Systems is a broad meta-level subject and at its core is the concept of an adaptive whole, a system. In essence, systems thinking can be thought of as thinking holistically, that is attempting to ‘see the big picture’. This mode of thinking is complementary to the more established way of thinking, reductionist thinking that is predominant in the scientific world. Reductionist thinking emphasise the need to break down things into their constitutive components and looking at those components in detail.
Systems thinking has been around since the ancient times but unfortunately has not become part of the mainstream thinking. Part of this is due to the fact that the word systems is loosely used and has been appropriated by various approaches thus causing confusion. For example, Senge uses ‘systems thinking’ as part of his approach. Part of the problem of using the term systems for particular approaches rather than an umbrella term is that ‘it has the potential to distort and confuse people in understanding the overall field’. Systems thinking is a broad field in which there are many strands and great diversity. However, there is one distinction that is critical to make explicit and that is the distinction between hard and soft systems.
The definition for this distinction for the purposes of my research will be taken from Peter Checkland’s well established approach.