Origin of Systems Thinking LO23966

From: Fred Nickols (nickols@worldnet.att.net)
Date: 02/12/00

Replying to Gijs Houtzagers in LO23951 --

>Till the sixties business administrtaion from a scientific point of view
>was focused on developing the techniques coming from scientific
>management. Peter Drucker notes in 1960 that a shift is needed from
>techniques towards methods, from results on parts towards a result on the
>whole. he sees it as essential to focus on the functional effectivity of
>the whole organism. The shortcomings of scientific management became more
>obvious, focused on parts of the organization, for instance labor
>positions, to optimize those, assuming this would result in a better
>functioning organization. This lead for instance to sub optimization on a
>specific spot by provising overcapacity to relaise zero latency. The
>turnaround of Drucker was in fact the start of system thinking

Hmm. I will assume that Gijs' view of the origin of system thinking is as
stated above. Mine is much different. Certainly, the frequency with
which we all began to see "the systems approach to ______________" began
accelerating in the 1960s, but the systems view has been around much
longer than that.

Fortunately (for me), I'm a bit of a pack rat and so I dug out my copy of
Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist, edited by Walter
Buckley and published by Aldine in 1968. The authors' names are like a
roster of stars in the field: Anatol Rapoport, Ludwig von Bertalanffy,
Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, W. Ross Ashby, Russell L. Ackoff, C. W.
Churchman and more. Egad! I think I'll reread it.

Anyway, one of the best-known pieces under the general heading of "systems
thinking" is Kenneth E. Boulding's "General Systems Theory -- The Skeleton
of Science." Buckley included it in his 1968 collection but it first
appeared in Management Science in 1956.

von Bertalanffy's "General System Theory -- A Critical Review" also
appears in Buckley's book. Although von Bertalanffy's article is from a
1962 issue of General Systems, he refers to his introduction of General
Systems Theory to the public some 15 years earlier (i.e., in 1947).

The two authors just cited are in the "open system" leg of "systems
thinking" or what I have always thought of as "soft" systems. The other
leg, "cybernetics," begins in a public way in 1948 with the publication of
Norbert Wiener's book, Cybernetics. But it actually began during WWII
with the development of gunfire control systems, in particular the
servomechanism. These are "hard" systems.

Some of you might recall that I spent 20 years in the Navy (1955-1974) and
for most of that time I was a fire control technician, charged with the
operation, maintenance and repair of those same gunfire control systems.
I was also an internal organization development (OD) specialist, hence my
interest in open or soft systems like organizations.

Finally, I am a terribly devoted fan of Peter Drucker's. But I would
never attribute to him the start of systems thinking.


Fred Nickols The Distance Consulting Company "Assistance at A Distance" http://home.att.net/~nickols/distance.htm nickols@worldnet.att.net (609) 490-0095

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