Systems thinking is considered a much‐needed competence to deal better with an increasingly interlinked and complex world. The many streams within systems science have diversified perspectives, theories and methods, but have also complicated the field as a whole. This makes it difficult to understand and master the field. Short introductions to fundamental questions of systems science are rare. This paper is divided into three parts and aims to do the following: (1) to provide a broad overview of the structure and purpose of systems science; (2) to present a set of key systems principles and relate them to theoretical streams; and (3) to describe aspects of systems‐oriented methodologies within a general process cycle. Integrative visualizations have been included to highlight the relationships between concepts, perspectives and systems thinkers. Several new attempts have been made to define and organize system concepts and streams in order to provide greater overall coherence and easier understanding. © 2013 The Author. Systems Research and Behavioral Science published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
INTRODUCTION: BACKGROUND AND PROBLEM
What skills are needed for the 21st century that have been neglected in the past? It has become increasingly clear that the problems and challenges we face are highly interlinked, complex and multidisciplinary. A comparative study (Wiek et al., 2011) came to the conclusion that one of five key competencies for a sustainable future is ‘systems thinking competence’. Peter Senge, one of the key promoters of organizational learning and systems thinking in management (1990), argues that three core capabilities are necessary: We need to increase ‘collaboration across boundaries’, ‘see systems’ as a part of larger systems and learn to ‘create a desired future’ (Senge et al., 2010, p. 44). These three challenges are closely related to the three foundational aspects of systems science explored in this paper.
The goal of this paper is to make key perspectives and concepts of systems thinking and systems science more understandable to researchers and to persons involved practically in fields such as education, consulting or management. To achieve this goal in the limited space of this paper, emphasis will be on visual maps that help us to integrate systemic knowledge from diverse streams and to highlight relations. More detailed descriptions of the concepts mentioned can be obtained in the cited references. Troncale (1985, p. 30) states ‘There is a need to make general systems theory more user‐friendly’. Among other solutions, he recommends overcoming obstacles by use of graphic techniques.