Sense-making in the systems movement – observations of a novice

During the course Systems Thinking 2 at Aalto University we have already had the opportunity to explore different views on how systems thinking can be used in organizational sense-making and design. So far we’ve read and discussed articles about Ackoff’s Interactive Planning, Vicker’s Appreciative Systems, and Haeckel’s Sense-and-Respond organisation. All these views try to bring light on how organizational sense-making can occur, and on how to design systems that can deal with complexity.

What interests me in particular are the different assumptions and broader worldviews that the different approaches hold. The systems movement is a rather complex phenomenon in itself, and for a novice like me, seeing how these approaches relate to each other and the larger context is difficult at first. However, in this blog post I will try to make some sense of the systems movement and explore two major world views that I have recently come across in my readings.

According to the first view, the world is systemic, meaning that it’s formed of interconnected systems. We can objectively observe and design these systems by applying systems thinking principles. This view is based on positivism, spectator theory of knowledge (Dewey, 1929), and functionalism (Zexian & Xuhui, 2010). The second view dismisses the notion that world is essentially systemic and that we can objectively observe it. Instead, this world view builds on social constructionism, the interpretive paradigm, and Dewey’s (1929) experimental theory of knowledge (ibid.) The advocates of the second view argue that the process of inquiry is systemic, and that systems should be viewed ‘as if’ they existed in the real world.

Below is a more detailed discussion of both views, as I have understood them.

The world is systemic – first order (hard) systems thinking

The shift from the doctrine of reductionism and the analytical mode of thought to the doctrine of expansionism and the synthetic mode of thought that took place in the early decades of the 20th century brought with it several lines of inquiry into systems. According to Russell Ackoff (1974), the shift itself began with different scholars in separate fields making a move away from reductionism towards more expansionist thinking. For example, Suzanne Langer discussed the meaning of symbols in the 1940s, with Charles Morris later building on her work to study languages in late 40s and early 50s. From languages the next step was communication by Claude Shannon in 1949 and control and cybernetics by Norbert Wiener in 1948. According to Ackoff (1974), the final “Aha” moment that launched the systems movement was Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory in the 50s and 60s.

Russell Ackoff.

Russell Ackoff.

These developments lead to the incubation of three distinct, but related systems fields: General Systems Theory, Cybernetics, and Systems Dynamics. All three strands of systems thinking departed from reductionist approaches in that they emphasized the importance of dynamic interactions between the parts of the system and between systems and their environments (Stacey, 2010, 201.) Problem solving did no longer begin by isolating the problem from its environment, but by looking at how the problem is connected to the larger whole that it’s a part of. Synthesis would now precede analysis, instead of the other way around (Ackoff, 1981).

The strands of systems thinking that emerged in these early decades of the systems movement are today called first order systems thinking, or hard systems thinking (Stacey, 2010; Zexian & Xuhui, 2010). Although the proponents of hard systems thinking dismissed the reductionist mode of thought and analytical thinking that formed the basis of the scientific method, hard systems thinking still held many of the beliefs behind reductionist thinking. According to Ralph Stacey (2010), hard systems thinking assumes an objective reality that can be rationally observed by individuals. When it comes to social systems, the social world is essentially assumed to be formed up of systems that have a purpose, and that can be objectively observed and modelled (ibid). The assumptions behind hard systems thinking were conveniently summarized in a 2010 paper by Zexian and Xuhui:

  • System objectively exist in our world and it has a good structure and identified goal.
  • The parts of the system have the same worldviews, values and interests.
  • The system intervener is an outsider of system and is not influenced by the system.
  • Achieving the optimal results is the ultimate goal of problem-solving process (Zexian & Xuhui, 2010, 143.)

According to Zexian and Zuhui (2010), hard systems thinking conforms to positivism in natural science and largely ignores the diverse worldviews, values and interests existing in human organization. Furthermore, hard systems thinking complies with the tradition of epistemology that ignores the relationship between the subject and the object, which Dewey (1929) called the spectator theory of knowledge (ibid.)

In summary, while hard systems thinking moved away from reductionism, i.e., observing and designing parts of a system in isolation, the world view still held on to many of the assumptions behind natural sciences. General Systems Theory, Cybernetics, and Systems Dynamics all assumed that systems could be modelled and understood objectively. Design and sense-making were therefore only a matter of patience and use of rational decision-making tools. Although synthesis would precede analysis, the design of systems could be done using the same scientific rigor that natural scientists used when analyzing natural phenomena.

Emergent behavior. A starling flock near Athens.

Emergent behavior. A starling flock near Athens.


