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Systems Open Study Group


A painless way to learn about systems thinking

This series of discussions was associated with the 'Great Systems Thinking' project (which led to the book Systems Thinkers produced by Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp ). Participants engaged in discussions over several months and worked their way through a broad spectrum of key systems thinkers. The following link is for participants to gain access to detailed comments:

OSRG Project here

For those who did not join in at the time this page is to indicate the ground we covered, to give details of the process and some comments on the readings.

Every two weeks the name of a great systems thinker was posted, together with a reference to a piece of their work. Ten days later, following a face-to-face discussion in the OU Systems discipline, we opened a web discussion about the author and reading.

This was the invitation:

"You are warmly invited to participate in this web study group, at whatever level you like:

  • Participate in most sessions, or just a few.
  • Study the readings and comment on them, ignore the readings and comment on the authors, or simply read the views of others.
  • Join each session as it opens, or come in later and add to existing discussions.
  • Join the mailing list and get notified when each new reading is announced, or simply look in when you want to.
  • Contribute whatever you like - questions, opinions, insights, connections, anecdotes, gut reactions - all are welcome.

We are not able to publish the readings themselves here, only references to them. Announcing each reading 10 days before discussion begins, gives you time to find it in a library or bookshop (many pieces will be short enough for you to read as you browse). "

Conditions

One of the aims of this project was to support a mutually beneficial peer learning process. Comments were very occasionally edited or removed if they are considered unhelpful to the peer learning process. Participants were told:

"You don’t (quite) get something for nothing: By posting messages here, you are assenting to the small possibility that brief comments may be quoted anonymously in the book associated with the project."

and

"If you'd like to make comments or suggestions about this project, please use the ideas bank below. This is a largely self-organising project, so we cannot promise you will get a response."

The readings:

Peter M. Senge

Reading

Senge, Peter M (1990) The Fifth Discipline, Century Business, chapters 4 to 8 and Appendix 2 Systems Archetypes.

Here are some comments from John Martin (doc, 36K) on this week's reading.


Fritjof Capra

Reading

Fritjof Capra (1996) The Web of Life, Flamingo, Chapter 7.

We're continuing to look at widely-read Systems thinkers, by moving on to Fritjof Capra.

Capra is interesting both as a populariser of Systems and as an innovator in his own right. Originally a quantum physicist, he became well-known with his work on the overlap between the new physics and eastern religion, "The Tao of Physics" (1975). His subsequent book "The Turning Point" (1983) was very widely read, especially in the green movement, and helped to popularise Systems ideas in many new communities. In this reading, he builds on Maturana and Bateson to create a model of living systems. His description of autopoiesis is very coherent, and indeed one of the best descriptions I've seen. If you've been meaning to get to grips with autopoiesis, or want to talk about its usefulness, this is a good chance!

Read John Martin's comments (doc, 37K) on this reading.

Gregory Bateson

Reading

Gregory Bateson (1972) 'The logical categories of learning and communication' in Steps to an ecology of mind, Chandler Part 3 pp 279-308.

Bateson had a profound influence on very many areas of thought but is himself not as widely read as his influence would suggest. He made a major contribution to fields including biology, anthropology, cybernetics, communication, psychiatry and ethology, always looking for "the pattern that connects". His work forms a key foundation for (among other areas) family systems therapy, organizational learning and neuro-linguistic programming.

Read John Martin's comments (doc, 44K) on this week's reading.

C. West Churchman

Reading

C. West Churchman (1979) The Systems Approach and its Enemies Basic Books, Chapter 1 pp 3-11 and 24-26.

We're continuing with great founders of systems thinking. This is the last book Churchman - now in his 90's - published. His ideas influenced the founders of critical systems thinking, and had a profound impact on Ulrich, Ackoff and Checkland. Some credit Churchman with beginning the epistemological shift towards interpretivism in the 70's.

Read John Martin's comments (doc, 40K) on this week's reading.

Russell L. Ackoff

Reading

Russell Ackoff (1974) Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems, John Wiley, pp 11 - 17 (The Systems Age) and pp 20 - 33 (The Self Control Problem).

If you're short of time you might want to skip pages 22 - 30.

Ackoff founded, with Churchman, the academic Operations Research movement. Later he moved away from OR into Systems, and is considered by many to be a forerunner of soft systems thinking. He introduced the concept of a 'mess' to systems thinking (first mentioning it on page 21 of the current reading).

