Friday, April 22, 2005

Albert Einstein spent his later years grasping at a way to present a neat, comprehensive, unified theory of physics that could explain the nature of the universe. He did not succeed, no at that time could have, though some physicists believe they are on the right track to do so. Einstein's technique, viewing the whole field as a single interconnected system, remains the most valuable one for thinking strategically because it forces the strategist to consider the implications of each move from every angle. What do I mean by systemic thinking ? Some examples:

Stuart Berman has applied Dr. Barnett's PNM theory to develop an analysis of internet security as a total system, asking in his presentation, if we are vulnerable to a " Cyber 9-11 ". ( Take the time to view the powerpoint - the first part reviews PNM, the latter section applies it to cybersecurity) It's an appropriate question because we know that most states but most energetically China are experimenting with cyberwarfare as a way to balance the scales with the United States by gaining the capacity to " blind" the hyperadvanced, netcentric warfare capabilities of the Pentagon. The Chinese have also launched cyberattack experiments against Taiwan and Japan.

Pundita in turn has been examining the disconnect that occurs when the engineering of complex human systems takes place:

a) When the designers are far removed from the political decision makers - a severing of vision from power.

b) When the designers do not take into account that the success of their system naturally is going to have consequences, forseeable as well as unintended. Or as Pundita put it:

"With hindsight, the decisions--taken without modeling how they would play out if successful--were idiotic. The knowledge about how to project scenarios was out there; it simply wasn't used. That's the kind of idiocy in government we can, and must, learn to avert. That is the greatest challenge for this era."

Herman Kahn would have agreed. And finally Pundita calls for the development of a formal discipline of large-scale system design.

Some strategists have thought along these lines, notably Sun-Tzu and his modern disciple John Boyd, the father of the OODA decision cycle. For moderns this kind of thinking requires a retraining - perhaps causing a neural rewiring - of brains educated to habitually compartmentalize, isolate, deconstruct and analyze knowledge into vertical hierarchies of information. What is needed is the horizontal thinking exemplified by Barnett's PNM theory - synthesis, pattern recognition, analogies, intuition - to cut across the artificial boundaries we have raised for ourselves to see the connections and the overarching meta-principles that make the global system run.

Or break down.
Frankly, I'm skeptical of attempts at large scale systems design unless the notion of design itself is re-structured. The simple reason for this is that implementing a system itself changes the structures it's intended to support.

I believe that every systems design of sufficiently large scope is likely to be a design failure (as I suggested in my post some time ago on the FBI's new information system). That's why designs of sufficiently large scope need to be mostly about processes rather than about products although that's deeply unsettling to most people (especially the people who have to pay).

Let me give a couple of examples here. First, there's the difference between the US Constitution and the EU Constitution. The US Constitution has very few details—it's almost entirely about process. And, yes, I know that I can't press on this example too closely or it will fall apart.

Another example is the legal system in the United States compared to the system on the Continent. Here the question is does the law (including applicable case law) apply in this case? There the question is how does the law apply.
Hey Dave,

I think you are correct in the sense that since any " large" system we design is inherently only a small subset of the existing global human system it is going a) disturb it's systemic environment and b)eventually reach a point of obsolescence.

Nevertheless we still need new "large" systems on occasion and we need to move with all the caveats in mind to minimize systemic costs.

You are right on the presumption of European law vs. the Anglo-American legal tradition. The Brits are going to be very unhappy when when they wake up to the differences, should the EU Constitution ever pass.
Speaking as someone who started in software engineering and is now working in decision analysis, I think you need to separate out several isses in large system design.

First, there is the issue of causal feedback loops. That's what you're getting at when talking about "planning for success". This is the domain of systems dynamics modeling.

Systems dynamics modeling is highly regarded by many public policy analysts for the very good reason that it captures 2nd and 3rd order effects of decisions.

However, many decision analysts will say that the difficulty with systems dynamics modeling is that for it to be predictive of system behavior you often have to be able to estimate various rates of change in key factors -- and that can be very difficult to do. However, it can be used to generate hypothetical best / worst / most likely scenarios, useful for diagnosing whether ones assumptions were on target.

A different approach that is useful when thinking about complex systems is multiple objective decision analysis. This technique recognizes that hard problems are often hard because we have multiple objectives we want to achieve. MODA offers ways to identify those objectives, prioritize them and tie them to specific evaluation measures. Alternative system designs are then simulated or otherwise modeled to predict expected behavior on each evaluation measure and a resulting weighted value score identifies which alternative provides the best expected overall outcome. There are other steps in this process, including (very critically) analysis of the degree to which ones conclusions are sensitive to small changes in priorities.

There's lots more that can be said about other disciplines as well. People who do decision analysis for mission-critical military and other systems are often members of INFORMS and (for military apps) MORS.
Superb comment Robin ! I'm going to highlight it, if you don't mind in a post.
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Yes it is my site and I would love for you to drop by for a second. From there you will have free access to several of my products such as The Marketing Toolbar (which is goldmine of information on how to do things quickly and on the cheap, thus saving you time and money).
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I discuss this topic daily myself. I also have a website that talks about free domain name for web pages
related things. Go check it out if you get a chance.
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