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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)