Systems thinking

Systems thinking involves the use of various techniques to study systems of many kinds. It includes studying things in a holistic way, rather than purely reductionist techniques. It aims to gain insights into the whole by understanding the linkages, interactions and processes between the elements that comprise the whole "system".

Systems thinkers consider that:

  • a "system" is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit in equilibrium
  • information flows between the different elements that compose the system
  • a system is a community situated within an environment
  • information flows from and to the surrounding environment via semi-permeable membranes or boundaries
For further details see complex system

Table of contents
1 Why use systems thinking techniques?
2 What is a system?
3 Methodologies
4 Applications
5 See also
6 Bibliography
7 External links

Why use systems thinking techniques?

Systems thinkers are particularly interested in studying systems because changing a system frequently leads to counterintuitive system responses. For example feedback loops may operate to either keep the organization in check or unbalance it.

What is a system?

Systems thinking techniques may be used to study any kind of system -- natural, scientific, human, or conceptual.


Systems thinking often involves considering a "system" in different ways:
Rather than trying to improve the braking system on a car by looking in great detail at the composition of the brake pads (reductionist), the boundary of the braking system may be extended to include not only the components of the car, but the driver, the road and the weather, and considering the interactions between them.

Looking at something as a series of conceptual systems according to multiple viewpoints. A supermarket could be considered as a "profit making system" from the perspective of management, an "employment system" from the perspective of the staff, and a "shopping system" -- or perhaps an "entertainment system" -- from the perspective of the customers. As a result of such thinking, new insights may be gained into how the supermarket works, why it has problems, or how changes made to one such system may impact on the others.


Systems thinking uses a variety of techniques that may be divided into:
  • Hard systems - involving simulations, often using computers and the techniques of operations research. Useful for problems that can justifiably be quantified. However it cannot easily take into account unquantifiable variables (opinions, culture, politics, etc), and may treat people as being passive, rather than having complex motivations.
  • Soft systems - Used to tackle systems that cannot easily be quantified, especially those involving people interacting with each other or with "systems". Useful for understanding motivations, viewpoints, and interactions but, naturally, it doesn't give quantified answers. Soft systems is a field that the academic Peter Checkland has done much to develop.


Systems thinking is increasingly being used to tackle a wide variety of subjects in fields such as
management, computing, and the environment.

See also


External links

copyright 2004