results of systems sciences?

Questions about the systems sciences lead us to think more deeply about the definitions of both science and systems.

May 21st, 2012

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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. The range of designs from fragile to “over-engineered” reflects different approaches to handling environmental change.
  • How does a service system continue to learn about purposes (and objectives and goals) in its wholes and its parts?
    • A service system — potentially socially constructed, and/or developed from natural resources — can be designed for its whole to serve both a collective (e.g. a community, a nation) and/or an individual. In addition, parts of that system may satisfy goals for others, as a byproduct. The wants and needs of service recipients may evolve, however.
  • When a service system learns that change is called for, can that system consciously act to evolve (or devolve)?
    • As the function provided by a system degrades or fails, the choices are either to (i) decommission the old service and start up a new service, or (ii) change the existing systems as it continues to operate. This latter choice requires a system that not only adapts to its environment, but also learns.

A service designed with systems thinking may have a productive lifespan that is short or long. Designing a service system that remains viable over a brief life cycle can be a challenge. Designing a service system that can learn and appropriately evolve with a highly variable environment is a bigger challenge.

In systems thinking, the idea of learning has been well developed. The remainder of this essay outlines some of the foundational appreciation on learning from systems research, and adds some recent theories coinciding with the practice turn in contemporary theory [Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, von Savigny (2001)].

  • A. A system can maintain its purpose under constant conditions by adapting, and under changing conditions by learning.
  • B. Learning can typed at multiple levels: (1) change within a set of alternatives; (2) change in the set of alternatives; (3) change in the system of sets of alternatives; and (4) change in the development of systems of sets of alternatives.
  • C. Both physical systems and human systems can learn, if sufficient resources are reserved for long term maintenance.
  • D. In human systems, social participation is a process of learning and knowing that includes meaning, practice, community and identity

Systems thinking about systems thinking should include a greater emphais on design for learning. Each of the above assertions is supported in the sections that follow.

May 1st, 2012

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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. There’s an additional appendix on applied philosophy that illustrates that such inquiries are not without history.

1. The definition of science often tends towards disciplinarity; systems thinking aims for transdisciplinarity

In a previous post on systems thinking and (the) systems science(s) in a system of ideas, the correlation between the term “systems science” and “social systems science” at the University of Pennsylvania was reviewed. While “social systems science” was chosen as a term to be purposively clumsy, Russell Ackoff preferred more generally to use the label of “systems thinking”, obviating some criticisms on definitions of science. Science tends to be organized as disciplines. In the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of discipline is “a branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge; a science or art in its educational aspect”. Another is “a particular course of instruction to disciples”, which implies a master. Ackoff criticized disciples as anti-systemic, challenging his students and followers to transcend his body of work.

January 18th, 2012

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