A Constructivist’s View of POSIWID:

POSIWID or “Purpose Of a System Is What It Does” is a famous dictum in Cybernetics. This is attributed to the Management Cybernetician Stafford Beer. Beer noted:

A good observer will impute the purpose of the system from its actions and thus from the resultant state.

Hence the key aphorism:

The purpose of a system is what it does.

There is, after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it consistently fails to do.

I have written about this before here – https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/purpose-of-a-system-in-light-of-vsm/ and here – https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2020/06/14/hegel-dialectics-and-posiwid/

In cybernetics, the emphasis is on what a “system” does, and not especially what a “system” is, or what the designer or management of the “system” claims what the “system” is doing. Thus, we can see that POSIWID has a special place in every cybernetician’s mind. A “system” is a collection of variables that an observer purposefully selects to make sense of the world around them. The boundaries, parts etc. of the “system” vary according to who is doing the observing, and the purpose also is assigned by the observer. Beer explains this clearly:

The point that I find that I am most anxious to add is that this System has a PURPOSE. The trouble is: WHO SAYS SO?

So where does the idea that Systems in general have a purpose come from? IT COMES FROM YOU!

 It is you the observer of the System who recognizes its purpose. Come to think of it, then, is it not just YOU — the observer — who recognizes that there is a System in the first place?

Another key point to mention is that an observer may impute several purposes for the “system”. Beer continues:

Consider the System called a tiger…

The purpose of a tiger is:

  • to be itself
  • to be its own part of the Jungle System
  • to be a link in animal evolution
  • to eat whatever it eats, for Ecology’s sake
  • to provide tiger-skins
  • to perpetuate the genes of which it is the host

For the moment, I am prepared to say that the purpose of a tiger is to demonstrate that the recognition of a System and of its purpose is a highly subjective affair.

Understanding the purpose of a “system” helps us in understanding how we construct the “systems” themselves:

All of this turns out to mean that we simply cannot attribute purposes, or even boundaries, to systems as if these were objective facts of nature. The facts about the system are in the eye of the beholder. This sounds like an unproductive conclusion, but we can make something of it. It means that both the nature and the purpose of a System are recognized by an observer within his perception of WHAT THE SYSTEM DOES.

From Beer’s writing, it is clear that the POSIWID is dependent upon the observer. This is also the basis of constructivism. In constructivism, the observer is the king or queen. The “system” is a selection of variables chosen by the observer to improve their understanding of a phenomenon. The boundaries drawn by the observer are entirely arbitrary and contingent on the mood of the observer. A “system” is thus a mental construct of the observer. For example, an educational “system” may have physical artifacts in the world such as buildings, books, chalk boards etc. However, depending upon the observer, what the “system” entails will change. For a student, it is “system” for education, or it is a “system” to get away from their hometown. For a teacher, it is a “system” to provide meaning to their lives or it is a “system” to spend time while doing another job on the side. There can be as many “systems” involving the same collection of parts as the number of the observers. Beer continues:

The definition of the purpose of a System as being what it does lays the onus not on ‘nature’ but on the particular observer concerned. It immediately accounts for UNRESOLVABLE disagreements about systems too. For two people may well disagree about anything at all, and never become reconciled. They say that they will be convinced, and give way, if the FACTS show that they were mistaken. But the facts about the nature and purpose of a System are not objective realities. Once you have declared, as an observer, what the facts are, the nature and purpose of the System observed are ENTAILED.

As a constructivist, this is an important concept to grasp. If there are two observers and each is constructing the “system”, they each will come up with their own “systems” and varying POSIWIDs. Our first step in Systems Thinking then is to understand how the other participants view the “system” as, their assigned purposes, and how they see the POSIWIDs as. Even if they assign a purpose for the “system”, the outcome that they perceive may not match what they expect. I have come to take away some important points from our discussion so far:

  1. There are always multiple participants in the social realm. It is very important to understand what the “system” means for each stakeholder. This includes the parts, the whole, the assigned purposes and the POSIWIDs. There is no POSIWID(s) without an observer.
  2. It is important to understand that there is always a gap between what we believe the purpose(s) of a “system” should be, and what it actually is doing. It is tempting to assign an objective reality to the “IT” here. We should resist this temptation and understand that the “IT” or the “system” is an “as-if” model or abstraction that we employ to make sense.
  3. To carry on from the previous point, in order to understand the gap, we need good comparators in place to allow us to measure what the gap between the expected and actual is. POSIWIDs are entirely dependent upon the variety of the observer to distinguish what is happening. A good example to point this out further will be to take the cliché fictional example of Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade. Holmes, the master observer, is able to distinguish much more attributes than Inspector Lestrade, which would correlate to more POSIWIDs.
  4. On a similar note, what we perceive as the “system” is doing could be faulty. This means that we need an ongoing error correction step to improve our ability to manage the “system”. We need to interact with the “system” as much as possible, and also welcome input from other participants and their perspectives. We cannot manage a “system” unless we are a part of the “system”. We should embrace and own our epistemic humility.
  5. The POSIWID(s) should be reinterpreted as often as possible, with input from others. They help us understand the dynamics of the various parts and how they interact with each other.
  6. We should focus on only a few POSIWIDs at a time. Since we lack the variety to manage all the external variety thrown at us, we should attenuate and filter out the unwanted POSIWIDs.
  7. We cannot predict what the POSIWID(s) will be beforehand. Due to complexity of connections between the parts, and the nonlinear relations between them, POSIWIDs are more likely to be unpredictable. This is another reason we should resist the temptation to treat “systems” as objective realities in the world.

