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C. West Churchman, The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations.

C. WEST CHURCHMAN, The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1971, ISBN: 0465016081, 288 pages, $19.95).

--, The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1979, ISBN: 0465083420, 221 pages, $15.95).

Selecting a book that has greatly influenced me is difficult. There are many fine candidates. In the end, I chose two books by the same author, C. West Churchman. Why these books? Because they address the fundamental nature of the issues that have stimulated and challenged me throughout my career: the art of system design and the quest for "truth" as reflected in the scholarly efforts of an organization scientist. Why two books? Because the second book essentially completes the themes raised (but not resolved) in the second part of the first book.

The Design of Inquiring Systems is a wonderful book that I keep rereading--not necessarily for enjoyment, which does in fact arise, but for the new insights invariably gained. The book operates, rather seamlessly, at many levels. Churchman examines the act of applied systems analysis (i.e., the analysis of organizational systems and the design of artifactual solutions targeted at improving these systems) while exploring the efforts scientists take in understanding and explaining reality through conceptualization and empirical study, and additionally providing a concise but rich journey through the philosophy of science. Most important, the book remains as fresh today as when I first read it, almost 30 years ago.

The topics in the book's first section, "A Classification of Systems," are varied and fascinating. How do we (systems designers, researchers, or any inquirer into reality) learn about the "systems of behavior" for which we aspire to provide solutions? How should we think about such systems? How do we construct mental models of these systems? How do these models evolve? How do we "guarantee" the validity of our solutions? While Churchman provides no definitive answers to these weighty questions, his interpretations of philosophers as well his own views and insights help the reader to reframe and invigorate his/her own thoughts and actions.

Part II of the book, "Speculations on System Design," is far less satisfying. But, the ideas raised in Part II reach fruition in The Systems Approach and Its Enemies. The Systems Approach and Its Enemies examines via critical thinking the primary challenges faced in practice by systems thinkers as they attempt to understand, model, and implement changes within organizational systems: politics, morality, religion, and aesthetics. The value of the perspectives offered by Churchman is that his real experiences--as a rational planner who has lived deeply in rationality, in modeling, in conceptualization and in trying to measure aspects of reality--are finely integrated with the abstract concepts being tackled. This is perhaps best seen in the book's concluding chapter. Churchman emphasizes the importance of surfacing paradoxes in carrying out systems analyses, offering the view that it is only by surfacing and articulating the paradoxes involved in an organizational system (in Churchman's terms, "being our own worst enemy") that the systems analyst can begin to understand its nature.

Please read (or reread) these books. The ideas expressed are complex and rich; these are not easy reads. However, each will influence your thoughts and behaviors as an information systems educator, as a systems designer, and as an organizational scientist.


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Author:Zmud, Robert
Publication:Journal of Information Systems
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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