What is Systems Thinking? A Personal Perspective
Author: Barry Clemson. Volume 1. Issue 1. June 19, 2012.
Abstract: This paper answers the questions: What sort of critter is systems thinking? What might we expect it to do for us? It distinguishes between Systems Theory (science), Systemic Perspectives (methods) and Systems Thinking (worldview). It articulates the main criteria for assessing each of these three and considers the ethical implications of various worldviews.
The terms “systems” and “systems thinking” include a vast conglomeration of concepts, principles, laws, and perspectives. These notions come from sources as varied as pure mathematics, biology, physics, computer science, and many others. Important contributions to systems thinking have come under disparate banners of e.g., systems theory, cybernetics, complex adaptive systems, and complexity science (and often with these various groups seemingly fairly ignorant of each other). The practical applications of systems thinking span the range of human interests. Given this wild variety of sources and even more astonishing range of applications, it is no surprise that we have difficulty agreeing on basic definitions, or on the scope of systems thinking, or even what sort of critter systems thinking is and what we might expect it to do for us. This paper takes aim at the latter questions: What sort of critter is systems thinking? What might we expect it to do for us?
My answers are not going to end our disagreements, but understanding “what sort of critter is systems thinking?” may make our arguments more productive.
Theory, Perspective, & Thinking
Several distinctions seem useful (Bellinger, personal communication):
- Systems Theory – the science of systems
- Systemic Perspectives – methods, the practical applications of systems methods and models in real-life situations.
- Systems Thinking – the paradigm or world view
I also use the term “systems” when I want to point at the general arena but want to be a little vague. I try to be rather precise when I use the terms systems theory, systemic perspectives, and Systems Thinking.
Systems Theory. Systems Theory consists of testable propositions, mathematical / logical theorems, and the associated definitions. The primary criteria for evaluating systems theory is its ‘truth”. I put “truth” in quotes because an important part of ST is the recognition that “truth” is at best a pretty slippery concept. Further, while systems theory is science, science is never able to prove anything. Experiments, at best, falsify hypotheses and thereby reveal errors in thinking. When we say that a hypothesis has been experimentally verified, what we really mean is that we failed to disprove the hypothesis. Nevertheless, the defining characteristic of Systems Theory is that it consists of statements we believe to be correct and which are capable of being falsified. Systems Theory is science.
Systemic Perspectives. Systemic Perspectives are methods, heuristics or recipes for doing something in the world. For instance, System Dynamics is a method for understanding system behavior, especially those systems characterized by feedback loops. To take a second example, the Viable System Model (VSM) is a model of what is required for an organization to be effective in the short term and adaptable in the long term. The VSM includes a language and a set of graphical conventions for diagnosing organizational pathology or health and for designing organizations such that they will be viable. There are many different Systemic Perspectives, each designed for specific purposes. For instance, Bellinger (2010), building on Michael Jackson’s framework for a System of Systems Methodologies, lists numerous Systemic Perspectives at http://bit.ly/g1uaAx.
The “truthfulness” (or not) of a Systemic Perspective is not a valid question. The primary criteria for evaluating a Systemic Perspective are its utility. Utility, of course, is a little slippery. For instance an eight-pound sledgehammer has great utility if I need to break up concrete. That same sledgehammer has zero (or perhaps negative!) utility for putting small nails into a dollhouse. Similarly, the utility of a given Systemic Perspective depends on my particular situation and what I am trying to do. We make general evaluative statements such as “System Dynamics is the best available tool for understanding complex systems dominated by feedback loops” and such a statement could be empirically tested … but the evaluative statement is not part of the System Dynamics method.
Systemic Perspectives tell us what to pay attention to. For instance, Beer’s Viable System Model (1972,1979) tells us to look for specific kinds of functions / information flows within the organization of interest. Ackoff’s Circular Organization (1994) tells us to focus on the superior-subordinate relationships and the peer relationships within an organization.
Some of the Systemic Perspective methods tell us not only what to pay attention to, but also suggest a specific sequence: do A, then do B, and so on.
