In this comparison of six systems traditions across eight dimensions, I draw from three sources: Stuart Umpleby’s keynote at the 2012 International Society for the Systems Sciences conference, a video of Eric Dent’s presentation at the 2005 American Society for Cybernetics conference, and the original 1998 Dent and Umpleby paper (pdf).
The authors characterize the systems field according to a set of eight dimensions, and then evaluate each of six systems traditions for the presence of each of the dimensions, according to a reading of one book selected as representative for each of the traditions.
The six books are:
- System dynamics — The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions (1985) by Donella Meadows and J. M. Robinson
- Total quality management — Fourth Generation Management (1994) by Brian Joiner
- Operations research — Handbook of Systems Analysis (1985) edited by Hugh Miser, Jr. and Edward Quade
- Organizational learning — Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice (1996) by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon
- General systems theory — General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (1969) by Ludwig Von Bertalanffy
- Cybernetics — The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987) by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
For concision and clarity, I follow the dimensional labels presented by Umpleby (2012), and I follow Umpleby in using “dimensions,” whereas Dent (2005) calls them “philosophical assumptions.” Here’s how Dent & Umpleby (1998) further describe each of them:
- From entities to relationships — the unit of analysis should be relationships rather than entities
- From reductionism to holism — an entity can be best understood by considering it in its entirety
- From linear to circular causality — cause and effect run both directions and cannot be discretely disentangled (Dent 2005)
- From environment-free to environment-full investigations — the environment plays a role in the manifestation of the phenomenon
- From not-knowing subjects to knowing subjects (reflexivity) — the system of interest is composed of knowing subjects that are able to generate new states in themselves (think new thoughts, do new things) that they never manifested before
- From determinism to indeterminism — at times it is “inherently impossible to determine in advance which direction change will take” (Prigogine & Stengers 1984)
- From not including the observer to including the observer — attention is paid to subjectivity and to including the observer within the domain of descriptions
- From direction to self-organization — “the characteristic structural and behavioral patterns in a complex system are primarily a result of the interactions among the system parts” (Clemson 1984)
Note that Dent (2005) describes each pair of eight dimensions or assumptions as a polarity (“a pair of interdependent opposites”) rather than an either/or dualism. Note also that I follow the yes/no evaluation presented by Dent (2005), which differs slightly from the others.
Thought-provoking work, I’d say — and I’m not the only one, as Stuart Umpleby remarks in the video below.
Some ways to examine it: Are the books truly representative? Do the six traditions offer apples-to-apples comparisons? (In Ray Ison’s recent book, for example, he distinguishes “lineages” like general systems theory from “approaches” like system dynamics.) How about the dimensions or assumptions? Isn’t, say, self-organization an observable phenomenon rather than a philosophical assumption? (In complexity science, self-organization is often listed along with observable phenomena such as non-linearity, feedback, networks, and hierarchy.)
Here is the 2005 video, the first of a three-part talk: