When you think of the word ‘system’, what comes to mind?
If we turn to the dictionary, we get something like ‘an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole: a mountain system; a railroad system.’ One of my personal favourite ways of thinking a little more about systems comes from a most brilliant book – ‘When a Butterfly Sneezes – Systems Thinking for Kids, Big and Small’ by Linda Booth Sweeney.
Something’s been fascinating me for a little while and it’s the use of the term ‘IT system’. This term is commonplace in business and government as you’d expect, especially when one wants to make a change to the organisation or fix a burning issue. It’s used all the time… ‘We’re implementing a new IT system to…’ … ‘The requirements of the IT system are…’ … ‘The fixes in our IT system will…’ … ‘Our strategy is to standardise our IT systems in order to…’. For years I’ve been using the term myself of course.
But there’s an important concept that seems to get lost somewhat in all of this talk of IT systems. And that’s you and me – i.e. people. What’s the point of any IT system we’ve come across unless at some point a person is part of it?
Everyone of course knows this. But I think the IT industry might just have inadvertently corrupted the word system. I think we’ve all used the term ‘IT system’ with good meaning but now some unintended consequences are really coming to light – specifically in the context of today’s connected world.
Inside organisations there seems to be so much time focusing on getting the IT bit of ‘the system’ simply to work, there can be a tendency to create blindspots on how the system as a whole will work – with the majority of blindspots on arguably the most unpredictable and valuable part of the system – the people! A mildly theatrical perspective perhaps but this is still offered by the industry as a common explanation for the generally high ‘IT enabled business change’ programme failure rate that stubbornly persists in business and government today. The question, how might we address this?
When things and people in the world weren’t so obviously connected through information, it seemed almost more natural to focus in and optimise the parts. But today’s world-trend has flipped things from ‘internal to external’ and the science of systems thinking – or perhaps best summed up as the science of ‘how things seem to work’ – seems massively relevant for mainstream business management practices.
Andy’s recent post on Mashups – everywhere or nowhere – fascinated me in terms of people seeing things, or not, as the case may be. People are getting on with things and using useful IT from wherever they can. There are many excellent books on this topic but perhaps the work of a book for kids (small and big!) is a helpful place to start to see more of our ever more connected world for what is really is.