Box (1987) aptly said, “All models are wrong, some models are useful”. Gregory Bateson (1972) put it this way “the map is not the territory”. I say, “all methods are wrong, some methods are useful”. Systemic Perspectives are useful when we remember that the map is not the territory and when we select a perspective that is appropriate for our particular purpose. Selecting a perspective that is inappropriate for our given situation simply blinds us to the critical aspects of that situation. A number of scholars (Beer, 1975; Malik, 2009) say that this is a fundamental problem with most of our business schools. These scholars argue that the business schools emphasize the technical and financial aspects of businesses to the near exclusion of the engineering and systemic aspects of the companies, thus blinding their graduates to the real problems of the contemporary corporation.
Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking (ST) is my third category but it is not logically on the same level as the other two categories (Systems Theory and Systemic Perspectives).
- Systems Thinking includes all of Systems Theory. The science is part of ST.
- Systems Thinking includes all of Systemic Perspectives. The methodological heuristics are part of ST.
- Systems Thinking includes all of Systems Theory and Systemic Perspectives and more.
This “more than” is the part of ST that is difficult to articulate, in part because it is still evolving and in part because it is very broad.
The diagram below is intended to show these relationships. Systems Thinking includes all of the other two and more. Systemic Perspectives build upon and include aspects of Systems Theory.
Figure 1. The relationships among Systems Thinking, Systems Theory. and Systemic Perspectives.
The following is my personal attempt to articulate those aspects of ST not contained within Systems Theory or Systemic Perspectives:
- Everything is connected to everything else
- Life evolves toward greater connectivity and complexity
- The future is in principle unpredictable. Minute disturbances can cause large differences (the butterfly effect).
- The universe is one (Zen).
- Spirituality and science are one unity (Eastern religions)
- Man and nature are inseparable
- The pattern that connects (Bateson, 1972)
- Our nervous systems compute our own reality (von Foerster, 1974, von Glaserfeld, 1990) within the constraints imposed by what we point to (but cannot truly know) as “external reality”. The opposite of objectivity is not subjectivity or solipsism but responsibility (von Foerster, 1974)
Others would probably make a considerably different list … but this is the best that I can do at this point in time. Those interested in other views of ST can find a plethora of sources by googling “systems thinking”. Closely related topics include cybernetics, complexity science, and complex adaptive systems.
So What Kind of Thing is ST?
Is Systems Thinking a paradigm? A paradigm, according to Thomas Kuhn (1962) consists of a scientific framework shared by a community of scientists. A paradigm provides model problems and a sense of what would count as solutions. The paradigm suggests what is to be observed, the kinds of questions to be asked, and how to interpret results of investigations.
The ST paradigm is still being formed, still emerging, in that we are not yet able to get agreement among practitioners on any one articulation of ST. Thus, ST probably does not yet fully meet the criteria for a paradigm.
Is Systems Thinking a Worldview? A worldview is “a particular philosophy or conception of the world” (Apple dictionary, 2005). A worldview is the cognitive orientation of an individual or group and it includes the entirety of the group’s knowledge and beliefs, including values, emotions, and ethical principles. A worldview is a network of assumptions and beliefs, not verified by science, but nevertheless the framework by which every aspect of knowledge and experience is interpreted and understood.
According to Apostel (2012), a worldview is an ontology, or a descriptive model of the world. A worldview has several different elements, including an explanation of the world and where it is headed, answers to ethical questions, a methodology or theory of action, and several other attributes.
von Bertalanffy (1968, pg. vii) called ST a worldview. It seems to me that ST, in its current state of development, is somewhere between a worldview and a paradigm.
Evaluating Systems Thinking
I said earlier Systems Theory is science (criteria = truth) and Systemic Perspectives are methods / models / heuristics (criteria = utility). What then are the criteria for evaluating Systems Thinking? How does one evaluate or choose among paradigms or worldviews?
Let us detour for a moment to briefly consider several of the worldviews that I believe ST is replacing.
Newtonian or clockwork universe. In this worldview the universe is a giant machine. Given precise data on initial conditions, future states are precisely predictable, at least in principle. This view is sometimes called the “billiard ball” universe, i.e., the parts have hard boundaries and for given initial velocities and positions, future states are predictable. In this view, man occupies a privileged position relative to nature which is here to be exploited by mankind.
