Hard Things by Easy Words: Basics of System Approach. Part 1

system approach

Talking about self, advanced IT experts very often mention the system approach and system thinking, pointing out at the same time to a personal organization, the ability to foresee and take into account, time management and following the plan, discipline, regularity of self-education activities, raising the level of qualifications, etc. Undoubtedly, these are the key Soft Skill of any specialist, but they have nothing to do with the notion of “system”. What they say is more likely called “systematic.” It’s better not confuse these two completely different concepts.

Fundamentals of the system approach (natural science concept)

The systemic approach is based on the concept of the system (as a set of elements which interact to achieve the goal) and the properties/ principles/laws by which they (elements) exist in the system and interact (integrity, hierarchy, emergence, etc.).

A system is considered to be a combination of interacting elements organized to achieve one or more goals.

The system in the systemic approach is also defined as the hierarchy of holons (holarchy or holon).

The systems are holistic and hierarchical: the system can be an element (part) of the super system, and its element can be decomposed and presented as a subsystem (i.e., contain its elements).

The basic principle (there is a large list of them in the systemic approach) is the principle of goal-setting. The core idea of it is that the goal determining the behavior of the system is always specified by the super-system.

For example, let’s have a look at the simplified design of the car from the point of view of the systemic approach.

The purpose of the “Car” super-system is horizontal movement under control of a person from point A to point B. Accordingly, this purpose has to be taken into account when designing its systems (engine, suspension, body, etc.) and their subsystems (wheel, etc.).
Can we really change the objectives of the system/ subsystem/element, make them different from the goals of the super-system?
Let’s try this. For example, the purpose of the wheel is to ensure the stability of the car on inclined surfaces. It is quite an acceptable goal if an element of the wheel is viewed outside the system.

If we disregard the principle of goal-setting, in the end, we’ll have a “square wheel” and a failure in achieving the original goal. And if we return it to the system and add the requirement of stability to the target of the super-system, we will come to the necessity of designing the parking brake system, having obtained a double benefit as a result of using the systemic approach. Analysis and synthesis are more than evident. Of course, it’s just an exaggerated illustration, though hopefully the essence now think is more clear.

It’s better not neglect such properties of the system as integrity and hierarchy: as for example, by removing or placing the wheel on another level of the hierarchy (why do they need a wheel inside the car?), we also won’t be able to achieve the goal.
One more basic principle of the systemic approach is the emergence principle (irreducibility of the properties of the system to the sum of the properties of its elements), which is also very important in the systemic approach. A. Levenchuk mentions it the main principle of the system. The core idea of the principle is that the system as a whole has properties that its subsystems (elements) do not have. Ants colony can be a bright illustration of emergence. Or another example, the clock can show time, but the hands and the mechanism (like the elements of the clock system) are not able to show it separately.
More simplified on the example of a car this principle can be illustrated as follows. A car as a collection (and only as a complex) of engine, suspension, body, etc. systems. It is capable of moving horizontally under the control of a person from point A to point B. None of the above systems is able to do this on their own (and also the sum of the properties of the suspension, engine, etc. is not equal to the property of the car as a super-system which would be capable for movement).

To be continued…

See also:

  1. Hard Things by Easy Words: Basics of System Approach. Part 2
  2. System Approach and System Thinking. Any reasons for?

To read:

  1. L. Bertalanffy. General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications.
  2. R.L. Ackoff, F.E. Emery. On purposeful systems
  3. H.W. Lawson. A Journey Through the Systems Landscape


Author: Veronika Baeva, see original resource in Russian.

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