Deep Dive: Systems Analysis and Systems Thinkers
System analysis is a commonly used methodology for many organizations as part of their decision making process. Well traditionally done at the organizational level, system analysis can also be applied to a personal level of decision making processes. In essence, using varies system analysis techniques through any decision making process as individuals could be very beneficial. When individuals discuss about systems analysis, the first few questions which come to most people mind are “Why do we do what we do?”, “How did we get into this situation?”, and more importantly, “How can we get out of this mess?”. In this paper, we will discuss several topics on systems analysis and systems thinkers. Systems thinkers’ maturity level as well as their common beliefs will be covered. We will also elaborate on some common tools systems thinkers use to solve complex social issues and problems.
The systems development methodology is a standard set of steps, also known as System Development Life Cycle (SDLC), for organization to develop and support its own information systems. Based on United States Department of Agriculture, “SDLC is an iterative methodology broken down into phases with multiple Quality Control (QC) reviews occurring at strategic points during the process.”
Although a complete SDLC could generally have up to nine phases, based on a quick web search, there are five main phases which are included in most of the definitions. These components include planning, analysis, design, implementation, and maintenance. Fundamentally, SDLC is one of the decision making processes for organization to weigh and compare its options in the area of Information Systems. Even though all of these five components are essential to SDLC, system analysis plays a predominantly important role in SDLC as well as any other decision making process.
According to our textbook, Modern Systems Analysis and Design, written by Hoffer et.al, information system analysis and design refers to a complex, challenging, and stimulating organizational process that a team of business and systems professionals uses to develop and maintain computer-based information systems. Merriam-Webster described system analysis as “the act, process, or profession of studying an activity (as a procedure, a business, or a physiological function) typically by mathematical means in order to define its goals or purposes and to discover operations and procedures for accomplishing them most efficiently.” There are many existing definition to explain what a system is. Within this long list of definition, one of these definitions is more vibrant than others. Safarzadeh et. al defines a system as following, “a system is the part of the universe that is being studied, while the environment is the remainder of the universe that lies outside the boundaries of the system. It is also known as the surroundings, and in thermodynamics, as the reservoir.”
In order to accurately analysis a system, individuals first need to understand the environment of where the system lives in. It is essential to develop an understanding of the environment which the system lives in because system changes along with the environment; and some environment changes frequently. There are five main components live a system’s environment. They are people, organization, data, technology, and type of decisions. Often times, the components of a system environment determines how consistent a system can be. A system and its environment exist in a very unique interdependent relationships. In other words, being able to obtain an understanding of the environment which the system lives in is equally as important as to study the system itself.
Many organizations and individuals find using the concept of systems approach to assist with the decision making process very beneficial. Larichev et al stated that “the concept of is a procedure of problem investigation known as a “systems approach”. The systems approach is a train of logical stages: definition of a goal or a set of goals; identification of alternative ways of goal achievement; construction of the model presenting the interdependence of goals, means and parameters of the system; determination of the decision rule for selecting the preferred alternative.”
To successfully utilize Larichev et al.’s train of logical stages as an assistant as a part of their daily decision making process, individuals need to use a different perspective that would amplify their awareness of their surroundings as a whole. They also need to have the ability to recognize the interdependency of a system and its environment. These individuals are also known as “Systems Thinkers”. Once a set of goals have been defined, systems thinkers utilize varies of techniques, methodologies, and tools to gain understanding of a system and its environment as a whole. With a clearer picture and better understanding of the situation, systems thinkers are able to leverage these information and make decision accordingly in order to reach their desired outcomes.
“The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization”, by Peter Senge, defines systems thinking as "a discipline for seeing the 'structures' that underlie complex situations, and for discerning high from low leverage points." Different people have different level of awareness of their surroundings. Some existing theory called the individuals whom are stronger at utilizing the knowledge of surroundings to understand a system and environment as a whole “System Thinkers”. Hopellc.com proposed that all systems thinkers have the ability to perform the following three mental process. If ones can study the parts of a system, to perceive the system as a whole, then to develop an awareness of the role or function of the system in a large containing system, they are systems thinkers.
Another interesting theory pointed out that instead of dividing individuals into “Systems Thinkers” and “Non-Systems Thinkers”, all individuals are matured to a certain level of systems thinking maturity. Thwink.org indicated that there are six different levels of systems thinking maturity. Beginning at Level 0, “Unawareness”, individuals in this level are often times completely unaware of the concept of systems thinking. In other theories, individuals in this level of systems thinking maturity are called, “Non-systems thinker”.
The next level is “Shallow Awareness”, Level 1. Individuals in this level are usually reasonably aware of the concept of systems thinking but they do not have a depth of understanding it. They often times know what the relevant keywords of a certain situation are but they do not own an in-depth understanding of the topic to carry on an effective conversation. Individuals whom are belong to this level often think they have a good grasps of systems thinking, however, they typically do not have the ability to tell a good system analysis from a bad one. Hence, this type of individuals are given another label, pseudo systems thinker.
Following “Shallow Awareness” is level 2, “Deep Awareness”. Individuals who fall into this level generally have a full awareness of the key concepts of systems thinking and can recognize the importance and potential of thinking like a systems as a whole. These individuals think like an end user of a system’s or a personnel from management level perspective. Individuals who belong to this level not only appreciate what systems thinking is, but hold a good amount of knowledge of how the mechanic of the systems work. These individuals have the capability to understand flow diagrams and simulation models at a minimal level. With this minimal level of understanding flow diagrams, these individuals cannot produce a complete flow or model or to provide informative and in depth feedback for improvement.