Social Darwinism. Society is made up of individuals and groupings that compete with each other for power and wealth. While there is also a degree of cooperation within society, the primary dynamic is this ruthless competition. The best win and the inferior individuals and groups lose and, in the long run, this improves the society. This view holds that government services to support society’s “losers” harms society as a whole.
Radical capitalism. This worldview is also called neo-liberalism and the Milton Friedman or Chicago School of economics. Ayn Rand’s books (1943, 1957) popularized this worldview. In this view, government regulations and social safety nets distort the workings of the free market. Unions are bad. Government functions should be severely restricted and almost everything should be privatized. Greed is good and, given that governments are sufficiently restricted, the pursuit of private wealth will lead to the greatest social good.
The American Cowboy. This worldview may be peculiar to the USA. We celebrate and revere the heroic individual, self-contained and independent. We no longer have many cowboys, but we have Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the self-made entrepreneurs who through hard work and superior ability earn great wealth and power. Key to this worldview is the conviction that this sort of success is open to anyone sufficiently talented and hard working to deserve it and that wealth is generally a result of the talents and hard work of the wealthy person.
Evaluating Paradigms / Worldviews.
Thomas Kuhn claims that paradigms are incommensurable. According to Kuhn, not even the science aspect of the paradigms can be rationally compared because the concepts are, in effect, orthogonal to each other.
Are there any criteria by which a paradigm / worldview such as Systems Thinking can be evaluated?
The first thing we should notice is that few of us even attempt to make a conscious choice among paradigms or worldviews. For the vast majority of us, this is something that is learned through our unconscious interpretation of experience.
“Language has a subtle, yet powerful effect on the way we view the world. English, like most other Western languages, is linear — its basic sentence construction, noun-verb-noun, translates into a worldview of “x causes y.” (Balasubramaniam, 2012). Someone growing up in a concrete jungle and then working on an assembly line where the influence of language is reinforced by his experience is likely to feel that linear, reductionist thinking is natural and the only possible way to think.
Alternatively, if we grow up on a family farm or as a hunter-gatherer, our entire life experience as an intimate part of nature will predispose us toward systems thinking. With this sort of background, we are likely to feel Systems Thinking is natural and the only possible way to think.
The second thing we should notice about a worldview is that it is probably not internally consistent. When I am honest with myself, I realize that my own belief system is something of a mishmash of half-baked ideas from several of these worldviews and, even worse, there is a distinct lack of consistency in my ideas. If you, dear reader, make the effort to articulate what you believe, I strongly suspect you will discover the same thing about yourself.
The third and perhaps most distressing aspect of this whole business is that there are large gaps between our espoused beliefs and our behavior. Argyris and Schon (1978) studied managers’ espoused beliefs, which, for American managers, almost universally included for example a high value on teamwork and creativity. When those same managers were observed, their normal behavior was to ridicule new ideas and to undercut team behavior at every point. Argyris found that our “thinking” and our behavior diverged quite substantially. Argyris concluded that all of us have these gaps between our tacit knowledge (our behavior) and our explicit knowledge (our thinking). It thus becomes difficult to even know what we mean by our “beliefs”.
Permit me a story to illustrate Argyris’ argument. I once worked for a software development company headed by a brilliant man whom I will call Harry. Now, Harry maintained (at least) two quite different views or frames for thinking about his company. One might be characterized as the “contracts / finances” view and the other was the “company as family”. Within the frame of “contracts / finances” Harry was ruthless. Anyone not covered by a contract, no matter how long and loyally he/she had been with the company, was likely to be fired and given a very stingy severance package. Alternatively, Harry truly liked to think of his company as a family. Within the “family” frame, Harry was quite generous.
I think Harry rarely if ever noticed that he switched back and forth between contradictory frameworks … and this made working for him something of an adventure. A decision made one day out of one frame was likely to be reversed when it was reconsidered from the standpoint of a different frame. Some of us realized that there was a method for getting the decisions we wanted from Harry: the method involved evoking a framework that implied the desired decision.
When I decided to leave the company, I used this method by beginning my resignation talk with Harry with reminiscing about company picnics and parties. I got Harry into the “family” frame and received a very generous severance package, even though I was leaving voluntarily.
