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Systems Thinking: From Theory To Application

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2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

EM Skills and Real-World Concepts, Pt. 2

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.1148.1 - 9.1148.9



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Paper Authors

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Michelle Summers

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Julie Phillips

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Nathan Harter

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Mark Dean

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Donna Evanecky

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 3642

Systems thinking: Theorists anchored in the real world

Dr. Mark L. Dean, Donna J. Evanecky, Nathan W. Harter, Julie A. Phillips, Michele L. Summers

Purdue University School of Technology New Albany, IN/Kokomo, IN/ Greensburg, IN/ Columbus, IN/Lafayette, IN


Engineers and engineering students are already familiar with systems thinking, since it is integrated into much of what they do. However, technical expertise without social expertise limits a person's effectiveness. In order to increase their proficiency as leaders and managers, engineers and engineering students can learn to apply systems thinking to organizations.

The Social Systems Model, or Social Model for short, integrates ideas and concepts from systems theory and applies them to the leadership of social organizations. Forrester, Ackoff and others pioneered social systems thinking, and their work has been continued by others including Senge, Deming, and Wheatley. These are theorists anchored in the real world, applying systems thinking to organizations where people work.

According to Deming1, "a system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system." Ackoff (1981) suggests that “[t]he performance of a system is not the sum of the performance of its parts taken separately, but the product of their interactions.”2

Given this understanding, systems thinking is important for everyone in an organization to understand and be able to apply, but especially to leaders. Even though contemporary society has the tendency to divide the world into neat, arbitrary subdivisions, life comes to us whole and must be looked at through the systems lens.3 Once understanding of the concept of systems thinking is established, those involved are better able to connect the dots and see the organization in its entirety and contribute to the optimization of the whole.

For organizations to be led effectively, leaders must think in terms of relationships between and among departments instead of thinking about them as independent components. The reality is, all departments and all people in an organization are interdependent, not independent. The aim of these interdependent components should be to maximize their contribution to the performance of the organization as a whole. By doing this they optimize the performance of the whole, instead of individual departments within an organization, creating a win-win environment.

“Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education”

Summers, M., & Phillips, J., & Harter, N., & Dean, M., & Evanecky, D. (2004, June), Systems Thinking: From Theory To Application Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--13878

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