The exploration of science occurs within different scientific disciplines each of which explores a different type of system (i.e. species, or discernible whole, or entity system) in isolation of others, within the containing systems hierarchy of “life”. The result is a fragmented view of “life”.
By comparison, systems thinking emphasises the continuity of life across all levels of “life” and between different species and therefore across all scientific disciplines. Even more radically, Biomatrix theory proposes the concept of the emerging middle, namely that an entity system at any level of “life” emerges from the co-production of systems in its outer and inner environment and itself.
note on terminology:
System type: The heading system type refers to a discernible whole (or species) at a particular level of organisation of the universe. Biomatrix theory refers to such wholes as entity systems and provides a generic definition for an entity system.
“Life”: We use the term “life” in inverted commas to refer to life in the widest sense of the word, as displayed in the dynamic organisation of the universe from which systems emerge at different levels of organisation characterised by different properties. Thereby we want to distinguish the term from the biological use of the word which regards systems as being alive only if they display properties like homeostasis, organisation, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli and reproduction, amongst others. A wider use of the term “life” includes the life-cycle of stars, references to the planet as being alive (as discussed in the Gaya hypothesis) and references to social systems as “living systems” (even if they may not display all the properties associated with biological systems).
Scientific discipline: The list is not inclusive, but provides some examples.
We would like to include systems theory (or wholism) as a coherent discipline or sub-discipline within philosophy (but have not done so due to lack of space).
*We did however include technology as a discipline to make a specific point: Although technology at all levels of life plays a huge and increasing role and is both a culprit and potential saviour in creating a sustainable economy, there is no coherent discipline dealing with this (although it apparently existed as a scientific discipline some 100 years ago). See the work of RJ van Wyk of Technoscan for more details.
Systems thinking emphasises that “life” is organised as a containing systems hierarchy, whereby different “life” forms (or “kingdoms” of nature as Young 1976 called them) display different properties and are associated with different levels in that hierarchy.
The allocation of different scientific disciplines to different levels in the figure above serves as an example. One could also categorise them differently (like the distinction according to disciplines relating to the naturosphere, psycho-sociosphere and technosphere).
Also, some of the above mentioned disciplines, as well as others span more than one level (e.g. neuro-psychology spans the cellular and individual levels). Moreover, new disciplines keep emerging as a result of interdisciplinary research and cooperation across levels.
According to traditional philosophy of science, scientific research within these disciplines should follow the rules of ceteris paribus (i.e. keeping the environment of the system that is being investigated constant) and prediction (i.e. the knowledge derived from scientific research must predict the behaviour of the system, in order to qualify it as being scientific).
From the perspective of systems thinking, the scientific knowledge derived through the traditional scientific method explains some properties of a system, but not others. Gharajedaghi (1985) distinguishes between type 1 and type 2 properties of systems, whereby type 1 properties are inherent in systems, while type 2 properties emerge from the interaction of systems (or parts of a system) at the level of the larger whole. Traditional philosophy of science reveals type 1 properties, while its ceteris paribus rule restricts – and even prevents – the observation of type 2 properties.
Systems of the naturosphere have evolved relatively fixed functioning and display law-like (type 1) properties which are appropriately studied by the traditional scientific method. By comparison, evolution of the psycho-sociosphere (i.e. the noogenetic evolution, as Boulding 1978 called it) has not yet evolved the same stable and law-like patterns as the physical evolution of the naturosphere. Also, psycho-social systems are characterised by a larger degree of choice and creativity in response to internal impulses and environmental changes. For these reasons, the traditional rules of ceteris paribus and prediction are to a lesser extent applicable and relevant in the exploration of the psycho-sociosphere. Instead, the traditional scientific method needs to be extended to incorporate the interaction of systems across and along levels. Systems theory and methodology are concerned with this and have therefore been proposed as an extension of the traditional scientific paradigm.
As a meta-systems theory, Biomatrix theory contributes generic organising principles of systems at all levels in the hierarchy of “life”. This implies that its concepts can challenge the assumptions on which different scientific disciplines are based and thereby extend their research approaches. This represents a top down transdisciplinary research challenge for cooperation across disciplines, as opposed to the bottom up generation of new knowledge derived from interdisciplinary cooperation. Both trans and interdisciplinarity are required to deal with the reality of “life” that operates beyond disciplinary boundaries.
The fragmented scientific paradigm which is concerned with the behaviour of systems in isolation from each other (i.e. ceteris paribus), needs to be integrated by (w)holistic thinking which recognises that the functioning of a system can change as a result of its interaction with other system in its outer and inner environment, as well as its own choices.
By embracing systems thinking or (w)holism in theory and praxis, scientific research will be able to focus on and yield knowledge on phenomena of “life” that are currently ignored.
relevance for the change manager
Traditional management education is function specific and an outflow of the fragmented scientific paradigm, while the manager has to operate in a synergistic cross-functional and multi-dimensional environment.
The manager therefore needs to extend his / her type 1 knowledge gained through MBA and other management education with a type 2 education (e.g. Post-MBA Courses) on systems theory and methodology, especially as applied to managing change in oganisations, industries and society.
Likewise, the current paradigm that drives management research needs to be extended by systems / (w)holistic theory and methodology to yield more relevant research.