Ackoff published 22 books, and is very widely quoted. He supervised numerous research students, and has performed research for more than 350 corporations and 75 government agencies in the United States and elsewhere.

Visit the Ackoff Centre for more details, or to find his CV.

Ian I Mitroff

Reading

Ian Mitroff & Harold Linstone (1993) The Unbounded Mind: Breaking the Chains of Traditional Business Thinking , Oxford University Press, Chapter 6 Unbounded Systems Thinking: The Fifth Way of Knowing.

Ian Mitroff is interesting because, like Ackoff, he was a student and colleague of Churchman's - but about 20 years later, so he is a little younger and is still writing now, presumably in his mid 60's.

His resume lists 21 books, published from 1978 to 2000, mostly with one or more collaborators. He is another American academic, this time writing mostly for a business studies audience. But he has strong roots in philosophy, psychology, social science and engineering.

In this reading he discusses the concept of 'multiple perspectives' which he says 'includes other, distinctly different, paradigms or ways of thinking' in comparison with earlier ways of knowing which are 'bound by the background philosophical values of science'.

Click here to read John Martin's comments (doc, 25K) .

Geoffrey Vickers

Reading

Geoffrey Vickers (1983) Human Systems are different, London: Harper & Row, Chapter 2 The characteristics of an Open System.

The book is out of print, but if you can find it in your library, it is well worth taking a look at. It is said to be more readable than his other works, because he wrote it (in his mid 80's) for possible use alongside an Open University course.

Sir Geoffrey Vickers is also interesting because he had a whole career working in organisations - mostly as an eminent director of the National Coal Board, when it was the largest employer in the western world (with 800,000 staff) - before settling down to theorise and write about these experiences.

If you can't find the book, you might be interested in these web resources:

On the BBC Systems site, there's an interview (with transcript) of Vickers from 1978.

And there's a good third-party summary of appreciative systems (by Richard Varey of Salford).

Click here to read John Martin's comments (doc, 26K) on the reading.

Ludwig Von Bertalanffy

Reading

Ludwig von Bertalanffy General System theory, London: Allen Lane, 1968, Chapter 2 The Meaning of General System Theory.

Click here to read John Martin's comments (doc, 27K) on the reading.

Kenneth E Boulding

Reading

Kenneth E Boulding General systemsa theory - the skeleton of science, Management Science, vol 2, 1956, pp 197-208.

Click here to read John Martin's comments (doc, 29K) on the reading.

James Grier Miller

Reading

Jessie L Miller and James Grier Miller, Greater than the sum of its parts, Behavioural Science, vol 37, 1992, pp 1 - 9.

James Grier Miller was one of the early General Systems Theory academics, contemporary with Von Bertalanffy and Boulding. Although he started writing in the 50's, his great work Living systems - 1102 pages of double-column small print - wasn't published until 1978. Throughout their lives, James Miller worked closely with his wife Jessie, and this paper, written by both of them, is a very clear summary of their work in just nine pages.

James Grier Miller died in November 2002, a few months after his wife.

Anatol Rapoport

Reading

Anatol Rapoport, General Systems Theory: A Bridge Between Two Cultures. He gave this as the third annual Ludwig Von Bertalanffy memorial lecture. It was published in Behavioral Science (July 1976) pp 228-238 and was reprinted in a special Rapoport volume of General Systems (vol XXIII, 1978).

Rapoport is one of the key early systems writers, yet strangely neglected. Boulding is quoted as saying Rapoport was better qualified than anyone to set out General Systems Theory. He writes beautifully, and has an extraordinary background - starting out as a concert pianist, living through the Russian Revolution (aged 6), before emigrating to North America, becoming a bio-mathematician, then one of the group who developed general systems theory. He is still alive, in his 90's.

R. D. Laing

Reading

R. D. Laing, Intervention in social Situations, from The Politics of the Family and Other Essays, Tavistock Publications, London, 1971.

Elsa Jones

Reading

Elsa Jones, Family systems therapy, from Family Systems Therapy: Developments in the Milan-Systemic Therapies, Wiley, Chichester, 1993.

This reading differs from those we have included so far, in that our focus of interest is more on the content than the author. The chapter we suggest gives a well structured and clear summary of the relationship between the development of systems thinkng and the development of conceptual frameworks and practices within family systems therapy. In the process Elsa Jones gives an interesting and in many cases enlightening description of a number of systems concepts and schools of systems thinking, from the persepctive of this consciously systemic community of practice.

