Open Systems Thinking, Online Discussion, Governance

Should an open (public) online discussion group espousing systems thinking be governed through (i) an open (public) group, or (ii) a private (closed or secret) discussion group?

This is a question being debated on Facebook, about the “The Ecology of Systems Thinking” public group, with the “Systems Thinking Network Leadership Group” (closed group, proposed to becoming open), and the “EcoST Admin ADG” (secret group, which has reset to “closed”, i.e. the members are visible, but the content is not).

On August 30, I was invited into the EcoST Admin ADG, and posted:

I am signing into this group to say that I will not participate in a group that is designated as secret.

Since I have spent 3 full years writing a book called Open Innovation Learning, it would be hypocritical for me to participate in an online community that doesn’t believe in open systems thinking.

Some offline private communications ensued.  On August 31, I responded to on a personal channel:

… if the official position of that Facebook group is that’s going to be “a private working space”, then I won’t participate. However, if I was feeling sufficiently mischievous, I would then create a public link to that group, saying how open systems thinking isn’t being practiced, and ask why.

On a question about online discussion group administrator-moderators “making mistakes”, I wrote:

If we are seriously designing a system that “learns”, errors (a rephrasing of [C…’s] mistakes) are an opportunity for group learning. This is covered in the Map of Ignorance, from the University of Arizona.

The behaviour of thanking someone for pointing out an error takes some getting used to. It’s at the foundation of Ontological Design, as encouraged by Fernando Flores.

<< some messages by others are omitted >>

My understanding is that a lot of people are intimidated by meeting Fernando Flores, because he will take you at your word. I had the fortunate opportunity to schedule an appointment to speak to him directly (in his home!) and I found him rather straightforward.

<< a message by someone is omitted >>

So, to follow though on the Flores thread, communicating via social media (as well a verbally, where he does a large amount of coaching) is a SKILL that individuals should learn and improve upon. That being said, talking into a mirror (i.e. a closed system) will only allow a limited amount of learning.

As those private comments were (with my concurrence) reshared onto the EcoST Admin ADG on August 31.  Responses to the thread led me to write a long response:

On the premise of setting the EcoSt Admin ADG as secret or private Facebook group: What systems school, research of philosophy are you basing this decision? I will argue for open systems thinking (and open systems theory), and can easily draw on whole community of systems luminaries to support my position.

From a systemic perspective, the issue should be discussed as a whole. To fit within the post limits of Facebook, this issue will be broken up into this opening, five points, and a closing.

(1) An open systems approach allows boundary critique, as described by Werner Ulrich at .

The quest for systemic thinking cannot alter the fact that all our claims remain ‘partial’ (Ulrich 1983), in the double sense of being selective with respect to relevant facts and norms and of benefiting some parties more than others. This is what boundary critique (Ulrich 1996, 2000, 2017) is all about; it aims at disclosing this inevitable partiality.

Having a Facebook administrators group as a closed system doesn’t “identify the sources of selectivity”; doesn’t “question these boundary judgements with respect to their practical and ethical implications to surface options”; and doesn’t include the ability to “challenge unqualified claims to knowledge or rationality by compelling argumentation”.

(2) An open systems approach embraces dissenting perspectives, as described by Gerald Midgley, “The Sacred and Profane in Critical Systems Thinking” | 1991 | Systems Practice at , cached at

Fuenmayor uses a metaphor of light and dark to describe this process of drawing boundaries. He asks us to remain aware that throwing light upon a system casts its ‘otherness’ into darkness. Through such an awareness we are able to retain the possibility of changing the boundaries of critique. In other words, awareness of ‘otherness’ is an effective remedy for ‘hardening of the boundaries’.

Any electronic forum that is a closed system doesn’t permit throwing light on how the boundaries are set.

(3) An open systems approach embraces fluid management (rather than solid aspects of management), as described by David Hawk | “System Cracks are Where the Light Gets In: Models and Measures of Services in the Benefit of Context” | 2001 | Proceedings of the 45th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the System Sciences, cached at

Cracks point a systems forces that were not being reconciled within the limits of the system. “Crackage” may also be a sign of systems reaching their limits. […] Such cracks can be seen as early indicators of larger problems looming for organizations.

A closed system doesn’t respond to environment, and thus doesn’t see signals of the system reaching its limits.

(4) An open systems approach embraces “unbounded systems thinking” as “the fifth way of knowing”, as described by Ian Mitroff | The Unbounded Mind | 1995 (scholarly excerpt at . This was originally described as a Singerian inquiring system by C. West Churchman. Here’s a quick summary by James F. Courtney, David T. Croasdell and David B. Paradice | “Inquiring Organizations” | 1998 at

The Singerian Inquirer
> Two basic premises guide Singerian inquiry (Churchman, 1971, pp. 189-191). The first premise establishes a system of measures that specify steps to be followed in resolving disagreements among members of a community. Measures can be transformed and compared where appropriate. The measure of performance is the degree to which differences among group member’s opinions can be resolved by the measuring system. A key feature of the measuring system is its ability to replicate its results to ensure consistency.
> The second principle guiding Singerian inquiry is the strategy of agreement (p. 199). Disagreement may occur for various reasons, including the different training and background of observers and inadequate explanatory models. When models fail to explain a phenomenon, new variables and laws are “swept in” to provide guidance and overcome inconsistencies. Yet, disagreement is encouraged in Singerian inquiry. It is through disagreement that world views come to be improved. Complacency is avoided by continuously challenging system knowledge.
> Singerian inquiry provides the capability to choose among a system of measures to create insight and build knowledge. A simplistic optimism drives the community toward continuous improvement of measures. However, the generation of knowledge can move the community away from reality and towards its own form of illusion if not carefully monitored.

