Twenty Seconds into the Future - The Architecture of Continuous Learning Systems

Twenty Seconds into the Future—The Architecture of Continuous Learning Systems


As a system I am not totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent.

—Ashleigh Brilliant, 1979

All right, everybody line up alphabetically—according to height.

—Casey Stengel, Manager, New York Yankees, 1950

Definition of Systems

A system, according to Webster's, is an assemblage of objects united by a regular interdependence or interaction of the parts. Deriving from the Greek and meaning "to place together," a system constitutes an organic or organized whole comprised of multiple sections. Examples of systems would be the solar system, the human nervous system, a curriculum system, an organizational system, or simply the Rolodex on your desk. Systems are built from interlocking parts, which are often in motion. Thus planets in star systems link with one another through moving gravity fields, organs in your body connect with one another through organic tissue and nerve impulses, and courses in a curriculum system connect with one another through cross-referencing and hyperlinks.

Systems thinking isn't new. Long before systems thinking came about in technology and organizations, there was systems thinking in theology, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. In 400 B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates described the human body as a system and in 350 B.C. Aristotle viewed all human knowledge as one vast hierarchical system. In A.D. 1200, the theologian Thomas Aquinas, building directly on Aristotle, turned systems thinking into a fine art with a vast system of scholastic philosophy mirroring the towering Gothic cathedrals of his time. And the Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced the astronomical systems of Copernicus and Galileo. By the time of World War II, systems thinking had entered the realm of technology in the form of computerized anti-aircraft guns, and about the same time, had also started to define our thinking about organizations, with the sociotechni cal movement in England. In each and every case, the system was driven by the core vision of an assemblage of complex interlocking parts in motion.

The Organization as System: Closed Machine Systems vs. Open Living Systems

The secret of any method is to arrange all facts into a system.

—Descartes, Rules for Direction of Mind, 1630

There are two types of organizational systems, namely machine systems and living system. One way of expressing the difference is through the metaphors of the machine and the garden—the one mechanical, the other organic. Machine systems are closed, and are based on cybernetics theory (small machines steering large machines). Living systems, on the other hand, are open and based on organic theories of self-organization. Modern systems thinking tends to embrace both of these theories.

Machine Systems Theory

Originating in the seventeenth century celestial mechanics of Newton's astronomical system, machine systems were brought down to earth in the twentieth century by the cybernetic thinkers Norbert Wiener and William Ashby. During the 1940s, both these men explored the crucial role of feedback and of servo-mechanisms in machine systems. Servomechanisms are the small servant machines that play steersman to the main system, course-correcting the system so that it performs optimally (see Figure 4). For example, governors controlled early steam engines, thermostats controlled furnaces, and, in a similar manner, today's cruise controls control cars, automatic pilots steer aircraft, and automatic focus devices focus digital camcorders. In organizations, the governors correspond to the managers—steering and course-correcting the entire organization.

click to expand
Figure 4: Machine Systems Design.

Living Systems Theory

Where machine systems are "planned" systems, living systems are "self-organized," developing organically over time. Open systems theory implies all things link up and influence one another, in all directions (easy to say, but challenging to work with). Drawing heavily on Aristotle, Goethe, Herder, and Hegel, the biologist Ludwig Bertalanffy developed living systems theory in Austria in the 1920s (see Figure 5). The theory later became known as "open" systems and also "general" systems theory. His research, focusing on self-evolving systems from single-cell organisms to entire organizations, studied how higher, second-order living systems (managers in an organization) controlled lower, primary-order systems (employees). Social psychologists Kurt Lewin and Gregory Bateson followed Bertalanffy and extended the metaphor to learning, studying the interaction between the small-group learning by employees and higher level learning by managers (and trainers). Not only did each group have to learn from each other, but the trainers in particular had to "learn how to learn" (i.e., learn how to teach), which Bateson called deutero-learning, and what we today call meta-learning (the organization "learning how to teach"). The theory has continued to evolve, particularly in the organizational systems thinking of Wheatley and Capra (see Fastpaths 1992 and 1996).

click to expand
Figure 5: Living Systems Design.