Norbert Wiener

Reading

Norbert Wiener, Computing Machines and the Nervous System, from Cybernetics, The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1948 (revised 1961).-Systemic Therapies, Wiley, Chichester, 1993.

John Naughton has kindly provided this portrait of Wiener (rtf, 37K) from his book A Brief History of the Future: the origins of the Internet.

Steve Heims

Reading

Steve Heims, Chapter 2: March 8-9, 1946, from Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America The Cybernetics Group 1946-1953, The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1991.

Warren McCulloch

Reading

Warren McCulloch, Why the mind is in the head, from Embodiments of mind, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965.

W Ross Ashby

Reading

W Ross Ashby, Adaptation as Stability from Design for a Brain, Chapman & Hall, London, 1952 (revised 1960).

Stafford Beer

Reading

The Real Threat to “All We Hold Most Dear” and The Disregarded Tools of Modern Man from Designing Freedom, John Wiley & Sons, 1974.

Heinz Von Foerster

Reading

The reading we're discussing from Tuesday 25th November is in two parts:

Heinz von Foerster Cybernetics of Cybernetics, from Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and cognition, Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 2003 (reproduced from Communication and Control, K Krippendorf (ed), Gordon and Breach, New York, pp 5-8 (1979)

and

Heinz von Foerster Cybernetics, from Understanding Systems: Conversations on Epistemology and Ethics, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002.

Humberto Maturana

Reading

The reading we're discussing from Tuesday 12th December is: Humberto Maturana Autopoiesis, Structural Coupling and Cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition, Cybernetics and Human Knowing, Vol 9, No. 3-4, 2002.

Gordon Pask

Reading

The readings we're discussing from Tuesday 13th January are:

Gordon Pask, The Cybernetics of Human Learning and Performance, Hutchinson Educational 1975, Chapter 12 Points of departure and Development pp 300-305.

and

Gordon Pask, Styles and Strategies of Learning, British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 46, pp 128-148, 1976.

Gordon Burt, of the Open University's Institute of educational Technology, contributed these notes on Pask. (doc, 35K)

Margaret Mead

Reading

Margaret Mead, Cybernetics of Cybernetics, from Von Foerster, White, Peterson, Russell, Purposive Systems: Proceedings of the First Annual Symposium of the American Society for Cybernetics, Spartan Books, New York & Washington 1968.

You might also like to take a look at this famous conversation she had with ex-husband Gregory Bateson, originally published as:

Stewart Brand, For God's sake Margaret in The CoEvolutionary Quarterly, June 1976, Issue no. 10, pp. 32-44.

Jay Forrester

The current author is Jay Forrester, founder of systems dynamics. He is so readable, that we are suggesting four papers! And three of these are on the web.

Jay W Forrester, Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems, 1970, from Collected papers of Jay W. Forrester, 1975, Wright-Allen Press Inc., Cambridge Massachusetts.

Then these three from the MIT System Dynamics in Education Project:

System Dynamics: the Foundation Under Systems Thinking

Designing the Future

System Dynamics and the Lessons of 35 Years

Donella Meadows

Reading

The current author is Donella Meadows, co-author of the highly influential Limits to Growth (1974). There are two readings, the first of these available on the web:

Donella Meadows Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, The Sustainability Institute, 1999 (a shorter version is also in Whole Earth, Winter 1997)

and

Donella Meadows, The Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World , from Beyond the Limits pp 104-140, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 1992.

The first of these comes highly recommended, but is at the less academic end of her spectrum, which is why we've included the second, so you can also see her in more scientific mode.

Gwilym Jenkins

Gwilym Jenkins was a key figure in what is now called the hard systems movement. In 1966 he set up the Department of Systems Engineering at Lancaster, where Checkland and others later developed SSM.

Gwilym M. Jenkins & Philip V. Youle, Systems Engineering: A Unifying Approach in Industry and Society, C.A.Watts & Co Ltd, London, 1971, Systems and Systems Engineering (chapter 1) and Systems Analysis (chapter 6).

Peter Checkland

Peter Checkland is widely regarded as the most influential systems thinker in the UK. He has been the key figure in the development at Lancaster of SSM, the Soft Systems Methodology.

Checkland and Holwell, Information, Systems and Information Systems, John Wiley & Sons, 1998, pp 11-17 and pp 155-172.

Colin Eden

Colin Eden and Fran Ackermann, SODA - The Principles, from Rosenhead & Mingers, Rational Analysis for a Problematic World Revisited, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, pp 21-41.