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Complementary Views

One classic definition of a system is “a set of interacting parts that exhibits emergent behavior not attributable solely to one part“. An alternative, complementary definition of a system served up by Russell Ackoff is “a whole that is defined by its function in a larger system of which it is a part“.

The figure below models the first definition on the left and the second definition on the right. Neither is “righter” than the other. They, and I love saying this because it’s frustratingly neutral, “just are“.

Viewing a system of interest from multiple viewpoints provides the viewer with a more holistic understanding of the system’s what, how, and why. Problem diagnosis and improvement ideas are vastly increased when time is taken to diligently look at a system from multiple viewpoints. Sadly, due to how we are educated, the inculcated tendency of most people is to look at a system from a single, parochial viewpoint: “what’s in it for me?“.

  1. March 8, 2012 at 7:10 am

    If I’m not mistaken, the second view is actually a subclass of the first. Ackoff refers to the second view as those systems which have the ability to achieve a goal. In order to be defined by a role in a larger system, it is necessary that the component system be able to achieve intent.

    I believe Ackoff defined a taxonomy four subtypes of “intentional systems” (my name, not his). Purposeful systems consist of members (people) who can exercise choice (e.g. a team or a family). Purposive systems have a mix of components, some with choice, others without. An Airbus 320 and its crew is an example. The final two subclasses are goal-seeking (e.g. a heating cooling system) and multi-goal seeking (e.g. climate control). Both are controlled systems which must be programmed externally, and exhibit behavior by responding to their environment.

    There are other examples of systems which satisfy the first set of criteria (interacting parts, emergent behavior), but which don’t necessarily achieve goals. The general class here would be environmental systems, like the storms on Jupiter.


  2. March 8, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Thanks for chiming in CA.

    From “Ackoff’s Best” Ch2: 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. 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. All three types of systems are contained in ecological systems, some of whose parts are purposeful but not the whole. For example, Earth is an ecological system that has no purpose of its own but contains social and animate systems that do, and deterministic systems that don’t.

    Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 378-380). Kindle Edition.

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