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Systems Thinking Defining a System

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The origin of the word system comes from the Ancient Greek "synistanai" meaning 'to bring together or combine. (2002, Washington University Press). There are many similar definitions (Appendix A) but essentially a system is a collection of organised interrelated parts/elements that function as one single entity within a boundary to achieve a specific objective.

A group of friends is an example of a system. The objective of a system is the reason it exists for this argument we will assume its objective is "Social interaction for mutual benefit". The elements that make up this system of friends would be the individual people.

The Boundary of a system is where the system ends and the environment begins. Systems usually exist in an environment and the boundary is important because it defines what elements are parts of the system and what are parts of the environment. The importance of this is more apparent in information systems. Boundaries do not necessarily need to be tangible entities such as a wall or even a national boarder. For our group of friends the boundary would be a 'detailed list of people who are friends'. The boundary could not be something such as language because it does not accurately define who is in the group of friends and who is not.

A Human Being is a system it contains elements such as arms, legs, muscles etc. that function as a whole to achieve an objective, which is "self preservation". The boundary of this system is the skin or outer layer.

So far only tangible things have been discussed as systems but systems do not necessarily need to be entirely tangible take information systems such as the stock market. It contains elements such as buyers and sellers not always people sometimes the buyer or seller maybe a computer acting as an agent. In any case it still contains many elements tangible and intangible that work together to achieve a specific objective. In this case the objective it "To facilitate the transfer of stocks" that is the function of the stock market.

The System properties outlined have focused on the elements or parts and their objective and boundary. Studying the parts of the system cannot lead us to a greater understanding of a system as was thought before the mid 20th century

System thinking started mud 20th century and drives away from the previous academic vies of studying

the parts to understanding the abstract whole. Take for example the substem of a human being the human brain. Not being medical scientist we may not understand the intricacies of the human brain and how the parts interrelate but as systems thinkers we can understand the abstract whole and what properties the brain has when all its parts are working together.

Emergent Properties are properties above and beyond the properties of its parts. (1997, O'Connor and McDermott) Take for example our group of friends. Suppose the friends are working as a team and one emerges, as a leader here is an obvious example of an emergent property. When a human being appears happy this is another emergent property. Taking this further into our intangible systems such as the stock market an emergent property could be that Mining companies trade higher than dot.coms's these properties are present when the parts of the system are interacting.

Systems are complex and their complexity differs from system to system. Simple complexity occurs when the elements of a system have only one way of interacting or going together. An example of such a system would be a person putting together a jigsaw. In this system the jigsaw puzzle has only one way of going together and only shows one picture. Computers are good at dealing with simple complexity cause procedures can be sequenced and recursed. Systems have Dynamic Complexity when the parts or elements have many ways of going together. Our group of friends have dynamic complexity cause there are many different ways they can react with each other. A person has dynamic complexity cause there are many different sub-systems and some of them can perform the tasks of others if required.

It is cause of the intricate complexity of systems that they are resistant to change. Changing one element of a system directly affects another and so on. Think of the system like a web if you exert pressure on one part of it when you stop the rest of the web will pull it back into place. If you change some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle you would have to change



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