What can we conclude from Harry’s story and the incoherent nature of our ‘beliefs”? First, that these beliefs do in fact influence our behavior. Second, that the connection between “beliefs” and thinking is relatively consistent and therefore, e.g., policy-making should track pretty well with our “beliefs”. Third, the connection between “beliefs” and interpersonal behavior is not at all consistent. Our interpersonal behavior seems to be based on habits learned from experience with parents, teachers, bosses and peers … and is largely unconscious, i.e., we are largely unaware of our own behavior patterns when we interact with others.
This section has argued that our worldview develops largely without self-conscious choice or even much reflection … and that it is likely internally inconsistent. As a scientist and a Systems Thinker, the idea that a worldview simply happened to me is rather unpalatable.
The constructivists (von Foerster 1974, von Glaserfeld 1990) argue that our “reality” is a result of our nervous system’s computation of a (relatively) stable framework for making sense out of our sensory perceptions of the world. In the constructivist understanding, our individual reality, while it is self-constructed, is not arbitrary or random. There is some “fit” in an evolutionary sense between our personal, self-constructed reality and the “actual” reality “out there”. Whatever that “actual” reality is, it puts limits on us. For example, large trucks and cliffs can kill us whether or not we “believe” in them.
Most of our computation of our personal reality is necessarily below the level of conscious awareness. Thus, most of the development of our worldview is also below the level of conscious awareness.
So, then, how do I personally assess my worldview? How do I decide if my worldview is good, bad or indifferent. Specifically, why do I claim to be a Systems Thinker?
My personal answer is that the worldview of Systems Thinking is aesthetically and emotionally satisfying.
At first blush, claiming that the criteria for evaluating ST are aesthetic / emotional seems a rather unpleasant conclusion: as a scientist, I would like to consider myself a rational being. However, Godel (1992) proved that all logical systems are incomplete, that they contain undecidable propositions. Further, a logical / rational framework does not contain criteria for selecting it as compared to some other logical / rational framework. The choice of a rational framework is therefore outside of the framework itself and is necessarily made on some basis other than the rational.
Johnson, speaking in the context of psychotherapy, (2012) says:
“Science suggests that emotion is anything but primitive and unpredictable. It’s a complex, exquisitely efficient information-processing system, designed to organize behavior rapidly in the interests of survival. It’s an internal signaling system, telling us about what matters in the flood of stimuli that bombard us and tuning us in to our own inner needs. Research with brain-damaged subjects shows that without emotion to guide us, we can’t make even the most elementary of decisions; we’re bereft of preferences and have nothing to move us toward one option rather than another.”
Johnson concludes “The idea that emotion isn’t the poor cousin to reason but a ‘higher order of intelligence’ has been around for decades, but now the evidence for this assertion is clear.”
An anecdote from Stafford Beer adds another bit of evidence. Stafford was with Heinz von Foerster and Ross Ashby at a dinner where Heinz was trying to recruit Stafford to come join him at the Biological Computing Laboratory. As the dinner went on, Ross became uncharacteristically morose. When Heinz tried to cheer him up, Ross complained that nobody ever tried to recruit him. Heinz was astonished and made him an offer on the spot. Ross got up, went to the phone, called his wife in England and told her to sell the house, they were moving to America. It was Stafford’s turn to be astonished and he asked Ross how he could make such a snap decision. Ross, an eminent psychiatrist and leading expert on cybernetics, replied that it was no good trying to analyze a decision of this complexity. One could either flip a coin or go with a gut feeling and he had a strong feeling about this. It may be significant that Ross spent the rest of his professional career with Heinz at the Biological Computing Laboratory.
Mathematicians recognize the importance of the non-rational when they speak of beauty and simplicity as two of the three criteria for evaluating proofs (along with “truth”).
The aesthetic and emotional are more fundamental than the rational.
This does not mean that there are not strong rational elements in the assessment of a worldview. As I said earlier, the criterion for Systems Theory is truth and the criterion for Systemic Perspectives is utility and both of these are aspects of Systems Thinking. But finally and at bottom we come down to aesthetics and emotions in assessing Systems Thinking.
To sum up, we have three aspects or categories of Systems Thinking.
- Systems Theory, the science (criteria = truth)
- Systemic Perspectives, methods and models, heuristics (criteria = utility)
- Systems Thinking, worldview or paradigm which includes Systems Theory, Systemic Perspectives, and a set of still evolving beliefs and assumptions (criteria = aesthetics and emotion).
