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June 15, 2006

Is systemic thinking enough to explain networks?

Weltanschauung is the word Germans use to refer to 'our concept of the nature of reality'. That's only one of the many interesting things I picked up from this interesting essay on systemic thinking by Russell Ackoff. (Thanks to Nivi for posting a link to this essay) I highly recommend that you read the essay and not go with the my little summary of it.

Like a true philosopher, Ackoff draws on the evolution of scientific thinking since Renaissance to build an understanding of why we think the way we think or in his words why we hold a particular "world view", "a concept of the nature of the world" or "theory of reality". The essay makes for interesting reading as a whole, though at moments I thought that he had indeed taken certain liberties in terms of development of his arguments.
To read this article, click on the link: Is systemic thinking enough to explain networks

Russell Ackoff's Response:
Of course parts of a system — e.g. departments of a coporation — can compete with each other.  The reason for redesign is to eliminate such competition and have all parts collaborating.  Competition between parts is evidence of bad design.

A network is not a system.  The telephone network is not a system but AT&T is.  A network, unlike a system, has no essential parts.  If a link breaks down — say Phila. to NYC — then one can go through Tranton or Newark,  Etc.

Russ Ackoff

Posted by ACASA on June 15, 2006 at 02:15 PM in blog post | Permalink


Dear Roberta

Thanks for your comment. I'll need some time to clearly explain what I have in mind...maybe I'll write about it at greater length when I have time. However, here's a quick observation - consider the blogosphere. It is a network with non-reciprocal influences - it's essentially a social network (an attention network to be more precise). There are producers of information, distributors of information and consumers of information. Most of the times these are one-way flows of information (and often influence). Of course with the current technology (blogs and RSS) - very often the same person is the consumer and distributor of information. In any case, isn't the blogosphere a system? I think the parts of this system would be (1)enabling technology (2) producers of information (3) distributors of information (4) consumers of information.

Maybe, I'm not thinking precisely enough, or we're not using the same definitions. But, I would love to hear anything you have to say.

Again, I'll try and write a little more on my blog when I get some time.

Posted by: Harsh Dhundia at Jun 20, 2006 1:45:00 AM

A couple of quick comments:

Dr. Ackoff, from your example then am I to assume that parts of a system can only have one-to-one relationships? So, if there was only one to get to NYC from Phila., would the network then qualify as a system?

Also, if we look at it from the perspective of graph theory - the links would represent relationships and the nodes the parts of the system. Therefore, in this case Phila, NYC and Trenton would be the parts of the system. The thing about using networks to represent systems is exactly that...the relationships between the parts become as important as the parts themselves, which is why I believe that networks may be a good way to explain complex systems.

Posted by: Harsh Dhundia at Jun 20, 2006 1:36:56 AM

This piece is a great example of a what happens when imprecise definitions meet. I've spent quite a bit of time dealing with social "network" analysis. Because the concept grew up not within systems theory but in parallel, social networks might or might not be considered systems. It has to do with the nature of the relationships that hold the systems together. So, if we are talking about a social network tied together by essential resource flows -- that would be a system. If we are talking about a network tied together by nonreciprocal patterns of influence -- that's not a system. This method was first used to describe how venerial diseases progressed through populations of highly mobile prostitutes -- and is commonly used in the epidemiological work. It has also been applied to diffusion of innovation within groups. It is fundamentally different from an engineer's notion of network where the pieces are can stand alone. Social science history is messy because similar concepts are captured using terms and jargon that have a multiplicity of meanings. So you just have to make sure you know what something means before you start analyzing and making critical statements.

Posted by: Roberta Snow at Jun 15, 2006 3:19:50 PM

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