Limitations of Systems Thinking LO25887

Date: 01/15/01

In recent weeks, I have twice encountered assertions by significant
members of our LO community that many/most of the approaches engendered by
"The Fifth Discipline" are unlikely to produce real organizational change.
To wit:

1. In the most recent "Systems Thinker" (11/10, December/January
2000-01), Jay Forrester declares,

"The activity called 'systems thinking,' which is talking about systems,
recognizing there are systems,... is really at the level of the one-day
first-aid course. It is not sufficient for understanding the dynamics of
the organization. ... The introduction from systems thinking is not strong
enough and not persuasive enough to reverse detrimental policies that are
strongly held, because there's no solid basis for the argument to change."

2. Responding to Peter David Stroh's article, "Leveraging Change: The
power of Systems Thinking in Action," in the most recent issue of
Reflections: the SoL Journal," Nelson Repenning at MIT's Sloan School
says, with reference of the use of ST archtypes, "While students of
systems thinking should be deeply familiar with the archetypes and the
stories that underlie them, in my view, they do not constitute a useful or
appropriate starting point for an intervention. ... I am not willing to
accept the assertion that these were the best tools for the issue at hand
or that there is necessarily a causal linkage between the intervention and
the improved results." He suggests that anecdotal reports of the efficacy
of ST methodologies are not sufficient to recommend their use.

Obviously, I have not presented the assertions of either in their
fullness, and perhaps I have misinterpreted their remarks. But the tenor
of their remarks does seem to me to deprecate the efforts of front-line
practitioners like myself, whose organizations and personal professional
possibilities make total immersion in formal programs out-of-reach, and
who rely on the LO approaches begun by "The Fifth Discipline" to improve
our workplaces.

>From the vantage of my own learning and practice, the simple tools we have
learned make a difference. Am I just deluding myself? If we can't have
Systems Dynamics in its fullness, should we just fold our tents?

What do others think?

Malcolm Burson
Director of Special Projects
Maine Department of Environmental Protection


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