This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Systems Thinking 2nd Segment - Striving for a Better Understanding

This is the second post on the STW/STIA Systems Thinking Certification course. The next segment is titled Systems Thinking. The post on the first segment, Web of Wonder, gave a general introduction to systems, some of their overall  characteristics, described properties of what was termed ‘elements’ or what others have referred to as ‘stuff’ making up the systems, and means as to how systems could be perceived through models or as analogies to plays.

The last segment attempted to get you to perceive the world differently. This segment begins attempting to change how you think about that world, more specifically, in relation to new community paradigms, how you can think about changing that world starting with your community. That is a longer and deeper change and could be daunting. 

The essential point to be made, in relation to new community paradigms, is that changes in perspective, both in what people think and, more importantly, how people think, multiplied by a significant number of people making up a community is a foundation for a paradigm shift within that community. If you read this post to the end then you may either have an affinity for systems thinking or you have an increasing dissatisfaction for the current state of affairs in our communities and are willing to consider radically different alternatives, (putting aside concerns about my writing).

A dissatisfaction with communities can be with processes of complicatedness exhibited by many institutions, particularly by those of the local public sector. There is a form of entrenched institutional behavior is often unresponsive to public concerns and incapable of dealing with the challenges of a complex world. This segment focuses more directly on thinking about systems and this is where things can get messy. Some need convincing that systems thinking as a cure is not worse than the illness.

There is the Kumu map again illustrating the course in general and the current segment specifically.  The Kumu map can illustrate the difficulty that arises when attempting to absorb new information and process it in a new way at the same time. The specific segment being considered is fairly simple, straightforward. Users start at a green circle move along a solid line through various points covering the most relevant material to finish at a red circle that summarizes the segment. The entire course map though, which can always be viewed with a click of the mouse, can look like a bowl of leftover ramen noodles to the uninitiated. Let's stick to the simpler direct path.

The first item along the direct path is a direct question, ‘What is a System?’. We have to understand this to make sense of anything that comes later.   Gene raised this question early on and generated over a hundred different comments reflecting a variety of perspectives in the forum.  Those with experience or a knack for systems thinking can get embroiled in such ambiguous philosophical discussions. This, to my mind, is where many start to have difficulty wrapping their heads around systems thinking because the thinking can get pretty abstract and uncertain. Regardless of how dissatisfied we may claim to be of the processes or systems of complicatedness of our current institutions, we find the 'certainty' they espouse reassuring and often choose the devil we know over a suspect, unknown one. 

My assertion that the question is somewhat ambiguous is that there isn’t any physical occurrence to which you can point of something that is a system, only a system and nothing but a system without having any other attributes. There are a multitude of different phenomena (again an abstract term) that we can observe having the attributes of a system. It is similar to trying to find two in the universe, just two, not two sticks or two rocks but just two. Systems, as an abstract reality (we will get back to a more concrete reality soon), consists of general abstract concepts described above as ‘elements’ or ‘stuff’. Again, abstract terms used as variables to take the place of real things such as money, cars, roads, park benches, sand, water, or anything that can, as explained in the post on the first segment, be changed in quantity or by some metric either directly, exponentially or balanced at a particular level. 

If you have made it this far, I will let you know that there is an operational definition of systems thinking.  "A system is an entity that maintains its existence through the mutual interaction of its parts.", Ludwig Von Bertalanffy

Okay, it is not a concrete object but it is a concrete rule. No matter how many ways there are to think about the many different types of systems and regardless of the number of specific examples for each the rule applies.  A system can be distilled down to just a few very simple concepts.  Any further apparent complexity arises either from multiple interactions iterated over multiple time steps or arguably, at times, is created by systems thinkers for no real beneficial reason. 

Let's then come up with a concrete, hands on example to use in understanding the concepts of a system. The example is this blog post that you are reading. It fulfills the basic definition proposed by Bertalanffy.

Mutual Interaction - A system is made up of parts, those parts interact with each other (they can also interact with the external environment) and the system itself exists via the mutual interaction of these parts. By mutual interaction, it is meant that none of the parts would on their own exhibit the attributes of the system. If you break down water into the elements of oxygen and hydrogen at room temperature, neither gas exhibits any of the properties of water. If you disassemble a car or watch, none of the parts would serve the same function isolated nor would it be easy to discern what was the final purpose of the system. Once the parts are properly assembled though, one has no problem with understanding it as a system. We are more familiar though thinking about the workings of car engine parts and how they make the wheels turn then we are thinking of the more abstract relationships between the parts.

The letters of this post, if placed randomly would be incomprehensible but instead form words which combine into sentences, paragraphs, and the post itself. One could take out words or sentences out of context but the information conveyed by the entire post would be lost. One could also summarize or distill the ideas into a shorter or simpler form, retaining the basic ideas in the post but that is more like creating a model of the post.

Feedback - According to Wikipedia, “…is a process in which information about the past or the present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future. As part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop, the event is said to "feedback" into itself.”

The reaction to an initial action, whether within or outside the system,  which in turn influences that initial action, is defined as feedback. The currently featured GapingVoid artwork below this post illustrates this, though the chain can go through a number of steps before coming back to the original action.  If the reaction increases or strengthens the initial action then that is reinforcing or positive feedback. If the reaction produces less or weakens the initial action then that is negative feedback. If it does so to attain a specific level then that is a balancing feedback. Positive and negative have nothing to do with good or bad. Recidivism resulting in an increase in prison populations would be seen as a bad while a measure to lessen or create a negative feedback would be seen as a social good. The important point to remember is that one element's action is some other element's feedback.

This means that the parts of a system are not only connected in a structural or even mechanical sense but also in an organic sense in that the system can evolve. The same is true of this blog post, especially in its creation. Words have to be put together structurally right to be spelled correctly, the subject and predicate of each sentence must work together to express a complete thought, sentences at the beginning of a paragraph are intended to inform sentences that come later. If it is a well constructed system then this post should convey information in an understandable, comprehensive and holistic manner. 

Boundary - Setting the boundary on a system can be a more abstract exercise than discerning the mutual interactions between parts of a system. A car has a braking system, an electrical system, and a fuel system to name a few. Altogether, these subsystems make up a system of self or automobility. That automobile though can be considered a part of a larger transportation system if we are thinking about building a new freeway. A boundary is defined to make explicit, from an operational perspective, what is part of the system and what is part of that system's environment. Boundaries can also be used to explicitly define areas of responsibility among stakeholders within a community system when appropriate.  Boundaries help determine what can be addressed and what needs to be addressed.

There is an obvious boundary for this blog post in terms of length but there is also a boundary on the number of new concepts that will be introduced. This specific system is designed so that you don't have to swallow the entire bowl of ramen in one gulp. However, even if we deal with only the concepts set forth by this blog post we can still extend the boundaries to an even larger system that includes the reader and then those with whom the learning is shared.

Emergence - From the mutual interaction of the parts of a system arise characteristics which cannot be found in any of the individual parts of the system. These characteristics are said to emerge from the interaction of the parts within the system and are responsible for the system's behavior over time. Over time, the emergent characteristics of a system will invariably acquire certain reoccurring patterns (which will be discussed in greater detail at a later time). We often identify systems by these emergent characteristics. Unless there is an obvious problem, we usually don’t give much thought to the workings of the internal combustion engine in our car while being carried toward our destination.  With the writing of this blog post, it is hoped that new ideas and understanding will emerge for those reading it, but being engrossed in the ideas being expressed can make self-editing of the actual words difficult. We see what we expect to be there, missing the components creating a different reality and the potential for unindented consequences arising from someone getting an understanding that we did not mean to convey. 

Now that you have a deeper meaning and hopefully understanding of what a system is what then is systems thinking? How do we think about systems? There are two basic ways to think about systems.

Analysis - is essentially the scientific method of reductionism which means taking things apart, studying those parts, and then attempting to understand the whole from an understanding of its parts.  Such an approach can assume that if we can get all the individual parts of an organization operating correctly then when we put them together they will continue to work correctly through a means of top-down command and control by management. 

This works well in many situations that are complicated in nature or have an algorithmic aspect to them, questions of ‘how?’. It does not do as well in addressing complex situations or in addressing questions of ‘why?’ and if they begin to demonstrate increasing complicatedness then it can be detrimental to the organization's intended purpose.  This does not mean though that in studying complex situations or in determining why something happens to a system within an organization that analysis can be ignored. It is that you must also incorporate synthesis when studying systems.

Synthesis - Is endeavoring to understand something through the nature of its interactions within its larger environment.  The rest of the course will basically be on developing this capacity. 

This then covers the basic elements of this current segment as well as a few offshoot concepts. A model for this segment has been created with (coming soon). There are, however, additional concepts that deal with thinking about systems and going further, those that deal with thinking about systems thinking but for now, we will make this the end boundary for this particular system.

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