One of the main struggles I had when I started my journey into constructivism is how we can manage a “system” if it is entirely “subjective”? I have put the term subjective in quotes because there is no subject/object distinction in constructivism. I will write more on this later. For the moment, I will carry on with the use of the term “subjective”. Beer explained this well:

‘How is it that systems are subjective, while some of them can be singled out and declared to be viable?’

‘Once you have defined them, you can tell whether they are viable or not.’

‘And those criteria are suddenly supposed to be objective?’

‘Well, it’s all about necessity and sufficiency within a stated frame of reference.’

if systems are subjective phenomena, then we are going to have trouble in determining a measure. The whole idea of measures is to be objective… Yet the problem we face is not unique. In fact, the measures that we are accustomed to call objective work only because we accept a set of conventions about how they are to be employed. For example, if we quote the height of Mount Everest, we do not mean that this is the distance you would travel from the base camp to climb it; nor do we mean that if we look at Mount Everest while holding a ruler at arm’s length, we can read off its height. We might have agreed on either of these conventions: they would both work, given certain other stateable conditions. It seems that objective measures, like objective systems, exist only as conventional crystallizations of one out of a virtually infinite number of subjective possibilities.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Systems in Quotes vs. Systems Without Quotes:

Source: The Heart of Enterprise (Stafford Beer, 1979)

Hegel, Dialectics and POSIWID:

In today’s post, I am looking at Hegel’s dialectical approach and using it to gain a better understanding of the purpose of an organization. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) was a German philosopher who furthered the ideas of German Idealism in Philosophy after Immanuel Kant. Hegel’s writing is quite dense and he is often considered to be one of the hardest philosophers to understand. With this introduction, I should note here that my post is “inspired” by his dialectical approach.

When we look at a phenomenon say “A”, we are speaking about our understanding of “A”. This understanding automatically brings in the opposite or “notA” to the realm of the understanding. We can denote “notA” as “!A”. Our understanding of “A” lies somewhere between “A” and “!A”. To improve our understanding of “A”, we should also look at “!A”. This is a very simple view of Hegel’s dialectic. The idea of dialectics implies that all abstract concepts are partial and contain innate contradictions. As we further our understanding of the concept, we go through a dialectic process by looking at the innate contradiction (A and !A). The new understanding can be notated as A’, which again is partial and sets off another dialectical process. Hegel’s idea of dialectical process is a holistic approach. Generally, when we speak about contradictions, we either view it as an absurdity that negates any further thought or as a pro-con discussion which leads to choosing one over the other.

Hegel’s view of dialectics has a background based in history. Hegel’s view is that the world is in a movement from one phase to the next. It goes through transformation continuously. Hegel uses this idea of movement from one end to the other for reasoning. This maybe made easier to understand by using the example of a flower bud. Hegel wrote:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. The ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes these stages moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and constitutes thereby the life of the whole.

 We can look at this example with the starting point of the seed. The seed grows into a plant. The plant produces the bud, and the bud blooms into a flower, which produces the seed. Each stage brings the past stages with it. To have a good understanding we should also look at the previous stages. Any one stage cannot be viewed in isolation. Any previous stages we bring forth for our understanding is not cancelled, but kept for improving our understanding. The meaning is holistic. Hegel would state that only the truth is whole.

“The truth is the whole. The whole, however, is merely the essential nature reaching its completeness through the process of its own development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is it what it is in very truth; and just in that consists its nature, which is to be actual, subject, or self-becoming, self-development.”

As Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze write:

For Hegel, only the whole is true. Every stage or phase or moment is partial, and therefore partially untrue. Hegel’s grand idea is ‘Totality’ – which preserves within it each of the ideas or stages it has overcome or subsumed. Overcoming or subsuming is a developmental process made up of ‘moments’. The Totality is the product of that process which preserves all of its ‘moments’ as elements in a structure, rather than as stages or phases.

