C West Churchman, Systems Thinker

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

West Churchman’s work and thinking looms large in my understanding of systems thinking. I don’t claim to be an expert on Churchman’s thought and work, hence what follows is an interpretation of it.

Churchman obtained a PhD in philosophy under Edgar Singer, a proponent of Pragmatism, is known as one of the founders of operational research, and, for a while, made a significant and important contribution towards the emerging field of systems thinking. Sadly, the discipline he helped grow, drifted away from his work, which today is difficult to obtain, and largely unknown, receding into the background. Russell Ackoff, Ian Mitroff, Richard Mason, and Werner Ulrich are some who studied under him, and his work contributed towards Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology.

Churchman picked up the idea of comprehensiveness from Singer, which is an early perspective of thinking in terms of systems, and set out to see if that works in practice.

Churchman’s work isn’t easy to follow; his arguments are complex, and interrelated, he had his own unique writing style, and over time his thinking evolved. Given his academic background, what it does is place the idea of thinking in terms of systems on solid philosophical and academic ground, which some other works in systems thinking lack.

To Churchman, a system is an entity consisting of parts purposefully working together towards a desired outcome, and has a measure of how successful that outcome is met. Systems are also components of larger systems, in other words operate within an environment which restricts what it can and cannot do. Emphasizing and optimizing one component at the expense of others ignores the environment, as mechanistic approaches do, hence one should consider the wider implications and consequences of plans before proceeding.

Churchman was clear that humans are part of systems; they have desired outcomes, but often lack the resources to meet them, and those who do, operate within an environment full of constraints. Hence, people must work and plan together to make things work, and the way one conceptualizes a system must in some way guarantee doing so is achievable and will improve things. We value things, and different people have different values, which must be part of the discussion, and intervening in complex entities have consequences for others which must also be considered.

To know a system requires inputs and perspectives from many different disciplines, but many of those, today, for sociopolitical reasons are locked up in impenetrable silos. There is a role for measurement during inquiry, but one must be clear about what is measured, what assumptions on makes, and their shortcomings, and there is also a role for experimenting and trialing to determine what works.

Unlike many modern streams in systems thinking, Churchman doesn’t have a methodology for approaching systemic issues. There is no best way to ask questions; what works in one setting may not in another, or frankly have a terrible outcome, hence you don’t know how to interact with the issue until you engage with it.

To approach a problem may require facts logically connected in fact nets, and one must be aware of the connections and logic. If one proves incorrect, whole sets of interconnected arguments collapse. We accept some facts because people agree on them, typically experts, but there is no guarantee they are right. All arguments are based on assumptions, and knowing those assumptions are important, because they determine what follows, and, if incorrect, so is what follows. There is often a tension between different facts and viewpoints, which must be resolved, and one way to do so is by challenging them with different assumptions to arrive at a more comprehensive, or systemic perspective.

If you are a systemic thinker, you must often contend with people ignorant of, or against systemic thinking. It is difficult to make an argument if people make decisions because something gives them pleasure, because they believe they are right, it fits their dogma, or because they are powerful. These kinds of beliefs are woven in us as humans, and into the fabric of human society, and one of the biggest enemies of systemic thinking, according to Churchman, is the dogmas and politics of today’s academic world.

I’m only aware of one instance in which Churchman explicitly addressed complexity, during which he argued if the world is complex, what theory do we use to face the complexity, and, from an ethical perspective, does such a perspective benefit society?

We distinguish between complex and simple, based on the notion we must simplify things to understand them, which is the foundation of the mechanistic perspective of reality. Systems science takes complexity for what it is; it examines everything that is relevant to a situation and puts that together in a complex system, or model. In other words, complexity means we are faced with several variables which we don’t try to simplify as we traditionally do. Additionally, variables interact; when you change one variable in a system, it impacts other variables, which increases the complexity of the model you created.

The world we live in is uncertain, and we can never be certain of our claims, but that doesn’t stop us from making claims of which some are more appropriate, or likely, than others. We use data to create models, but no model can be epistemologically sound, because we rely on historical data. If the data comes from earlier, bad decisions, you have bad data, which opens the question, how can you trust your data? From a systems perspective, you must get people’s different perspectives and inputs, and then choose what seems to be most appropriate, as we try to figure out what the reality we deal with, is, means, and what is important.

Whether the fact we live in a complex world is good or bad depends on your perspective. If the complexity of what you observe overwhelms you, it’s bad, if it doesn’t, it’s good. Fact is, our problems are interrelated, or problem systems, and many people don’t recognize that. There are no experts on complex problems, which is why how your approach to planning, and model in use, becomes important. To be comprehensive, and approach something systemically, you must include morality, which means paying attention to the consequences of your decisions and actions for future generations. What we do today affects future generations, and discounting that is immoral.

To use Churchman’s words, knowing about complexity light things up, because it makes us consider the future, but also make it gloomy, because we don’t know what to do about it.

Finally, Churchman argued it takes courage to swim against the stream and challenge prevailing traditions, especially academic ones. But he exhorts us not to give up, despite a world filled with enemies to reason, who influence what we do, and how we think and act.

Churchman’s work was central to my learning about systems, and profoundly changed my understanding of the world I live in and how it works, the way I approached my profession, and my personal life. Even now, after many years of working with it, I still discover more of its richness and complexity which I didn’t see before. It saddens me that Churchman’s’ thinking no longer surfaces in, or contribute to any significant degree to conversations about systems thinking today, and the discipline, field, or approach, depending on how you look at it, is worse off for it.