Friday, August 7, 2009

The Duality – Engineered “systems” and People

The Duality – Engineered “systems” and People

Gharajedaghi presents an insightful and important discussion pointing to a conundrum in the structure for dealing with the realities of the world. He discusses three theoretical views: Mindless Systems: mechanistic, Uniminded Systems: A biological view, and Multiminded Systems: sociocultural systems. As you might imagine each of these perspectives involves considerable discussion. And in that process we add complexity which can cloud our perspective or clarity.

For our purposes here we will only focus on two systems that can be deduced from Ghaarajedaghi’s discourse and our observations working in communities. These two are sufficient for our need to identify a core issue that must be addressed.

They are 1) Engineered, and 2) Human. In our view all things are created to advance human life. And all engineered solutions were created for this purpose. However, in our perspective the engineered world dominates our reality now. And attention to the engineered world has caused us to lose perspective on the reasons why we make all this “stuff”, to make our lives better. But we see that the human and natural world have fallen into obscurity as we have become obsessed with technological advancement and “development”.

The term “Engineered” in this contest includes organizations, agencies, roads, automobiles, etc. etc. In essence, and this can be traced back to the industrial revolution and to Adam Smith’s economic view, all of the institutions, governments, corporations, educational endeavors have fallen into the “engineered” reality because “science” has presented us this framework.

Even though some minor change in perspective may have occurred, the evolution of how the two systems interact built/engineered” and human has not changed. It is easy to apply a “systems” solution to a road, or a machine or even an institution or government, the challenge is how does that affect the “human” part of the equation? Machines and systems are predictable (for the most part), but people are not, even less so are natural systems. In fact, even the term “systems thinking” is couched within the problem. Vesterberg provides a concise definition of Systems Thinking.

What is Systems Thinking? Systems thinking comes from a rigorous scientific discipline called General Systems Theory, which was developed in the 1920s. The theory centered on the natural world, the living systems therein and the common laws governing those systems. Its major premise was that such laws, once known, could serve as a conceptual framework for understanding the relationships within any system, and for handling any problems or changes encompassed by that system. Consequently, the theory emphasized the value of viewing a system as a whole, of gaining a perspective on the entire “entity”, before examining its parts.

The framework is based on the belief that the component parts of a system will act differently when the systems relationships are removed and it is viewed in isolation. The only way to fully understand why a problem or element occurs and persists is to understand the part in relation to the whole. (

Even the language that is being used in this document is constrained with the “engineered” mentality using the phrase “systems thinking”. If we look at how various institutions, corporations or governments operate, because they are structural, and thus systems, they implement engineered or “mechanistic” solutions. For example, if there is a gap in a program or some form of waste is discovered inside an organization what is implemented is a new policy, or regulation, or law usually consisting of a new form to be filled out and/or some type of police action in order that the “gap” be watched and monitored.

For all intents and purposes this is like putting a new “gear” in the machine. But even in a machine, this will not work.
Even more blatant, and we have confronted this challenge innumerable times, is to attempt to introduce a new “program” or innovation into one of these institutions. If there is not a box on the form to write that, the idea simply will be discarded. In order to consider, there would need to be a major policy or structural change in order to accommodate even a “pilot” or demonstration project. An analogy would be like trying to add a new apparatus to the internal combustion engine – it’s not going to happen.

Where humans meet the machine cannot be described simply in mechanistic terms. It seems a bit ironic that systems thinking” was originally derived from the observation of the natural world. But the natural world has been around much longer than this “mechanistic” view, and it would seem ultimately to be showing us the error of our ways. Because of our self inflicted crisis, we are having to turn once again to nature to find solutions. We need to move out of the rigid language and thinking to a more fluid, organic and natural process that allows for adaptation to new environments which are presenting themselves.

In our discussion here, for lack of a better term, we are promoting a “grass-roots” approach. To demonstrate how inadequate “engineered” thinking and language is to solve our crisis between our created systems and the natural world, would be to try to describe the beauty of a flower with engineers terms, much less the growth and development of a natural ecosystem, a landscape or a baby. It can’t be done.

The main point here is people do not respond like machines. So a engineered solution will not be adequate. For lack of a better term, people’s lives are more like “soap operas”, filled with drama, and uncertainty. And at the end, the systems don’t ultimately serve the people’s needs, they serve the institutions needs which use up precious resources that could have been better utilized. It should be accepted as a given that the systems we have created are supposed to serve people. Another example of how a “mechanistic” or engineered view fails is how institutions, or agencies monitor their success or performance. It usually just comes down to numbers. This is because engineered reality can essentially deal only with quantitative characteristics not qualitative. Everything has to be boiled down to numbers, even the qualitative measures have to be put into tables of numbers, so what ends up happening to the qualities? It’s an important question. And even more importantly is the question that really is the bottom line in most people’s lives whether it is in a family, community, region or nation - how is the quality of life?

This discussion is not proposing to address this philosophical or paradigmatic crisis. That too is really “raging against the machine”, and would require exorbitant energies to change - precious energies that are better used to change the “system” from the ground-up, or from the “grass-roots”. The institutional structure that has been created is rigid, and will ultimately crumble under its own weight. The point to introducing this important issue is to be aware as one starts to move down to the level of bringing innovation into communities and potentially “evolution” into individual’s lives, it will be necessary to treat the people like “people” not “machines”. They will respond much better. Of course, people indoctrinated into the mechanistic way of being will resist these structural changes, but we ultimately do not have to worry about this.

The people who are ready for change, the early adopters, are the ones we are interested in. The key to our success will be to get practical, rewarding solutions into these people’s hands and let them demonstrate to the remaining people and community, how new ways can open up opportunities and create a better “quality of life”. We can find innumerable examples of this occurring throughout history, and in our current times. However, in most cases, these are fairly isolated. What we want to do is implement strategies that take these successful approaches, and make them available to others.

No comments:

Post a Comment