For my PhD work, I plan to use Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) – a framework for reflective practice, first developed by Werner Ulrich in 1983. While much literature on CSH exists, I thought it a good idea to do some ‘back reading’ into the texts upon which it is based i.e the theoretical frameworks informing CSH. This post will cover the first of the these (hence Pt. 1 in the title). I will talk about CSH itself, and its relevance to my topic, in a separate post.
In total, there are nine texts informing CSH. Three by C. West Churchman (1968, 1971, & 1979), one by Charles Peirce (1878), one by William James (1908), one by John Dewey (1925), and three by Jürgen Habermas (1972, 1984, & 1987) .
These texts fall into one of two theoretical perspectives: Systems thinking and practical philosophy. Practical Philosophy consists of two independent strands of philosophical thought: Philosophical pragmatism and critical social theory . The figure below illustrates this breakdown.
With regards to the figure above, this post will cover systems thinking and the three texts by C. West Churchman, namely:
- The Systems Approach (1968)
- The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971)
- The Systems Approach and its Enemies (1979)
Systems thinking has its origins in biology, emerging as a generalisation of ideas about organisms. These organismic biologists saw the degree of organisation as the crucial characteristic of living organisms and organisms themselves as the unit of analysis. It was one of these organismic biologists, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, that founded the systems movement when he argued that these ideas about organisms could be used to describe any complex whole i.e. any system .
One of the biggest misconceptions about systems however, is that they exist in the real-world. Most of us assume they do because of our everyday use of the word ‘system’ – we use it ontologically, as a label word, rather than epistemologically. Systems are simply abstract concepts of real-world wholes. They are descriptive devices for making sense of real-world wholes . They do not actually exist in the real-world.
Crucial to understanding this is the concept of the adaptive whole – “a whole entity which can adapt and survive, within limits, in a changing environment” (, p. 49). Four ideas describe this concept and, along with the concept of the adaptive whole, form the foundation of systems thinking :
- Emergent properties (properties which make the whole more than the sum of its parts).
- Layered structure (each whole is made up of smaller wholes each with their own emergent properties).
- Processes of communication and control (the ways in which a whole finds out about its environments and responds to them).
In a nutshell then, systems thinking is about using abstract concepts to describe and make sense of complex, real-world wholes. There are three broad areas of work in which systems thinking is employed :
- The study of wholes created by nature (natural systems);
- The study of wholes designed and made by human beings (designed systems); and
- The study of human affairs.
Information Systems (IS) finds itself in the last of these three. I mention this because my PhD is in IS and hence, it is the application of systems thinking to the study of human affairs that I am most interested in.
For natural and designed systems, mapping systems (abstract concepts) to observed real-world wholes is, relatively speaking, easy. In the study of human affairs however, it can be more problematic.
In the early days of systems thinking (1960s), the problem was avoided by engineering systems to meet desirable objectives, defined to be desirable at the outset of projects. Of course, for this to work, the objectives had to be undisputed. This early approach could thus only ever answer questions of ‘how to do it?’ and avoided questions of ‘what to do?’ .
Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was found that what made real-world problem situations problematic, in the first instance, was the disputability of desirable objectives i.e. what is desirable for one may not be desirable for another. A solution to this was to treat human activities of common purpose as a new whole to which systems could be mapped, aptly named human activity systems .
Human activity systems were developed as models, with each model being based on a declared world view. Declaring the world view upfront allowed for questions, relevant for debate amongst people holding the same (or similar) world view, to be structured. This process is what is today known as the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) .
The major difference between the harder ways of thinking of the 1960s and the softer ways of the 1970s and 1980s was a shift in systemicity:
“It is this shift of systemicity, from assuming systems to exist in the world to assuming that the process of enquiry into the world can be organised as a learning system, which defines the two varieties of systems thinking” (, p. 52).
It was the work of one such ‘softer’ systems thinker, C. West Churchman, that informed (in part) Ulrich’s CSH framework.
Churchman’s Systems Thinking
In his book, The Systems Approach, Churchman (1968) concluded that the systems approach (or systems thinking) “begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another” (p. 231), allows you to discover “that every world view is terribly restricted” (p. 231), and reveals that “[t]here are no experts” (p. 231). In other words, systems thinking “is [about] confusion as well as enlightenment” (p. 231).
‘Through the eyes’, ‘world views’, and ‘no experts’ all refer to lenses “through which one might see the world differently” (, p. 246). Ulrich adopted this concept directly in his CSH framework, but refers to such lenses as reference systems.
In a later book, The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman (1971) outlined nine necessary conditions for a system (S). It is important to remember here that systems do not exist in the real-world. In other words, these are nine conditions that abstract concepts, describing a real-world whole, must adhere to in order to be called a system:
- “S is teleological
- S has a measure of performance
- There exists a client whose interests (values) are served by S in such a manner that the higher the measure of performance, the better the interests are served, and more generally, the client is the standard of the measure of performance
- S has teleological components which coproduce the measure of performance of S
- S has an environment (defined either teleologically or ateleologically), which also coproduces the measure of performance of S
- There exists a decision maker who – via his resources – can produce changes in the measures of performance of S’s components and hence changes in the measure of performance of S
- There exists a designer, who conceptualizes the nature of S in such a manner that the designer’s concepts potentially produce actions in the decision maker, and hence changes in the measure of performance of S
- The designer’s intention is to change S so as to maximize S’s value to the client
- S is “stable” with respect to the designer, in the sense that there is a built-in guarantee that the designer’s intention is ultimately realizable” (Churchman, 1971, p. 43)
Answering his own question of whether or not these nine conditions were sufficient, Churchman later extended these to twelve planning categories in his book, The Systems Approach and its Enemies (1979). The three additional conditions were :
- Systems philosophers;
- Enemies of the systems approach; and
These were added as way of raising issues related to the differences between the systems perspective (which is holistic) and other, partial (because non-holistic) perspectives of so called ‘enemies’. For Churchman, these enemies were politics, morality, religion, and aesthetics. Ulrich incorporated these last three conditions into his CSH framework as ideas for reflecting on the meaning of the systems approach, and not as categories for mapping systems to real-world wholes (conditions 1 – 9 were incorporated for this latter purpose). It is upon these twelve necessary conditions that Ulrich aligned the twelve boundary questions of his CSH framework .
Additionally, it is Churchman’s notions of ‘enemies’ (1979) and maintaining contradictions (1968) which informed Ulrich’s ideas of boundary critique and heuristics found in his CSH framework.
I concede that I have mentioned CSH quite extensively in these last few paragraphs, and without any elaborate description of CSH itself. Understandably, this may leave you a little lost but, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I will talk about CSH, and its relevance to my topic, in a future post. For now (and the following two posts) I will concentrate only on the theoretical frameworks informing CSH.
Next on the list is philosophical pragmatism.
The Nine Texts
- Churchman, C.W. (1968). The Systems Approach. New York: Delta/Dell Publishing.
- Churchman, C.W. (1971). The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations. New York: Basic Books.
- Churchman, C.W. (1979). The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York: Basic Books.
- Dewey, J. (1925). The development of American pragmatism. Studies in the History of Ideas 2(Supplement), 353–377.
- Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann.
- Habermas, J. (1984/87). The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 Volumes, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
- James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman.
- Peirce, C.S (1878). How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly 12 (January), 386–302.
- : Ulrich, W., & Reynolds, M. (2010). Critical systems heuristics. In Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide (pp. 243–292). London: Springer.
- : Checkland, P. (1999). Systems Thinking. In W. Currie & B. Galliers (Eds.), Rethinking Management Information Systems: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (pp. 45–56). OUP Oxford.