The process of inquiry is systemic – Second order (soft) systems thinking

To recap, General Systems Theory, Cybernetics, and Systems Dynamics all assumed that systems exist as objective phenomena, and that social systems have identifiable goals, structures, and behaviors that we can evaluate and design. In the 1970s and 80s, however, systems thinking scholars began to question these assumptions. Among the most notable critiques were West Churchman (boundaries and moral), Russel Ackoff (Interactive Planning), and Peter Checkland (Soft Systems Methodology), who developed alternative approaches to organizational sense-making and design that involved people. Later the Critical Systems Thinking approach was built on top of the critique from Chruchman, Ackoff, and Checkland (Stacey, 2010.)

Zexian and Xuhui (2010) view Checkland’s Soft Systems Thinking in particular as a major milestone in the systems thinking movement. Checkland critiqued the positivist nature of the earlier systems thinking approaches as well as noting that they don’t consider different human values and worldviews in their analyses. He also dismissed the word ‘system’ altogether and instead employed the term ‘purposeful holon’ to discuss human systems. Below is Checkland’s systems thinking summarized in seven points:

  • System thinking takes seriously the idea of a whole entity which may exhibit properties as a single whole (‘emergence properties’), properties which have no meaning in terms of the parts of the whole
  • To do systems thinking is to set some constructed abstract wholes against the perceived real world in order to learn about it
  • Within system thinking there are two complementary traditions. The ‘hard’ tradition takes the world to be systemic; the ‘soft’ tradition creates the process of enquiry as a system.
  • SSM is a systemic process of enquiry which happens to make use of system models. It thus subsumes the hard approach, which is a special case of it.
  • To make the above clear it would be better to use the word ‘holon’ for the constructed abstract wholes, conceding the word ‘system’ to everyday language and not trying to use it as a technical term
  • SSM uses a particular kind of holon, namely the so-called ‘human activity system’. This is a set of activities so connected as to make a purposeful whole, constructed to meet the requirement of the core system image (emergence properties, layered structure, process of communication and control)
  • In examining real-world situations characterized by purposeful action, there will never be only one relevant holon. It is necessary to create several models of human activity systems and to debate and so learn their relevance to real life (Checkland, 1990, 27).

Checkland therefore states that there is no objective reality that can be observed from the outside, and neither is there only one optimal system (holon) for any situation. If I understood correctly, this is strongly against the first order systems thinking tradition of the 50s and 60s.

In short, the second order systems thinking approaches that were developed in the later decades of the 20th century dismissed the notion of rational observers objectively assessing reality and designing ideal systems based on objective goals. The idea of a system was questioned altogether and replaced by the word ‘holon’. Later, during the 80s and 90s the theories of catastrophe, chaos, and complexity would be added to the already broad spectrum of systems theories and sciences. Exploring the contributions of complexity theories is widely beyond the scope of this blog post, so I will leave the realm of complexity for another discussion.

So, coming back to Vickers’ Appreciative System, Ackoff’s Interactive Planning, and Hacekel’s Sense-and-Respond organisation, I feel it’s already a bit more clear where they stand in the bigger picture. To my knowledge, Ackoff’s critique towards hard systems thinking acted as one of the foundations towards soft systems thinking. Vickers’ Appreciative System method came about as a critique towards the rational decision making models that he saw to have little bearing on how real world works (Burt & Van der Heijden, 2008, 1111). It would therefore seem like a safe bet to say that Vickers also represents second-order systems thinking. I would dare to say that Haeckel too represents second-order systems thinking. In his book ‘Adaptive Enterprise: Creating and Leading Sense-and-Respond Organizations’ (1999), Haeckel builds his idea of a Sense-and-Respond organisation on Learning Organisation theory and Complex Adaptive System (CAS) theory. Learning Organisation theory emerged along with other second-order systems thinking theories, while CAS theory is part of the complexity sciences family.


Ackoff, R. (1974). Systems, messes and interactive planning. Portions of chapters 1 and 2 of Redesigning the Future. New York/London. Wiley, 1974.

Ackoff RL. (1981). Creating the Corporate Future: Plan or Be Planned For. John Wiley and Sons, New York. Pages 16-17.

Burt, G. & van der Heijden, K. (2008). Towards a framework to understand purpose in futures studies: the role of Vickers’ appreciative system. Technological Froecasting & Social Change. Vol 75. Pages 1109-1127.

Checkland, P. (1990). Soft systems methodology in action. Wiley. Chichester, UK.

Dewey, J. (1929). The Quest for uncertainty: a study of the relation of the knowledge and action. Balch & Company. New York, USA.

Haeckel, S. (1999). Adaptive enterprise: creating and leading sense-and-respond organizations. Harvard Business School Press. Boston Massachusetts.

Stacey, R. (2010). Strategic management and organisational dynamics: The challenge of complexity. Pearson Education Limited. Edinburgh Gate, England. Pages 54-55, 201.

Zexian, Y. & Xuhui, Y. (2010). A Revolution in the field of systems thinking – a review of Checkland’s systems thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Vol 27. Pages 140-155.

Creative Commons Starlings near Athens Nov 2008 by muffin is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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