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Towards a System of Systems Concepts

The concepts and terms commonly used to talk about systems have not themselves been organized into a system. An attempt to do so is make here. System and the most important types of system are defined so that the differences and similarities are made explicit. Particular attention is given to that type of system of most interest to management scientists: organizations. The relationship between a system and its parts is considered and a proposition is put forward that all systems are either variety-increasing or variety-decreasing relative to the behavior of its parts.

Reading level: Basic


One of the things I discovered as a management consultant was the importance of getting everyone on the same page. At its most heroic, this entailed working with clients and the team to build, understand and adopt a common mental model of what we were trying to achieve and how we would achieve it. At its most mundane, this meant building a glossary of common terms we would use together in a project. Usually, the common terminologies were a foundation and co-requisite for the common mental model.

This is what Russell Ackoff set out to achieve for systems thinkers in his 1971 paper Towards a System of Systems Concepts. Over his 90 years, he was a pioneering American systems thinker and organization theorist.

This paper is a “must read” for anyone interested generally in systems as well as specifically in complexity itself.  Ackoff lays out a 32 point framework of systems-related definitions that is consistent and coherent. This includes definitions of what a system is and how it behaves. Perhaps most important is his Behavioral Classification of Systems where he differentiates between systems which are:

  • state-maintaining, like a thermostat which is limited to react in pre-determined fashion;
  • goal-seeking, such as an auto-pilot which can respond to events in different ways to achieve its objective;
  • multi-goal-seeking and purposive, such as a computer program that can respond in different ways but whose goals are pre-determined; and
  • purposeful, such as human systems which can not only choose their responses but can actually change their goals, i.e. they have will.

By reading the definitions and descriptions in Towards a System of Systems Concepts, you will go a long way towards solidifying your own foundation as a systems thinker.

He goes on to explore various ways in which a system can adapt, and if it has memory, learn.

A system is adaptive if, when there is a change in its environment and/or internal state which reduces its efficiency in pursuing one or more of its goals which define its functions(s), it reacts or responds by changing its own state and/or that of its environment… Thus adaptiveness is the ability of a system to modify itself or its environment when either has changes to the system’s disadvantage so as to regain at least some of its lost efficiency… Since learning can only take place when a system has a choice among alternative courses of action, only systems that are goal-seeking or higher can learn. If a system is repeatedly subjected to the same environmental or internal change and increases its ability to maintain its efficiency under this type of change, then it learns how to adapt. Thus, adaptation itself can be learned.

The great benefit of Ackoff’s discipline in writing this paper is that every key word is explicitly defined. So, when you read his description of adaptation above, you can go back and find what he means by each of the important terms in the description.

I have frequently found it useful to apply the style found in Towards a System of Systems Concepts in my own work. By this I mean to develop, in point form, a definition of terms, and then use these terms in descriptions of systems to achieve a common understanding.