After you complete the lesson, you should be able to

  • Identify systems and their elements and exemplify them
  • Identify interconnected systems
  • Consider instructional design process from the perspective of systems thinking


Lesson 2 involves systems and systems thinking. You may be asking yourself "why on earth do I need to know systems and systems thinking? I'm not an engineer and have never thought of being one!"

Systems are everywhere. We live in systems, influence, and are influenced by a variety of systems, from the natural environment to family, work, education, health care, etc. If we have a good understanding of systems, we can optimize our behavior and achieve our desired outcomes more effectively and proactively.

Consider this scenario: Let's say that you have a small business. The business is comprised of you and three or four employees. Your desired goal is to provide good service to the community and to sustain a positive environment for yourself and your employees. Each member of the business is important to the business as a whole and contributes to the positive environment of the business through their job responsibilities. In this business, all of the members depend on each other in order to work happily together toward their common goal.

One day two employees get into a small argument. It negatively affects their communication with each other. The lack of communication affects their respective jobs and performance. Their inability to perform effectively affects the other employees and the owner. This affects the performance of the business, ultimately causing problems to the desired goal of the whole business. In addition, this problem affects the interactions this business has with others in the community.

In looking at this scenario, we see that this small business is a whole entity. The employees are one part of the whole. The products the business takes in, the operations it performs, and the products it sells are other parts of the whole. The small business is also a system and the employees and processes are subsystems.

At the same time, this small business is a part of a larger whole – it is part of the larger business community. In this context, the small business is a subsystem within the system of the large business community. As the small business purchases resources and sells its output, it is interacting with other businesses. The other businesses are subsystems within the larger system – the business community.

Now you have a brief picture of systems and subsystems. Let's examine it in greater detail.


Here are a few definitions of a system:

  • A system is a group of interacting/interrelated/interconnected/interdependent elements (subsystems) that constitute a complex and integrated whole (Anderson & Johnson, 1997).
  • A system is an "interconnected" group of elements (subsystems) "coherently organized" for a goal (Meadows, 2008).
  • A system is a group of essential parts or subsystems, that can "affect the behavior and properties of the whole system and none of which has an independent effect on it" (Ackoff, 1999).
How would you define it?

Characteristics of Systems

In comparing the definitions provided, you should have noticed that there are aspects or characteristics of systems that are common across the definitions. All systems have a common set of characteristics. Here are the key characteristics:

1. A system's elements are not a collection of elements, but are interconnected to and affect each other.

Example: Your nutritionist tells you to eat a bowl of cereal with 20 grams of almond and 30 grams of walnut in it. The combination of the two nuts in the cereal will make your face glow.

Non-example: You decide to omit the almonds because you have none at home. The way in which the almonds and walnuts affect each other to produce the output (a glowing face) will be impacted and not produce the desired effect.

2. All the elements in a system are organized in a specific manner to achieve the system's goal.

Example: You are asked to design a desk lamp and work through each step of the design process. The output is a lamp that (a) meets the users' needs, (b) addresses that problems that were defined, (c) was one of several ideas, and (d) was tested to determine how well it addressed the problems the user identified. The user is happy.

Non-example: You have been asked to design a desk lamp and jump into prototyping the product before understanding the needs of the user, defining the problem, and coming up with some possible solutions. The user is not happy.

3. A system will have a specific function in a larger system.

Example: The small business we discussed earlier is the only provider of office supplies to the other companies and factories in the larger business community.

Non-example: The owner of the small business decided to relocate the business to another community because it is closer to his home. However, in this new business community he finds there are no companies that need his products. (No, he does not sell his products online…yet.)

4. Systems have feedback.

Example: Your team has been asked to design language-learning software. After determining the needs of the user and defining the problem, you and your team come up with several solutions as to how the software could function. A few team members are asked to review the potential solutions to determine whether and how well each solution addresses the problems that have been identified. They record their comments and provide feedback to the team. This feedback becomes a new input into the ideate stage of the process.

Non-example: You and your team are asked to design language-learning software, but it is put on the market before a prototype is developed and tested. No feedback from potential users returns to the design process.

Assignment 2.1


Based on your understanding of the definitions of a system presented at the beginning of this section, what did you find in common? Write what you see in common across the three definitions and based on that write your definition of a system. Then with the help of characteristics of systems, identify two systems. Explain your system's goals, its subsystems, and larger system(s) of which your system is a part. In describing the subsystems, be sure to discuss how they interact (characteristic #1), why they are organized as they are (characteristic #2), and the feedback each subsystem provided to another (characteristic #4). In describing the larger system, explain the function your system plays within the larger system (characteristic #3) and any feedback that occurs between your system and the larger system (characteristic #4).