The Ethics of Systems Thinking?
Can we say anything useful about the ethics implied by Systems Thinking?
Individuals often employ their worldview to support what they want, for good or ill (Bellinger, personal communication). Worse yet, terrorists frequently demonstrate Systems Thinking in the tactics they use (McConnell, personal communication).
Nevertheless, I believe that each worldview implies some ethical principles. For instance:
- The Newtonian “clockwork universe” that puts humanity outside of nature rather explicitly devalues all species other than our own. Since humankind is supposed to exploit the natural world, it is obvious (in this worldview) that we are more important, more valuable, than the rest of nature.
- Social Darwinism makes competition into the greatest good. Evolution is seen as primarily about competition and survival of the fittest. Competition within society becomes the greatest good.
- Radical capitalism makes greed into the greatest good. Further, by explicitly stating the corporation’s objective as that of maximizing shareholder profit, it also ensures that values such as worker or community well-being are not to be considered in decisions.
- The cowboy rugged individualism worldview values the individual above the group.
Does Systems Thinking suggest a different set of ethical principles? Granted that this is a notoriously slippery arena, but I think we can usefully suggest a few things.
Our modern understanding of ecology (and ST) moves humanity from its privileged position outside of nature into being a part of nature and ultimately dependent upon the health of the biosphere. The environmental movement and the animal rights movement are both a result of this recognition.
We now see evolution as primarily a process, not of unbridled competition for “survival of the fittest”, but as a web of co-evolving species. Even the predator-prey relationship, from the perspective of the ecosystem, is a collaborative process of each species helping the other improve. Of course, this is small consolation to the antelope being eaten by the lion or to the aged lion that can no longer catch an antelope. Cooperation is seen as the greatest good (rather than competition).
ST maintains that we are all connected and that we exist in a complex web of relationships. The ethos of radical capitalism (greed is good) and that of the Cowboy-rugged-individualist both seem antithetical to the inter-connectedness that is central to ST. Notions such as the Golden Rule and Karma (what goes around comes around) seem much more in tune with ST.
The constructivist position certainly has ethical implications. If, as the constructivists believe, we largely create our own reality, then we are responsible for that reality. Von Foerster (1974) insisted that the opposite of objectivity is not relativity but responsibility. He concluded “On constructing a Reality” with these two (pg. 380):
- The Ethical Imperative: Act always so as to increase the number of choices.
- The Aesthetical Imperative: If you desire to see, learn how to act.
Now, it is certainly true that an individual firmly rooted in any of these worldviews might also be passionately committed to, e.g., the Golden Rule. The argument about ethical implications is not that a given worldview determines our ethical framework. Rather, the worldview tends to nudge us toward certain ethical principles and away from others. The constructivists go further by arguing that we are personally responsible for our beliefs.
New Frontiers in ST?
Thirty years ago Allenna Leonard and I (1984) collected 22 “Laws, Principles, and Theorems” of cybernetics . Heylighen (1992) articulated 11 “Principles of Systems and Cybernetics” that he considered basic to the field. Are there additional “laws” we might be able to add? Where are they likely to come from?
Disclaimer: I have certainly not kept up with all the developments over the last two decades that may add to ST, so please remember that the following is my idiosyncratic list and other equally or more important developments may have escaped my notice. Further, the authors noted in this section are added merely as aides to the reader who may want to explore a given area rather than as formal citations.
My short list of important threads that are continuing to shape Systems Science / ST:
- Irreversible thermodynamics, dissipative structures, thermodynamics of systems far from equilibrium, Ilya Prigogine
- Chaos theory, deterministic chaos, dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.
- Fractals, fractal geometry, Benoit Mandelbroit,
- Panarchy, continual adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal, the interplay between increasingly “adapted” and decreasingly resilient, C. S. Hollings.
- Complexity science, Complex adaptive systems (Santa Fe Institute and Stephen Wolfram) Also genetic algorithms (John Henry Holland). Complexity science and Complex Adaptive Systems have become new buzzwords, partially replacing ST and cybernetics. It seems to me that while these scientists have extended the insights of ST and cybernetics, they also seem unaware that they are building on the earlier work of ST and cybernetics.