An open systems approach with the fifth way of knowing allows new knowledge to be swept into the dialogue. Taking a poll is based on the second way of knowing, an analytic-deductive inquiring system.

(5) An open systems approach is a premise for Open Innovation Learning, where open sourcing WHILE private sourcing is recognized. The open access book at is based on 7 case studies of IBM between 2001-2011.

The label of open sourcing frames ongoing ways that organizations and individuals conduct themselves with others through continually sharing artifacts and practices of mutual benefit. The label of private sourcing frames the contrasting and more traditional ways that business organizations and allied partners develop and keep artifacts and practices to themselves. Many customers external to a private sourcing organization are uninterested in internal details about the whys and wherefores about how an offering comes about. Some constituents external to an organization prefer the transparency in open sourcing, both in self interests and mutual interests. [p. 5]

Those interested in an example a concrete struggle to maintain the spirit of open sourcing can refer to Appendix A.7.4 (c) “Open sourcing: Office Open XML approved as ECMA-376 on Dec. 7 2006” telling the story about Microsoft influencing industry standards organizations to endorse OOXML, and IBM threatening to exit those organizations as a result.

In this sense, I may be labelled a heretic. David Hawk writes “a heretic was one who raises questions about an entity’s most closely held beliefs. A heretic initiates institutional renewal by firming up its strengths while destabilizing its dogmas. In this way a heretic strengthens an entity”. See

I explicitly license the whole of these comments (i.e. the opening, 5 points and close) as Creative Commons CC-BY-ND David Ing 2018, which allows them to be reposted in whole by anyone, anywhere, as long as they are attributed to me. If you want to respond, your copyright will be preserved, but you might want to refer to “Do I Own My Photos and Posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?” | Mihir Patkar | October 2017 at

The original formation of the Systems Thinking Network Leadership group on Facebook was based on the reformation of Systems Thinking World on LinkedIn, in October-November 2015.  The ideal (but technologically immature) direction would have been to move towards a federated social web.  Benjamin Taylor had moved to the platform (based on, now archived at ) before moving to in January 2018.

On September 1, Benjamin Taylor wrote on the EcoST Admin ADG:

I have a preference for what i believe David is advocating – everything should be *accessible* unless it really needs to be private. And we should keep the private to a minimum.

The purpose of this apart from the open systems principles is to allow genuine accountability – i.e. at a practical minimum, the different perspectives and arguments behind moderation decisions should be made visible.

IIRC, at the time a small group of people saved the LinkedIn group (which I had a part ownership of) and the Facebook group from [G…’s] destruction (plus the @systemsthinking twitter, which [P…] still has custody of, given we were never able to resolve what to do with it), I proposed (or supported) very open moderation, which is why I added many admin-types to the LI group, and created (or supported) the systems thinking network leadership group as an open forum for whoever was interested to weigh in and help make decisions on any governance or emergent issues from *both* the LI and the facebook group. I stand by that decision, and would suggest that we rename that as the more humble ‘moderation’ group, agree some decision rules, and try to work there.

This led Benjamin to a Facebook poll in the EcoST Admin ADG with a description:

I’m proposing:
1- close down this group and reconvene in the STN moderation group
2- I will make clear to everyone there the intention for it to be a platform for moderators to hold governance discussions and allow 72 hours for responses or complaints (to be debated there), then:
3- I will change the group status to open
4- I will delete every non-governance-related post currently in that group
and then:
5-any mega-decisions for either group be by vote of all members in the relevant groups (STN moderation a platform for open discussions only)
6-all moderation decisions discussed in STN moderation open group, then finalised by small group of moderators using the rules we are currently agreeing in the google doc)
7-delegate authority to all moderators to do a bunch of day-to-day stuff (as being agreed in the google doc)
8-escalation route from individual moderator – STN moderation discussion and moderator decision – all member vote if needed (to be agree in the google doc)
The results of this vote not to be binding on what we agree in the google doc – items 6-8 as they relate to the google doc be advisory in that context.

I support this position, and would be active in reforming the Systems Thinking Network Leadership (closed) group on Facebook into the Systems Thinking Network Moderation (public) group.

This is not the end of the story.  It’s a partial report of activities in an online community.

The Ecology of Systems Thinking group on Facebook

#facebook, #governance, #online-communities, #open-systems-thinking, #systems-thinking