You may find the following table helpful to complete this assignment. Submit this assignment together with assignment 2.2 and 2.3 at the end of this lesson. Prepare all assignments for this lesson (2.1, 2.2, and 2.3) into a single Word file. On the first page, you should have the lesson name, and underneath that should be your name, email address, and the date. Below, write "Assignment 2.1" and type your responses to assignment 2.1. Do not submit this assignment until you have also completed assignment 2.2 and 2.3.

Grading Criteria

Your definition (2 points):

The name of the first system (tangible) (1 point):

The name of the second system (intangible) (1 point):

Goal (1 point) :

Goal (1 point):

Subsystems (tangible) (2 points) :

Subsystems (Intangible) (2 points):

Larger system(s) (1 point):

Larger system(s) (1 point):

Total Points: 12

Systems thinking — What is it?

Peter Senge (2006), in his book "The Fifth Discipline", says,

"systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static 'snapshots'. It is a set of general principles - distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management. During the last thirty years, these tools have been applied to understand a wide range of corporate, urban, regional, economic, political, ecological, and even psychological systems. And systems thinking is a sensibility - for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character."

Russ Ackoff tells us that systems thinking can be used to analyze what is not working. He states that systems thinking is:

"an upside-down way of thinking and it (systems thinking) starts with the whole and works back down to the broken part, so you know WHY the part is broken, not just the fact THAT the part is broken."

Manning (1967, as cited in Bertalanffy, 1969, p.4) applies systems thinking to contemporary society. He tells us that:

"An interrelationship exists between all elements and constituents of society. The essential factors in public problems, issues, policies, and programs must always be considered and evaluated as interdependent components of a total system."

Anderson and Johnson (1997, p.18) identified principles of systems thinking. They are:

  • Consider the big picture
  • Balance short-term and long-term perspectives
  • Recognize the dynamic, complex, and interdependent nature of systems
  • Consider both measurable and nonmeasurable nature of systems, and
  • Keep in mind we are all part of the systems in which we function, and that we each influence those systems even as we are being influenced by them

Why is systems thinking important?

Stephen Haines (1945-2012), an American organizational theorist and globally recognized leader in strategic planning admitted that systems thinking has been his orientation to life and work. It helped him become more successful in his professional career first as a corporate executive and then a CEO and consultant to CEOs. When providing to advice to corporate leader, he applies systems thinking to strategic planning, and, as a result, contributes to their corporate success. Haines' success from using systems thinking tells us the more we know our systems and subsystems, the more we can anticipate the performance thus increase the possibility to achieve our desired outcome.

The design process discussed in Lesson 1 is not only systematic and iterative, the design process is also systemic. When you conduct each step of the process, you need to consider all of the possible influences from the environment that could affect the decisions made at that stage of the process. In the end, a holistic approach provides a better understanding of the system where our output will be used and ensures that our final output will be closer to meeting the needs of the users and achieving the final goal.

It is the same situation when you design for learning, as you will see in the instructional design models in the next lesson. For example, in the Dick, Carey and Carey Model, you will analyze the context or environment where the learners will use the skill learned from your instruction. Completing this analysis as part of the process ensures that the instruction will be as effective and efficient as possible for the learning context and that the students will be able to use what they learn in the performance context.

Seeing the systems

Systems thinking sees dynamic relationships among the parts. The change of one part can cause the change in other parts; a change in one subsystem can cause a change in other subsystems, the system, and the larger system. Using the chicken as an example, if the internal system of the chicken is damaged by viral infection and the farmer does not know about it, the virus could affect the absorption of nutrients from food, causing the bird to die. But before the bird dies, he could cause the virus to be shared with the other chickens in the community causing multiple deaths. The virus could also be spread to other farms that raise chickens, increasing the number of deaths. A significantly high number of deaths would lead to increased prices for chicken at the grocery store.

For a system to continue to operate and produce, the interrelationships and interdependencies must be dynamic. That is, they must be able to change when the need arises. Dynamic relationships are like links in a chain, where an adverse condition in one link impacts the next, and so on to the end or final output. Let's return to our small business. In order for this business (a system) to be able to address the needs of the community for office products, it is dependent on factories that make the pens, paper, and ink as well as the transportation each one uses. One of these factories undergoes a change in management that impacts the products it can supply to the small business. Because the small business is dependent on these deliveries, their change may cause the small business owner to reconsider its relationship with the current vendor and find another.