The absolute state is where the dialectic movement goes towards. The absolute state has essences of all the past moments we considered. Hegel would call this as “Aufheben.” Aufheben, itself, requires a dialectical approach to understand its meaning since it contains contradictory reflections. The term is translated to English as “sublation”, and it means “to lift up” and also “to cancel”. Hegel is indicating that as we make a dialectical movement, we are preserving some aspects of the moments we are considering while at the same times negating some aspects of the moments. The dialectical movement is generally viewed to be consisting of three moments (as Julie Maybee notes):

  1. The first moment—the moment of the understanding—is the moment of fixity, in which concepts or forms have a seemingly stable definition or determination.
  2. The second moment—the “dialectical” or “negatively rational” moment—is the moment of instability.
  3. The third moment—the “speculative” or “positively rational” moment—grasps the unity of the opposition between the first two determinations, or is the positive result of the dissolution or transition of those determinations.

The common example used to explain this is that of “being <-> not-being <-> becoming”. When we think of “being” we are thinking of a total presence of a being. But to understand this idea, we should also consider the absence of that being or “not-being” or “nothingness”. A being becomes nothing at the end. Or a being comes into existence from “not-being”. This is the act of “becoming”. The idea of “becoming” has the ideas of “being” and “not-being”. As noted earlier, to better understand “A”, we also need to understand “!A”. The higher understanding seems to be an emergent property. The better understanding of “A” lies between “A” and “!A” and requires the movement from “A” to “!A” to get to the higher understanding of “A”.

Another example we can use is that of “beauty”. As Maybee notes:

The highest definition of the concept of beauty, for instance, would not take beauty to be fixed and static, but would include within it the dialectical nature or finiteness of beauty, the idea that beauty becomes, on its own account, not-beauty. This dialectical understanding of the concept of beauty can then overgrasp the dialectical and finite nature of beauty in the world, and hence the truth that, in the world, beautiful things themselves become not-beautiful, or might be beautiful in one respect and not another.

The Purpose of an Organization:

We are taught that organizations have a designed purpose, and we are taught about the constancy of purpose to be a successful organization. Let’s use the idea of a dialectical approach to look at purpose of a system. Our first moment is that Organizations have a purpose and that it is dictated by the “designer” of the Organization. The second moment comes when we realize that the organization is not a single entity but a collective. Organizations are made of humans who themselves are purposeful. The top down designed purpose may not have a meaning as it flows down the organizational chain. Thus, we come to realize that organizations do not have a purpose. Then we come to the third moment with the idea of POSIWID – the purpose of a system is what it does. As the great management cybernetician, Stafford Beer said:

A good observer will impute the purpose of a system from its actions… There is, after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it consistently fails to do.

From the third moment, we realize that purpose is emergent and is always dynamic. Most importantly, depending upon who is the observer, the purpose will change. Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model is an excellent framework to look at this further. Beer’s model is recursive with viable systems within viable systems. The purpose is different depending upon the level of recursion and depending upon who is observing, and also when the observation is done. The schematic below was Beer’s vision of recursions from the Project Cybersyn in Chile.

An interesting example to further this understanding is the notion that the purpose is always determined by the user. The purpose is the need of the user that needs to be met at any given time. For example, the user may have multiple purposes for a screwdriver depending on the need – as a hammer, as a can opener, as a tool for tightening screws etc. The purpose is dynamic for sure. The environment always has more variety than the organization’s management. I highly encourage the readers to check out Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model.

Final Words:

Every idea is in the process of transformation, and carries with it traces of the ideas they were built on. The same can be said about us humans, individually and collectively. Hegel seems to suggest that all ideas progress towards “Geist” or “Spirit” (the Absolute Knowledge), a state of total and truthful knowledge. No further knowledge is useful or possible. This sounds like a state of maximum entropy. One could view this as – everything is in a progression towards a state of maximum Entropy similar to the ultimate universal heat death!

We need to be open and rational to pursue better understanding. The dialectic movement is possible only when we consider innate contradictions. We can also choose not to pursue the dialectic movement and assume that our current position is stable by ignoring the innate contradictions. Full or Absolute understanding is not possible since we think in abstractions, and all abstractions are partial by definition. We fail to improve our understanding when we assume that we have the “whole” knowledge.

As a note, I should state that I purposefully chose note to use the formulaic thesis-antithesis-synthesis idea since Hegel never used that to explain his ideas.

Hegel reportedly admitted to the difficulty of his ideas. He is sometimes attributed to have said, “When I Wrote It, Only God and I Knew the Meaning; Now God Alone Knows.”

On his deathbed he noted, “There was only one man who ever understood me, and even he didn’t understand me.”

To keep up with the theme, I can also offer the great British philosopher Bertrand Russel’s criticism of Hegel as the second moment:

Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get some men to accept it, but he did. He set out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Shingo’s Whys: