A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.





An activity of the Primer Group


December 1, 1996; to December 31, 1997


By Bela Banathy




The second half of the twentieth century is marked by massive changes affecting all aspects of our lives. We are experiencing the major societal TRANSFORMATION from the industrial machine age to the post-industrial information/knowledge age. These changes and transformations are reshaping our thinking and recasting the way we view ourselves, the systems of which we are part, the environments in which we live, and THE WAY WE VIEW the world.

A world-view (window to the world) is like a lens through which we perceive the landscape of life that becomes our reality. Those who look through the lens of the previous era see their own reality very differently from those who use the lens that the new era has crafted.

This "view of the world" (world-view) has many dimensions: the socio-cultural, the socio-technical, the socio-economic, the organizational, and the scientific just to name a few. These dimensions interact and mutually influence eachother expressing that interaction as an emergence of a NEW world view very different from the previous era - the era of the industrial society.

This change from one era to another is often called "PARADIGM SHIFT."

When a new stages emerges in the evolution of society, such as the case around the midpoint of this century, the continued use of the old paradigm, the old-world-view-lens, creates ever-increasing problems. For example, the social systems such as our educational activity systems that still operate by the design of a bygone era. They operate in a continual crisis mode, and eventually face obsolescence. But they could frame a new mind set, learn to use the new lens of the new era, and acquire a new thinking, knowing, and doing based on the new world view.

Over the last four or five decades, we have been faced with increasingly more complex and pressing problem-situations, embedded in interconnected systems operating in dynamically changing environments. In addressing these problem situations and working with their relevant systems, we have learned to recognize the limitations of the perspectives, methods and tools of the traditional scientific orientation.


The mind set of the industrial era has its roots in classical science - often associated with Newton - that emerged some three hundred years ago. Disciplined inquiry during the last three hundred years, inspired by the Cartesian-Newtonian scientific world view has sought understanding by taking things apart by seeking the "ultimate part" and groping to see or reconstruct the whole by viewing the characteristics of its parts.

"not able to grasp "wholeness" which EMERGES from the mutual interaction of parts."

This REDUCTIONIST orientation was not able to grasp "wholeness" which EMERGES from the mutual interaction of parts, where the part gets its meaning from the whole and by its interaction with all the other members of the whole. The properties of the whole cannot be seen from the viewpoint of the parts.

Today, we realize that the reductionist method of analysis has to be complemented with synthesis and with expansionism, aimed at understanding larger and larger wholes in which our systems of interest are embedded.

Classical, traditional, science is based on the CERTAINTY OF DETERMINISM and the confidence in PREDICTION. However, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Einstein's Relativity have humbled our expectations for prediction. The principle of uncertainty has helped us to understand that the observer cannot be separated from what is observes, This is obvious in physics and much more so in social science.


Figure 1 depicts the key distinctions between classical and systemic orientations.

Traditional science's unidirectional CAUSE AND EFFECT is inadequate to deal with the many interactive variables of complex, dynamic systems. We know now that in such systems, the dynamics of MULTIPLE, MUTUAL and RECURSIVE causation operate.

Classical science saw systems to be basically closed, having only limited and highly controlled interaction with their environment. However, living systems are open systems, having intensive interactions with their environment. Closed systems are governed by NEGATIVE feedback, essentially internal relationships maintaining the status quo, while open systems operate by POSITIVE feedback, essentially external relationships allowing for growth and change

Traditional science was unable and unwilling to consider PURPOSE and MEANING which, in the emerging view of disciplined inquiry, has a guiding role. And where dominance once was the purpose, there is now a search for establishing a grand ALLIANCE of science, philosophy, art, and religion. "a grand ALLIANCE of science, philosophy, art, and religion."

In human activity systems these insights have led us to aspire to UNDERSTANDING rather than predicting, problem MANAGEMENT rather than problem solution, and PURPOSE SEEKING as a mode of thinking and action rather than determinism.

Classical science defined complexity in terms of the multiple parts of a system, while systems science defines it based on multiple interactions with the environment and the interactions among parts within the viewed system.

The technologies of MANUFACTURING THINGS worked well in managing the organized simplicity of the closed-systems production of the "THINGS WORLD" of the machine age. This mechanistic/deterministic world-view manifesting itself as technology drove the industrial revolution. We learned to MANAGE THINGS. But those technologies became useless, once we were faced with the organized open-system dynamics of the "WORLD OF COMPLEXITIES emerging in this new era.

We study the social system in a variety of FRAGMENTED disciplines. This separating-into-disciplines approach can provide only partial interpenetration of the system studied and sets forth descriptions based on disparate theoretical frameworks. We study our social systems through the lenses of sociology, psychology, economics of education, the anthropology of cultures, economics, organizational and communication sciences, poetical science, and so on.

"We cannot observe properties of the whole bit by bit."

Such compartmentalized inquiry, with the use of widely differing orientations, methods, and languages of the separate disciplines, results in unintegrated and incomplete knowledge of the characterization of what a social system is as a whole. A particular discipline can address only a narrow aspect of the whole, social science scholarship typically focuses on only a few variables, studied in isolation by the experimental methods of classical science, Thus, we cannot consider the complex interactions and systemic interconnectedness of the various components that integrate into the whole, We cannot adequately portray the mutually interacting and recursive dynamics, the relationships, of the processes of our complex social systems. We cannot observe properties of the whole from an analysis of just the parts apart.

For all the reasons portrayed above it is suggested that we are faced with the reality that the old ways of thinking and viewing do not work anymore. We have to be willing to consider the application of systems thinking, systems inquiry, and the use of the systems view for both human systems scholarship and PRACTICE. In today's world the methods of CREATING, ORGANIZING, and USING INFORMATION and KNOWLEDGE are the requisite intellectual technologies.

The internalization of this new type of inquiry in our thinking manifests itself in the SYSTEMS VIEW, and its activation in social systems will lead to practical systemic ACTION


The systems view is a world-view that is based on the discipline of SYSTEM INQUIRY, Central to systems inquiry is the concept of SYSTEM. In the most general sense, system means a configuration of parts connected and joined together by a web of relationships. The Primer group defines system as a family of relationships among the members acting as a whole. Bertalanffy defined system as "elements in standing relationship."

The joining and integrating of the web of relationships creates EMERGENT PROPERTIES of the whole. These properties of the whole may not be found in any analysis the parts. This is the VALUE of systems theory. the WHOLENESS that can't be seen in the parts.

SYSTEMS INQUIRY is a system itself. As a conceptual system, it has four interrelated and internally consistent aspects acting as a whole: systems PHILOSOPHY, systems THEORY, systems METHODOLOGY and systems APPLICATION. Furthermore, systems inquiry embraces two kinds of disciplined inquiry; it's conclusion-orientated inquiry mode PRODUCES systems knowledge, its decision orientated inquiry mode APPLIES systems knowledge to the formulation and selection of systems methods that address real-world situations. "As a conceptual system, it has four interrelated and internally consistent aspects."

SYSTEMIC PHILOSOPHY asks the question, "How can we understand systems?" With the perspectives of systems philosophy, we look at the world in terms of facts and events in the context of wholes, and we understand them as integrated sets purposefully arranged in systemic relations. In contrast to the analytic, reductionist, linear, single cause-and-effect view of the philosophy of classical science, systems philosophy brings forth a reorganization of ways of thinking and knowing perceived reality, a view manifested in synthetic, expansionist, dynamic, and multiple/mutual causality modes of thinking and inquiring, how things work more than what things are.

Each scientific discipline in classical science has developed its OWN theoretical scheme. SYSTEMS SCIENCE, on the other hand, transcends those disciplinary boundaries, seeking alikeness (or isomorphy) of principles, concepts and laws that exist in the various realms of experience. We INTEGRATE, within the framework of systems theory, the findings of the various disciplines. That is the unique POWER of systems theory. With this power we can understand and work with the insights and knowledge generated by the disciplines that are relevant to our domain of inquiry The organized arrangement of these "general principles" constitutes a GENERAL THEORY OF SYSTEMS - an exposition applying to all systems.

SYSTEMS METHODOLOGY differs from the methodologies of the disciplines in that the methodology of a particular discipline is clearly identified and is to be adhered to, In Systems Inquiry, on the other hand, one selects -- from a wide range of approaches, methods, and tools that best fit -- the TYPE of system, the PURPOSE and NATURE of the Inquiry and the specific problem SITUATION. Systems Methodology has two domains of Inquiry; (a) the study of methods by which we pursue systems scholarship and produce systems knowledge, and (b) the identification and description , methods, and tools for applying systems theory and systemic thinking in the analysis, design and development of complex systems. More specifically, this task is twofold:
+ to identify, characterize and classify the system of our interest, the system of issues embedded in our system, other systems that interact with us and the larger system (the environment) that embeds our system. + To select, identify and characterize specific strategies, methods, and tools appropriate to the work with our system.

When we talk about SYSTEMS APPLICATION we are considering the application of systems approaches/models/methodologies/methods/tools in a specific FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT, E.G., a social system INVOLVES the following:

(1) select the approch/model/methodology/methods/tools that are appropriate to:
(2) the type of systems in consideration: rigidly controlled , deterministic, purposive, heuristic, purpose seeking AND
(3) the specific domain of inquiry: description (of the system), analysis, design, development, management.

"We integrate, within the framework of systems theory, the findings of the various disciplines."

In summary, By OBSERVING various types of systems and studying their behavior, we can recognize characteristics that are common to all systems. Once we have identified and described a set of concepts that are common to the systems, and observed and discovered among some of them certain relationships, we can construct from them general systems PRINCIPLES. Thus, a systems principles emerges from an interaction/integration of related concepts. Next we are in the position to look for interrelations among principles and organize related principles in to certain conceptual schemes we call SYSTEMS MODELS. This process of starting from OBSERVATION and arriving at the CONSTRUCTION of systems models constitutes the first stage of developing a systems view.


In contemplating systems work, the identification of the type of system we select is a crucial issue.

There are two major types: NATURAL SYSTEMS and DESIGNED SYSTEMS. Natural systems range from subatomic systems to living systems of all kinds, our planet, the solar systems, galactic systems and the Universe. The genesis of these systems is the origin of the universe and the result of the forces and events of evolution. The other main types are DESIGNED SYSTEMS. These are our creations and include several major types: (a) fabricated-engineered-physical systems (manmade artifacts): (b) hybrid systems that combine physical construction and nature, e.g., a hydroelectric plant); (c) designed conceptual systems (such as theories, philosophies, mathematics, logic, etc.) and their representations in the forms of books, records, and descriptive of prescriptive models; and (d) human activity systems. For our present purposes, human activity systems and their relevant abstract systems and representations are of special interest.

HUMAN ACTIVITY SYSTEMS are our purposeful creations.. They are less tangible than natural and designed physical systems, They are manifested in sets of activities (relationships) carried out by people who select and organize these activities to attain a purpose, These activities often involve various natural and designed physical systems and/or abstractions of the way we think about and reason these activities, such as theories of action. Human activity systems range from families and small groups (organized for a purpose) to organizations communities, nations, regional/international associations, and the global system of humanity.

A key consideration in making distinctions among various types of systems is the issue of: how much freedom does the system have to select purpose, goals, methods, tools, etc.:, and how widely is the freedom to select distributed (or concentrated) in the system?

We can speak of various types of human activity systems. We can define and describe these types based on such considerations as: the degree to which they are "closed or open". their mechanistic vs. systemic nature, their unitary or pluralistic position as the their purpose, and their degree of complexity. Based on these considerations we can differentiate such types as:

RIGIDLY CONTROLLED systems, such as man-machine systems or assembly-line work groups. These are rather closed and have only limited and well-guarded interactions with their environment. They have few components and a limited degree of freedom, have singleness of purpose and behave rather mechanistically.

DETERMINISTIC systems are more open than rigidly controlled systems but they still have clearly defined goals, and some degree of freedom in selecting means of operating (less mechanistic). They might have several levels of decision-making; thus they are more complex than the rigidly controlled systems. Examples; bureaucracies, centralized (national) educational systems, small business operations.

PURPOSIVE systems -- such as corporations, public service agencies, our public education systems ---are still unitary (have their goals set), but have freedom in selecting operational objectives and methods. They are considered to be somewhat open in that they are to react to environmental changes. They are often very complex.

HEURISTIC systems -- such as: new business ventures, R&D agencies, nontraditional (experimental) educational programs -- formulate their own goals under some biased policy guidelines (thus, they are somewhat pluralistic). They are necessarily open to changes and interact intensively -- even co-elove -- with the environment. They are complex and systemic in their functions/structures.

PURPOSE-SEEKING systems are ideal-seeking, guided by their vision of the future. They are open and are able to co-evolve with their environment. They are complex and systemic. Being pluralistic, they define their own policies/purposes and constantly seek new purposes and new niches in their environments. Examples: corporations seeking social service roles, communities seeking to establish comprehensive systems of learning and human development and to integrate their social service functions, and societies/nations establishing integrated regional systems.




Purpose, process, interaction, integration, and emergence are salient markers of understanding systems. Furthermore, we should think about and define human activity systems always at three levels. (1) A system serves the purpose of its collective entity. (2) It serves the purpose of its members. (3) It serves its environment ot the larger system in which it is embedded.


The statements that follow comprise an internally consistent definition and characterization of A HUMAN ACTIVITY SYSTEM -

is an assembly of people and other resources organized into a whole in order to accomplish a purpose. The people in the system are affected by being in the system, and by their participation in the system they affect the system. People in the system select and carry out activities -- individually and collectively -- that will enable them to attain a collectively identified purpose.

maintains sets of relations --- sustained through time -- among those who are in the system. The maintenance of these relations is of primary importance. The process by which these relationships are maintained is the system's regulation -- the rules of the game -- and the limits within which these rules can be sustained are the conditions of the systems stability through time,. It is here where commitment (to shared purpose) and motivation (to carry out activities) play such an important role,

Is open to and interacts with the environment; depends on it and contributes to it. The nature of its relationship with the environment is mutual interdependence. This interdependence imposes constraints and expectations on both the system and its environment responsively. The environment is expected to provide the resources and support that are required by the system.

acts as a whole toward itself and by itself -- by its internal relations and internal integration -- by which it can also sustain itself. Thus, while we view the system as a whole, at the same time we consider it as part of -- and embedded in -- its environment.

Systemic insight emerges from "application" of the dynamics of purpose seeking and purpose-fulfilling relational interaction and integration of the people as a system and its environment.

SUMMARY: In the above text we captured an initial view of the landscape of systemic inquiry as we considered its four main components (Systems philosophy, systems theory, systems methodology and systems application. We also explored systems types, and described the general characteristics of human activity systems. We can move on now to discuss the development of a systems view.


The systems view is a certain way of looking at ourselves, at the environments we live in, at the systems that surround us, and at those we are part of, in terms of our interactions.

But having a description of systems inquiry, or even an understanding of systems concepts and principles and types of systems, does not YET mean having a systems view. The systems view is a way of thinking, and acting. it is a world view we can possess. And there are ways by which the systems view can be developed.

"The systems view is a way of thinking and acting."

By observing various types of systems and studying their behavior, we can recognize characteristics that are common to all systems. Once we have identified and described a set of concepts that are common to the systems, and observed and discovered among some of them certain relationships, we can construct from them GENERAL SYSTEMS PRINCIPLES. Thus, a system principle emerges from an interaction/integration of related concepts. Next, we are in the position to look for relationships among principles and organize related principles into certain conceptual schemes we call SYSTEMS MODELS. This process of starting from observation and arriving at the construction of systems models constitutes the FIRST STAGE of developing a systems view.

Models are useful as frames of reference that we can use to examine and talk about the system the model represents, We work with models all the time. When we exchange ideas about something, we usually do so by using conceptual models. In a discourse, it is helpful to have a common model, or a common frame of reference, so that we have some assurance that everybody is talking about the same thing. In what follows, I map the journey for the use of the three models and for acquisition of the systems view.

