What do we mean with systemic?

There are hundreds of ways of describing the word systemic. Yet in development it is important that we at least narrow down the definitions as to not cause confusion.

Richard Hummelbrunner describes three emergent features of methods and approaches from systems thinking:

  • An understanding of interrelationships
  • A commitment to multiple perspectives
  • An awareness of boundaries

Richard then explains that each of these features focused in the development of the systems thinking field in the last fifty years. Up to the 60s, the focus was interrelationships. This was followed by an increasing awareness of the different perspectives as a critical issue. This affected the way people recognized interrelationships. In the 1980s the focus shifted towards the boundaries of the system, as practitioners realized that they system had to be bounded in some way to allow for diagnosis. This raised the ethical question of who decides what is part of the system and what is not, as the shifting of these boundaries has great influence on what is revealed and understood when the system is diagnosed.

Our firm, Mesopartner, is known for the “Systemic Competitiveness” framework that we use in our work. The framework originated within the German Development Institute in the mid 90s. One of the common misunderstandings about Systemic Competitiveness is that people confuse systemic with systematic. The latter in my mind would refer to a very detailed and exact way of understanding and doing things that may be very rigid. This may detract from the fact that to really understand a system we might have to embrace complexity, dilemmas and issues in a more dynamic way, something that a very recipe driven systematic approach may not allow.


Williams, B and Hummelbrunner, R. 2010. Systems concepts in action: a practitioners toolkit. Stanford Business Books.

ESSER, K., HILLEBRAND, W., MESSNER, D. & MEYER-STAMER, J. 1995.  Systemic competitiveness. New patterns for industrial development. London: Frank Cas.

MEYER-STAMER, J. 2005.  Systemic competitiveness revisited. Conclusions for technical assistance in private sector development. Mesopartner

5 Responses to “What do we mean with systemic?”

  1. frankwaeltring Says:

    Hi Shawn, I think another important aspect of the system thinking approach is the creation of self awareness of an institution or an individual within a system. Maybe it would fall according to your category under “interrelationships” but I am not sure. Systemic constellations in family therapy, in organizational development and in socio-economic mappings use often the systemic approach to better understand their role as humans, enterprises or other organizations within their system in which they act. This would mean not only understanding the interrelationships but also ones own position to act in a more effective way within the system.

    Best, Frank


    • Shawn Cunningham Says:

      Hi Frank,
      I agree with you. I think the little story also showed that the son was self aware of his role in the system, and also the behavior of other agents in the system. How to get organizations to be more aware of the system is something that goes beyond learning as it involves interpretation of mixed signals.
      Best wishes,

      Shawn Cunningham


  2. cheulrico Says:

    A next step of your reflection could be to check if Hummerlbrunner’s three features apply also to the SysCom approach:
    You may recall that SysCom (as well as the approach of NIS) was inspired by Friedrich Lists who studied the “National System of the Political Economy” in the 19th Century. This could be understood as a clear definition of boundaries, but what was about relationship and multiple perspectives?
    List’s “National Systems” was a critique on Adam Smith classical viewpoint that in a free market the following of individual interest sum up to best collective results. List’s questions this identity of individual and national interests. In consequence he advocated for a relevant role of the state in the developmental process of a nation.
    In the same sense, you should ask how we can recognize the three features of systems in the SysCom approach itself. Also here we have certain clarity about the boundaries, as SysCom is applicable not only to the national than also to the local, regional and international level. But again here, what’s about multiple perspectives and interaction.
    As our late partner Jörg Meyer-Stamer mentioned the SysCom approach lacked the system dynamic perspective and was merely static. The challenge still is to make the 4M framework systemic in the sense of system thinking and other related schools.


  3. Marcus Jenal Says:

    Hi Shawn, Frank and Uli. Interesting discussion you are having here. In my view, the question about the dynamics of a system, as it is brought forward by Uli, is a crucial one. How do systems behave and how can this behavior be influenced? As I understand the SysCom approach – not having actively worked with it but having attended your summer academy last year – it is much more a descriptive approach that tries to illustrate current and targeted/ideal situation of a system. It is systemic in a sense that it includes different levels and gives boundaries to these levels and even describe the intra and interrelationships of the levels. It can also include different perspectives if it is applied in a participatory manner. But how can it incorporate the dynamics that exist in the system? And more importantly, how can it help us to decide what interventions are needed and are likely to be effective to navigate the system towards our identified targeted/ideal situation.
    Interestingly, I have been asked the same question when I presented the causal loop analysis some time ago. I answered that it was apparent that the analysis does indeed include dynamics, since the loops are influencing the situation in a distinct way. The analysis can be used to develop simulations of the system and they can be used to build scenarios on possible behavior of the system. I was then told that this was typical of what the person then called a ‘first generation’ systems thinking approach.
    I realized that the person indeed had a point. Also causal loop diagrams and similar analyses that are based on the ‘classical’ system thinking school are still taking visible and stable cause and effect relationships for granted. It does add non linearity to the equation, but it cannot really handle systems in which cause and effect relationships are not directly visible, disbursed over space and time and in which the number of elements and connections are big, i.e., so called complex adaptive systems. Systems thinking requires a certain amount of structure in a system which it can then build into a model to predict the behavior of a system.
    Now, if the systems thinking school was ‘first generation’, what then is systemic 2.0? It’s complexity science. As the name already implies, complexity science looks at complex systems. Some argue that complexity is distinctly different from the mere complicated. In the latter, although we might have a large number of agents and interrelations, these agents and connections are at least not changing and, hence, the system’s behavior is replicable and predictable. The functioning of the system can be assessed given enough time and resources. In complex systems, on the other hand, both agents and connections between agents are in constant motions leading to emerging patterns, which are more or less stability.
    So in my opinion the first thing we have to do if we want to be systemic is to define what kind of system we have at hand. Based on this we can then decide what systemic interventions are, i.e., interventions that are adapted to the characteristics of the system.
    Now to come back to the original question how we can influence the behavior of a system. Well, based on what has been said above this depends on the kind of system we are looking at. If we have a complicated system, we can analyze the system and with enough technical knowledge come up with a good solution that will fix our problem and we ideally can implement this solution ourselves – an typical engineering approach. If we are, however, working in a complex system, we first have to probe the system and see how it reacts to different interventions – what kind of pattern it exhibits that can be stabilized or destabilized.
    I stop it here now, I’ve have already been too long. What I wanted to say, really, is that if we want to be systemic, we should not only come up with a picture of the system now and in an ideal stage, but we have to know the dynamics of a system and to come up with the right strategies to influence the system in an effective way. By the way, I’m still of the opinion that the loop analysis can help us here, even in complex systems.
    Best, Marcus


  4. Is there a hierarchy of the different levels of innovation? « Shawn Cunningham's Weblog Says:

    […] 1) they focus mainly on the micro level of the firm, and don’t move to the innovation system level. Moving from one firm to many is not necessarily systemic or holistic. […]


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