From systems building to systems thinking

I once believed in systems. I believe in systems now. It’s what happened in between that I want to look at.

I started my career building information systems; after summer jobs as a programmers, I knew that I wanted to be a consultant. I didn’t understand what that meant, ignored wise advice about what I ought to do, and talked my way into a job with the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co.—long before it morphed into Andersen Consulting and later Accenture.

I designed and built information systems that massaged accounting data and produced reports meant to lead to better management decisions. I became pretty adept at annoying my supervisors with questions about how my programs connected to the broader business. It’s possible that some of the information my programs produced may have contributed to marginally better analysis and decisions by some middle managers. I was absorbed with the intricacies of making computers do what I told them to do.

That led to an MBA on the theory that what I needed was to understand the big picture; how did all of the pieces fit together? If I wanted to build more effective information systems, I needed to understand business as a system. How did strategy and finance and operations interact? I jumped from the weeds to strategy and the CEO’s perspective. From there it was back out to the consulting world.

I now had the systems tools I needed to design solutions that would have real impact. The flaw in my brilliant plan was that the people I was designing and building systems for seemed to have little interest in actually changing how they worked or thought. I’m fundamentally a nerd so my solution was to go back to school again; clearly I had missed something in my previous studies. If the intended users of my systems insisted on being too dumb to recognize how clever my designs were then I needed to learn how to do better designs.

I started a Ph.D. program in management information systems. Fortunately, Ph.D. programs give you access to very clever people with lots of perspective. They began to gradually eliminate the stupid and replace it with some deeper insight. The first order analysis, of course, was that thinking of users as stupid wasn’t a winning strategy. I was young—younger anyway. The second order answer was to build a knowledge base in organizational theory. The quest since then has been to develop a better synthesis; exactly of what is an evolving target.

This isn’t a new quest. It’s often framed as an either/or choice between people and technology. A more intriguing path is one of both/and. That isn’t a new thought either. But it is worth a revisit.

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