The term "model," as it is used here, is a descriptive/abstract representation used in two senses. First in a "general" sense. models are mental images of general systems concepts and principles. organized into a scheme. Second in a "specific" sense, the "general" concepts and principles will transform to represent a mental image, a description of a perceived real-world social system. In this sense, the models become the products of our own representation of a selected specific system. Such a model also can be mental image, a normative description. a representation of a future system that we create by design.


Concepts and principles that are manifested in social systems can be organized in general models of social systems. These models then can be transformed into the contest of specific social systems. In systems research we develop models that represent one or more classes of systems, The more classes of systems a model represents, the more general the model is. Our present examination focuses on a single class of systems -- social systems or human activity systems -- once we develop a model -- which is a generalization of this class -- we can transform this general model of social systems into a model of a specific systems of our choice..

The SECOND STAGE is the process of INTERNALIZATION/APPLICATION: the integration of those concepts, principles, and models into our own thinking AND their application in real-life contexts -- in systems and situations of interest to us. This process of internalization and application constitutes our journey toward the development of a systems view.

The next stage is actual application (e.g. as described in my Systems View of Education book) When we talk about systems applications we are considering the application of systems approaches/models/methodologies/methods/tools in a specific FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT, E.G., a social system INVOLVES the following:

(1) select the approach/model/methodology/methods/tools that are appropriate to:
(2) the type of systems in consideration: rigidly controlled , deterministic, purposive, heuristic, purpose seeking AND
(3) the specific domain of inquiry: description (of the system), analysis, design, development, management.

A description of the two stages follows.


In my earlier work, I constructed three systems models; a systems-environment model, a functions/structure model, and a process model; all of which are applicable to understanding and working with social systems. I prefer to call these models "lenses." As I use the systems-environment lens, I can see and understand relational arrangements and dynamics between the system and its context. The functions/structure lens helps me to see the system at a given moment in time. I understand what it is; it projects a snapshot of the system. The third lens shows how motion: the behavior of the system through time. None of these lenses give me a whole picture of the system, Only as I integrate the three images can I capture a comprehensive view -- the wholeness of the system. The process of using the lenses and describing a system provides the first experience of internalization and application of the systems view.


At this stage we transform the general models into the context to a specific social systems. This transformation enables us to portray, characterize and use social/societal entities and systems and work with them relatively in four complementary domains of organizational inquiry. These process domains are:

* The ANALYSIS and DESCRIPTION of social systems, by the application of the three models presented above (The systems environment, the functions and the process models)

* SYSTEMS DESIGN, conducting design inquiry with the us of design models, methods, and tools appropriate to social systems and the specific type of system chosen.


* SYSTEMS MANAGEMENT, the management of systems operations, and the management of change.

and based on findings of this stage, revisit Stage One and revise it if indicated. Then, move to Stage Two again, learn from the application and proceed in a spiralic fashion. The spiral never ends...The spiral is the method of the continuing development of systems inquiry.


Thus we gain insights and ideas for shaping the future of our system by using models to provide a comprehensive characterization , a plan for development and implementation of our new model, explicitely stated and shared perspectives to ensure the attainment of consensus, co-participation in design to enhance commitment, commitment to idealized design so that its realization can be evolutionary, learning by and from our design , and, as new realities emerge, reimagining the ideal like a horizon forever moving ahead of us.

We design systems that value and serve people. We design systems that build and nurture human qualities. We believe that it is our destiny -- and it is within our power -- to guide our evolution and the evolution of our systems and to shape our individual and collective future by design. Therefore, we should embrace systems design as an essential part of out professional repretoire. We can attain this by developing organizational capacity and individual and collective capability in systems design...



The viability and relevance of the educational profession will be judged based on the extent to which we spearhead the evolution of education, place ourselves in the service of transforming education, and help create just systems of learning and development for future generations. We now realize that systems design is a missing inquiry in education. Confronted with "new societal realities" and new educational requirements of a rapidly changing world, people look to the professional education community for guidance in the design of their educational systems. This expectation confronts us with the challenge to individually and collectively acquire systems thinking and develop competence in systems design and practice. Education creates the future, and there is no more important task and no more noble calling than participating in the creation.

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