“Systems”, Strengths, Weaknesses and Challenges

“Systems”, Strengths, Weaknesses and Challenges

Frank Stowell (School of Computing, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/IJSS.2017010106
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Systems and Cybernetics no longer occupies the position, in academic circles, it once did. There are many reasons why this is the case but a common reason given is the lack of research funding for the subject. The knock-on effect is that the subject has fewer 'champions' and as a consequence is less prominent then it once was. There are many factors that mitigate against research funding for the domain but the cumulative effect is that there are few (if any) new ideas generated now which in turn is having an impact upon the number of academics attracted to it. In this paper the author revisits the action research programme at the University of Lancaster. This project contributed valuable insights into organisational inquiry and the nature of Systems thinking for over 30 years. In this paper the author revisits the programme to discover if there are lessons to be learnt that may be adopted to help provide a means of re-establishing the profile of the domain.
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Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. MARCUS AURELIUS (121-180 AD)


Let Us Recap

What has happened? For those of us who have been around ‘Systems’ from the mid and late 20th century we were lucky enough to enjoy contact with the “giants” of the subject who were pushing at the boundaries of thinking about Systems. The work of Stafford Beer and Peter Checkland, both UKSS gold medalists, Norbert Wiener, Ross Ashby, C West Churchman, Russ Ackoff, Sir Geoffrey Vickers (also a UKSS gold medallist) and Ilya Prigogine inspired many to take up their ideas1. But in the early 21st century these giants have 'moved on', only Checkland continues to contribute to the thinking and even so from retirement.

Thus, far in the 21st century there are no 'big ideas' that will inspire a new generation of Systemists. Instead what we are left with are variations of the ideas from the past that now begin to look tired and less capable of meeting the new kinds of challenges that are emerging. For example, since the core work of Beer and Checkland digital technologies have become commonplace in every organisation. Will the ideas of these early Systemist be as valuable now when an organisation can no longer be thought of as a physically recognisable entity? An organisation2 may now function as a network of teams linked by technology and may change according to its needs. Many of the old skill-sets such as in banking and insurance have been replaced by technology. Even the old professions, such as medicine and the law are no longer immune from the impact of digital technology: “Times they are a-changing”.

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