- Biology of cognition and constructivism (Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Ernst von Glaserfeld, Heinz von Foerster).
- Multiple ongoing efforts to develop new methods for the organizational / governmental / societal arenas. These efforts fall within what I termed Systemic Perspectives and they involve both new methods and combinations / syntheses of existing methods.
My conclusion from all this is that systems theory is continuing to grow and expand. Therefore, since Systems Theory is the foundation, System Thinking is also growing. The ongoing discussions and disagreements within ST are a healthy sign of this growth.
Why is ST needed?
I began this paper with the questions: What sort of critter is systems thinking? What might we expect it to do for us?
The answer to the first is that ST is a still evolving worldview that includes Systems Theory (a still evolving science) and Systemic Perspectives (a still growing set of methods). The answer to the second question is that ST has the potential to do a great deal for us.
Ross Ashby (1956), in his classic “An Introduction to Cybernetics” said that if one could achieve their practical aims without use of cybernetics they should do so because cybernetics is complex and difficult. Ashby’s advice should be applied to ST generally.
I don’t need a bulldozer to pull dandelions. Similarly, I don’t need Systems Thinking to deal with simple situations. I need Systems Thinking to deal with complex messes, situations where there are many interacting elements causing big problems.
The prevailing Newtonian worldview is universally failing to deal with the critical problems of our day and is actually making the mess worse. Einstein famously said “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”
By this definition the governments of the world are uniformly insane. Systems Thinking is needed to even understand the critical issues confronting humanity. Figuring out what needs to be done requires consideration of a large number of interacting parts, each of which is also complex. This seems utterly impossible without ST.
I personally am convinced that humankind is poised on a cusp between catastrophe and renewal.
The path toward catastrophe is “business as usual” for governments and the economy. Degradation of the environment, global warming, critical resource shortages (cheap energy, potable water, food, etc.), and too many people seeking a life-style of conspicuous consumption pose immense challenges which the governments of the world are not only failing to address but are mostly trying to ignore. This path probably leads to the destruction of human civilization, mass deaths, and (for the relatively small number of survivors) a society on the technological level of the 1700s. This path of “business as usual” seems almost inevitable in the absence of ST.
The “renewal” path leads to sustainable economies and lifestyles and much more effective governance models. Within the United States and elsewhere there are currently underway an enormous number and variety of experiments in actually building a sustainable society. Yes! Magazine has been chronicling these efforts for some time and a new series of reports “the Rise of the New Economy” (Alperovitz, 2012) summarizes these efforts. These experiments in a new economy are occurring at the levels of the neighborhood, city, and state. It is especially important that this outpouring of creativity is happening here in the US because we are in many ways leading the charge toward catastrophe.
If we manage the “renewal” path toward sustainable societies it will be in part because ST has helped us to understand both the mess and the way forward.
Kenneth Boulding, more than thirty years ago in a paper whose citation I can no longer find, catalogued the emerging crises facing humankind. After developing this long list of potential catastrophes, he concluded in approximately these words “an ill-founded optimism is still to be preferred to a well founded despair”. When I get overwhelmed with the negative, my wife reminds me “God is still in charge”. For those of you who are agnostic, I would simply note that the human spirit has a habit of rising to challenges.
Let us face the challenges ahead with clear eyes, steadfast optimism and ST. If we manage this, we shall overcome.
I worked in custom manufacturing, community development, educational evaluation, software development, university teaching (organizations & ST), consulting, construction (as a small contractor and carpenter), and as a novelist (in roughly that order). My study has been as eclectic as my work experience and has ranged broadly over the sciences. I started studying systems / cybernetics in 1967 when I discovered Stafford Beer. Stafford became a friend and my most important intellectual mentor and “management cybernetician” indicates my worldview / biases. I am committed to helping turn the current global mess into an opportunity for renewal. www.barryclemson.net
Staff helping with this article: Editor: Steven Schneider, Reviewers: Gene Bellinger, Anne Maguire, George McConnell.
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Citation details for this article:
Clemson, Barry. 2012. What is System Thinking? A personal perspective. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. Vol. 1 Issue 1. [Referred 2012-06-19]. Available:http://stwj.systemswiki.org . ISSN-L 2242-8577 ISSN 2242-8577