A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Organizational Resilience

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Systems Thinking

Three approaches to Systems Thinking have particular value in the realm of this course:

1 Systems Thinking of and  Social Systems Sciences, in particular Russell Ackoff's ideas on synthetic thinking. Most contemporary science and education derives from analytical thinking, which may reveal how a system works, but never an understanding of why it works the way it does. 

Analysis (1) breaks a system down into its parts and (2) tries to understand (structure, function and process) these constituent parts, usually with the implicit aim of (3) aggregating this understanding into an understanding of the whole. When you go to school to study business, for example, you don't study business. You study marketing, finance, organization, logistics, etc. The assumption is that if you understand how the parts work you can assemble them together to gain the understanding of the whole. Corporations are run in a similar fashion. Running of the organization is divided into different parts-by products, geography, function, etc. and then you aggregate running of the parts into running of the whole-corporation. [1]

But analysis alone cannot succeed because when a system is taken apart it loses all its essential characteristics and so do its parts. A disassembled automobile, for example, cannot transport people and a motor taken out of it cannot move anything, even itself. The whole has properties that none of its parts have.

Synthesis turns this process upside down (or rightside up). To understand something, e.g., a car, using synthesis you:
1. Ask "what is this a part of?" Instead of taking the car apart, you identify the containing whole: a car is part of a transportation system, an economy,  part of a motorist and a family in the sense that it has an important function for its driver and, often, his/her familly.

2. Understand the behavior of the containing whole(s). Instead of trying to understand behavior and properties of the parts, consider for example, Automaker A needs to sell $XX billion worth of cars this year to generate 5% growth needed to satisfy shareholders. Motorist B needs a way to get places, transport things, impress people, etc...

3. Dis-aggregate the understanding of the containing whole by identifying the function of the system you are trying to explain. Instead of (pointlessly) trying to aggregate understanding of parts, observe the role a car plays in the bottom line of an Automaker or in the life of a buyer.

Systems thinking integrates the two:  Analysis of a system reveals how it works but synthesis is required to explain why it works the way it does.

2. System Dynamics, especially Feedback Loops and Systems Archetypes (See Chapter 5 and 6, The Fifth Discipline

3. Force Field Analysis: Analyzing the Pressures For and Against Change


Russell L. Ackoff. , Social Systems Sciences, Force Field Analysis: The Concept of "Organic" , Organizational Resilience:

Systems Thinkers: A global network of systems thinkers (Yahoo Discussion Group)

Question Everything: Blog with systems perspective: Have we the wisdom to find a balance between our own desires and the good for the whole earth?

System Dynamics (ciow workshop: Introduction to System Dynamics - MIT's Systems Approach to Creativity)

Key Concepts from "The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organizations.”


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Date Page Created: Feb 26, 2013 Last Page Update: Feb 26, 2013