The small business is also dependent on its ability to sell its product. As we saw earlier, its relocation to a new business community limited the number of customers available to purchase its products. In order to stay in business, it needs to expand relationships with other customers and may turn to the Internet to reach more customers.

I have a real-life story that explains how interrelationships play into each other. The video explains how a treatment for malaria solved the problem but caused a series of unexpected problems.

From the perspective of systems thinking, this video warns us that if you do not understand the interrelationships of the parts of a whole system, then the solutions can cause more problems than you expected.

Input, Output, Feedback

The previous section hinted at other parts or elements of a system - input, output and feedback. To put it simply, various inputs interact within the system and are transformed into outputs in the system's operations. Feedback is collected concerning the outputs, and then becomes information which is input back into the operation. Inputs and outputs are dynamic, changing as needed based on feedback, and helping to produce more effective outputs.

Figure: The relationships among input, output, transformation (aka processes or operations), and feedback.
Adapted from Analytic Services Inc. (2008).

When we manage a system, we usually regulate the inputs and processes to produce our desired output. Here are two examples in one system: The family can be considered a whole as well as a system. One key input into this system is the salary earned by the parents. The family transforms (or processes) the money when it pays the electric bill. Paying the electric bill produces the output of having electricity for the home. Having electricity is the feedback that reminds the parents to pay the electric bill. The family also transforms money into food by buying supplies at the grocery store. The food that was purchased becomes input into the family's nutritional meals which are designed to address specific nutritional needs. The food is cooked (processed) and the output is eaten. The result is that the family is nourished. However, the family does its grocery shopping and finds that a particular item is not available. Not finding this particular item is feedback from the shopping trip and input into the weekly meals causing the meals to be adjusted to what was available at the store or omitted if no acceptable substitute was found. As a result, the family's nourishment could be is impacted.

The instructional design process is also system that must be managed. You collect your inputs, such as information about the learner, contexts, goals, and topic-based content, transform this information in the design process, and produce the desired output. But, that is not the end of the story. Feedback you receive from stakeholders, content providers, and even potential learners during the testing phase will need to be used as input into other phases of the process, resulting in revisions to your original design. The result is that the instruction you ultimately design is more effective in meeting the needs of the stakeholders and the learners and achieves the desired goal.

Assignment 2.2


So far, you have been exposed to systems and systems thinking. Now you are going to use your up-to-date knowledge to discuss your understanding of two quotes from Russ Akoff (listed below). For each quote, (a) discuss your interpretation of the quote, and (b) discuss how the quote applies to a situation in your professional environment. Be sure to use the information about systems thinking we reviewed up to this point in the lesson, including characteristics of a system as well as dynamic relationships and dependencies.

Akoff tells us that:
  • "Each part of the system can affect the behavior of the whole, but no part has an independent effect on the whole".
  • "The performance of the whole is never the sum of the performance of the parts taken separately, but it's the product of their interactions".

Submitting your Assignment:

You will submit this assignment together with assignment 2.1 and 2.3 at the end of this lesson. Prepare all assignments for this lesson (2.1, 2.2, and 2.3) into a single Word file. Under assignment 2.1 in your Word file, type "Assignment 2.2", and write down your responses to assignment 2.2. Do not submit this assignment until you have also completed assignment 2.1 and 2.3

Grading Criteria

  1. Explain the meaning of the two quotes. (2 points)
  2. Demonstrate at least one example for each quote. (2 points)
  3. Applies systems and systems thinking to the discussion of the examples. (4 points)

Total Points: 8

Assignment 2.3


Use your knowledge of systems and systems thinking to analyze the design process presented in the previous lesson. In your response, (a) explain the whole and the parts as well as the system and its subsystems, (b) discuss the inputs, outputs, and feedback that would occur in the process, and (c) explain the relationships and dependencies among the subsystems and determine which, if any, are dynamic.

Submitting your Assignment:

At the end of this lesson you will submit Assignment 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 together. To recap, these assignments should be prepared in a single Microsoft Word file. At the top of your document you should have the lesson name, and underneath that should be your name, email address, and the date.

Under your last assignment (2.2) in your Word file, write "Assignment 2.3" and add your responses to this assignment. When you have completed all assignments of this lesson, save the document as a file on your computer and make sure the file is named "systems". After you have saved your file, go to the student interface and submit your assignment for grading. Click here if you need additional information regarding submission of your assignment.

Grading Criteria

  1. Identify the whole, the parts, the systems, and subsystems in the design process. (3 points)
  2. Identify inputs, outputs, and feedback in the design process. (3 points)
  3. Explain how each part of the design system plays into each. (4 points)

Total Points: 10