The third level of systems thinker is called “Novice”. A novice not only has a deep awareness of the system as a whole. They also has the tendency to investigate why the system behaves in a certain way. Novice is proficient in creating and utilizing causal flow diagrams for complex system problems. A really good novice can even some understand simulation models fluently. The fourth level of systems thinker is the “Expert”. An expert systems thinker is much more advanced than a novice. These experts have the capability to create an original accurate simulation models to solve complex system problems. They understand the mechanic of how a system works very well and can solve long term and sustainability related issues and/or improve process efficiency. The highest level of systems thinkers are “Guru”. Guru is an expert of whom is able to teach and demonstrate systems thinking to others. They are also excel in solving extremely difficult and complex system matters.
Systems thinkers can be easily identified if we have ever encountered one. Daniel Goleman, The Executive Edge: An Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership, identified nine main characteristics and habits systems thinkers often have. Habitually, systems thinkers can recognize the importance of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships. They can find where unintended consequences merge and can change their perspectives to increase understanding of matters. They have the ability to identify the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships and can recognize that a systems structure generates its behavior. They use the understanding of system structure to identify higher leverage actions and to make surfaces and tests assumptions. They use successive approximation to check results and changes actions if needed and they seek to understand the big picture. There are three common tools that systems thinkers use to solve difficult social problems are root-cause analysis, process driven problem solving, and model based analysis. The figure below clearly illustrates the key principles of how these tools work together as a cohesive set of problem solving guidelines:
Famous scientist, Albert Einstein, once said, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Systems thinking is publicly known as one of the “new type of thinking”. Consistently, this new type of thinking are revolved around a numerous of beliefs. In order to gain a more in-depth understand on how to become a systems thinker, we first need to expand our understanding of systems thinking is. Thwink.org clearly stated that these five key concepts below are the most common concepts systems thinkers believe in.
The first key concept is "All systems are composed of inter-connected parts". Systems thinkers believe that all parts are somehow connected. Any part or connection may potentially affect the entire system. Hence, any changes in these inter-connected parts. The second key concept is “The structure of a system determines its behavior”. Structure is defined as the pattern of part connections. Systems thinkers believe that a system’s behavior is heavily depend on its structure. Unlike parts, structure determines how all parts work and connect together. With a standard structure, a system can function normally and healthily. In order for systems thinkers to understand how a system/organization works, they first need to grasp an idea on how the structure of a system work and how all of the parts play their role. Once systems thinkers understand the structure of a working systems, they will be able to change the system’s behavior by changing its structure.
Even though one of the key concepts systems thinkers believe in to understand the structure of the systems so that they can modify behaviors accordingly, they also consider how a system behaves cannot be solely rely on its structure. The third key concept which systems thinkers believe in is “System behavior is an emergent phenomenon”. Thwnk.org introduces this concept as the following, “How a system behaves cannot be determined by inspection of its parts and structure. This is because parts are tightly coupled, the parts and structure are constantly changing, feedback loops are present, nonlinear relationships exist, behavior paths are history dependent, the system is self-organizing and adaptive, emergent behavior is counterintuitive, time delays exist, the human mind has very limited calculation abilities, etc. Once you realize how complex the behavior dynamics of even a simple system really is, you will never again assume you can look at a system and predict how it will behave.” In other words, “System behavior is an emergent phenomenon” shows that part of the process of changing a system’s behavior is to understand the structure and parts then continuously collect and response to feedbacks between structure and parts as an infinite loop.
Systems thinkers also look at “feedback loops control” as part of a system’s major behavior. Since there are many parts within a structure that work together, feedback loop is essentially an infinite connections between parts. This loop generates output from one part then provide input back to the same part after it “communicates” with other parts. It is a continuous circular flow which results as the causes of a system’s behavior. Fundamentally, each part within the structure would receive feedback from the feedback loop at least once, which turns the feedback loop to be indescribably complex. Thwink.org described this key concept, feedback loops, as the main reason a system’s behavior is emergent.
The last but not the least key concepts describes how a “complex social systems exhibit counter intuitive behavior”. Unlike many non-systems thinkers, systems thinkers do not use their intuitive to solve complex problems. Author of thwink.org indicated that the use of intuitive methods to solve difficult and complex social system problems is a common trap. This common trap disable non-systems thinkers to use only analytical methods and available tools that fit the problem to solve these complex issues. Systems thinkers believe that there three main steps of solving complex social system problems. The first step is to truly adopt systems thinking. Afterwards, individuals should identify the process which fits the issue, then to utilize the knowledge of system dynamics to solve complicated social system issues.
In summary, information system analysis and design refers to a complex, challenging, and stimulating organizational process that a team of business and systems professionals uses to develop and maintain computer-based information systems. There are six maturity levels on systems thinker. These levels are ranked from level 0 to level 5; Unawareness, shallow awareness, deep awareness, novice, expert, and guru. Systems thinkers believe all systems are composed of inter-connected parts and that any part or connection could potentially affect the entire system. The structure of a system determines its behavior. With a standard structure, a system can function normally and healthily. The process of changing a system’s behavior is to understand the structure and parts then continuously collect and response to feedback between structure and parts as an infinite loop because system behavior is an emergent. Feedback loop is a continuous circular flow which results as the causes of a system’s behavior. Complex social systems cannot be solved by using the method of intuition. Truly adoption of systems thinking, identification of a process which fits the problem, and utilizations of knowledge in system dynamics are the three main steps for systems thinkers to solve complex social system issues.
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