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Deterministic, Animated, Social

Unless you object, of course, a system can be defined as an aggregation of interacting parts built by a designer for a purpose. Uber systems thinker Russell Ackoff classified systems into three archetypes: deterministic, animated, and social. The main criterion Ackoff uses for mapping a system into its type is purpose; the purpose of the containing whole and the purpose(s) of the whole’s parts.

The figure below attempts to put the Ackoff  “system of system types” 🙂 into graphic form.

Deterministic Systems

In a deterministic system like an automobile, neither the whole nor its parts have self-purposes because there is no “self”. Both the whole and its parts are inanimate objects with fixed machine behavior designed and assembled by a purposeful external entity, like an engineering team.  Deterministic systems are designed by men to serve specific, targeted purposes of men. The variety of behavior exhibited by deterministic systems, while possibly being complex in an absolute sense, is dwarfed by the variety of behaviors capable of being manifest by animated or social systems.

Animated Systems

In an animated system, the individual parts don’t have isolated purposes of their own, but the containing whole does. The parts and the whole are inseparably entangled in that the parts require services from the whole and the whole requires services from the parts in order to survive.  The non-linear product (not sum) of the interactions of the parts manifest as the external observable behavior of the whole. Any specific behavior of the whole cannot be traced to the behavior of a single specific part. The human being is the ultimate example of an animated system. The heart, lungs, liver, an arm, or a leg have no purposes of their own outside of the human body. The whole body, with the aid of the product of the interactions of its parts produces a virtually infinite range of behaviors. Without some parts, the whole cannot survive  (loss of a functioning heart). Without other parts, the behavior of the whole becomes constrained (loss of a functioning leg).

Social Systems

In a social system, the whole and each part has a purpose. The larger the system, the greater the number and variety of the purposes. If they aren’t aligned to some degree, the product of the purposes can cause a huge range of externally observed behaviors to be manifest. When the self-purposes of the parts are in total alignment with whole, the system’s behavior exhibits less variety and greater efficiency at trying to fulfill the whole’s purpose(s). Both internal and external forces continually impose pressure upon the whole and its parts to misalign. Only those designers who can keep the parts’ purpose aligned with the whole’s purpose have any chance of getting the whole to fulfill its purpose.

System And Model Mismatch

Ackoff states that modeling a system of one type with the wrong type for the purpose of improving or replacing it is the cause of epic failures. For example, attempting to model a social system as a deterministic system with an underlying mathematical model causes erroneous actions and decisions to be made by ignoring the purposes of the parts. Human purposes cannot be modeled with equations. Likewise, modeling a social system as an animated system also ignores the purposes of the many parts. These mismatches assume the purposes of the parts align with each other and the purpose of the whole. Bad assumption, no?

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