Brief History of Systems Thinking

I formed my own view of how Systems Thinking came to be the umbrella term for what I’m about, and I can be quite dismissive of the choice of labelling given to different approaches and methodologies – which always feel like selling different commercial education and consultancy offerings. And when reading and researching about the evolution of any topic, the reading list is never-ending. We all stand on the shoulders of giant termite colonies as well as individual giants.

Since I’m more of an architect, concerned with the general conceptual topology of my topic, I can pragmatically leave details to individual practitioners, who will anyway, always discover that, however detailed, objectively driven planning rarely survives contact with actual implementation context beyond day one – the essential nature of complexity. Which isn’t to say planning doesn’t have its value, but I’m pragmatically more concerned with setting expectations and understanding of the planned than the plan itself.

A Brief History of Systems Thinking is an article created by The Systems Thinking Alliance shared on LinkedIn. Looks like a great summary to me, well presented in a couple of block-diagrams – original typos fixed.

I was already working-up to acquiring Mike Jackson’s latest “Critical Systems Thinking – A Practitioners Guide” even though, for reasons noted above, the “critical” and the “practitioner” language have previously been a turn-off. Mike was generous enough to like and share the Brief History article and recommend that the main acknowledged source “Systems Thinkers” by Ramage and Shipp was itself valuable. I’ve now acquired both. (Mentioned Mike several times recently, alongside references to Dave Snowden’s “Cynefin” – they represent two aspects of Systems Thinking that I am trying to reconcile, thought clearly the market-place sustains multiple alternative approaches.)

As well as these two named current thinker / practitioners, the article also references Fritjof Capra’s latest and Donella Meadows, both of which I will have to pick-up, as well as Alexander Bogdanov whose pioneering work makes the historical text but not the visual summaries. Otherwise a couple of dozen sources all mentioned here previously, one-way-or-another.

Brief but recommended read.

Key words for me are Systems, Cybernetics and Complexity – the first two being synonymous at my level of abstraction, and the latter their reason to exist. All else are context-specific detail qualifications of methods and/or processes or are entirely meta, the choices of words like science, theory, thinking, knowledge, understanding are all aspects of human cultural psychology, which are themselves a complex cybernetic system.

(Hence Psybertron and Psybernetics.)

      • And incidentally, the ontology <> epistemology axis on the second diagram disappears for me, there is no ontology without epistemology, humans use the latter to create the former. I talk of my own “epistemological ontology” which is that complex (human) cybernetic system.
      • Interesting that operations research (OR) is presented as a stranded island on the left. Consistent with my own recent experience understanding that OR really was / is part of the same management of organisational complexity – lost because its choice of naming disguises the relationship to systems (operations?) and practice (research?) Ultimately this whole subject is a language game – some looking to reconcile understanding others gaming the market, the most important market being that for attention.
      • Interesting too to see Argyris and Schon mentioned, an early part of my journey back in the 1980’s/90’s before I really knew what my topic was.
      • First and second cybernetics I see as more complex. It’s not just the “order” in single-feedback or multiple-feedback-&-forward loop system control sense, but “meta” in how complex the agents within the system are acknowledged and modelled. And indeed, the “priorities” of the originators of cybernetics itself – always intended to be about complex organic living human psycho-socio-cultural systems beyond mechanistic machines. (Once the parts and wholes and ecosystem are living / organic with agency, evolution is in play every-which-way.)

Fascinating to see the whole summarised this way.

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Post Note – one thread on LinkedIn suggesting that the “critical” in Mike Jackson’s work “pays respect to” the view of Edgar Morin’s work – avoiding the explicit disjointed mechanisation of systems and their causal processes?

Edgar Morin on Systems and Complexity

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2 thoughts on “Brief History of Systems Thinking”

  1. Thanks for this update. I will pick-up the corrected version.

    Apologies for the delay accepting the comment – actually since the post I have been in Washington DC at the ISSS (and ASC) conferences – and have read the whole of Ramage and Shipp – a great overview resource.

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