Wednesday May 20, 2009

The Edge of Technology and Systems Thinking

Last year, competitive strategy guru and Harvard business school professor Michael Porter wrote about "Why America Needs an Economic Strategy." In this brief note for BusinessWeek, Porter emphasizes the importance of infrastructure, logistics and educational upgrades in the U.S. economic system, as key success factors.

These infrastructure upgrades will demand new IT technologies deployed throughout, including upgrades related to people logistics and transportation.

These upgrades, including upgrades that will affect the way we live and work in our urban and suburban environments and those that will make public transportation much more attractive alternatives, will also have a direct impact on other ecological problems we face, including the dangerous changes such as the ones that are now affecting the ice caps. See for example, the report in The Independent, "Exclusive: Scientists warn that there may be no ice at North Pole this summer."

System-level thinking teaches us that various domains of our activity and concern are in fact very well-connected and tied up in complex dynamics. 

Tragedies occur when systems and their dynamics are not properly understood.

Relying on hasty moves, fire-fighting and denying the interplay of of dynamics and time has led to many mispercieved problems and "solutions" that only aggravate problems or create new ones.

Careful attention, deep study and addressing the root causes of these global and systemic problems may deliver a better future path to recovery.

In order to do all this, one needs to have a good understanding of complex systems and their dyamics. This is subtle art and requires a comprehensive understanding of various system components and how they interact, including a mental model for these interactions.

I'm afraid I have to bring the news that not everyone has had the experience or has accumulated the knowledge for that kind of integrative thinking.  This is why we should set aside our bias against those who refuse to be dragged into firefights. These are people who pause to pay proper attention to problems and discover real solutions. This pause doesn't imply slow thinking, rather a paced mode of thinking. These people should be cherished rather than isolated, refused and blocked from hierarchical decision systems that emphasize perpetual firefights. (Studies have shown that "firefight" mode of thinking and acting is much more prevalent in U.S. business and government institutions when compare to Japan or other countries where root solutions are the focus. So, we may need a general cultural change to lay greater value to system thinking and problem-solving that addresses root causes.)

In general, systems thinking will get us to where we want to be. In general, symptomatic and firefight solutions may solve the problem momentarily but will only get us farther from where we want to head. 

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