Chapter Two

The Power of Systems to Boost Success

Key Understanding: Systems create vastly more power than a collection of parts acting separately. This understanding has generated the fantastic progress we have seen in almost all industries in modern times.

The tremendous power of systems to boost success is evident everywhere in nature. This is contrasted with the profound limitations of  unconnected units acting on their own. Your body is a good example of an elegant and wonderful system composed of essential, supportive subsystems that together make up the whole. Your nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, muscular, sensing and control systems all work together for the optimum functioning of your body as a whole. Each subsystem specializes in particular functions and synergistically interacts with all the other subsystems to work together as a great organismic whole or macro-system. Your hand as part of your body is one of the marvels of nature, but disconnected from the rest of your body would be quite useless. All subsystems have the need for all the other subsystems.

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?  (I Corinthians 12: 14-17)

Consider a baseball player ready to catch a ground ball. Notice all of the subsystems that have to work together if he or she is to be successful.  It will take a keen eye, balance, agility, power, speed, and spit-second decisions. All of this needs to be supported by many complimentary systems directed by the playerís central intelligence (brain and nervous system). Visual, auditory, skeletal, muscular, circulatory, respiratory, Ö each and every one plays an  important role. If even one of those subsystems is deficient, then the playerís ability to perform his or her mission is severely impaired. 


Nature Shows the Way to Success

Marvel the beauty of a tree as a whole operation and note the subsystems interacting for the good of the whole.  Roots anchor the tree in the ground so it wonít fall when winds blow, and absorb and send water and nutrients to the rest of the tree. Leaves through the miracle of photosynthesis capture and use energy from the sun changing carbon dioxide and water into sugar, a treeís basic food. The leaves also send out a fine, but steady, spray of water into the air.  Surprisingly, one middle-sized oak tree can give off as much as 150 gallons of water on a warm, summer day.  This vapor rises and forms clouds, and water returns to the earth as rain.  And that is only a fraction of what is going on.  The tree is a subsystem within a larger ecosystem in which plants and animals interact synergistically. Animals cannot live without oxygen;  plants require carbon dioxide. Each expels what the other needs. Trees draw upon the carbon dioxide exhaled by animals and release the oxygen that animals must have to live. In a symbiotic relation insects pollinate trees and flowers as they gather pollen for their own nourishment.


Power is Multiplied by Interactions Within Systems

The tremendous power of systems can only be understood by looking at the whole and the dynamic interactions among its components. You cannot understand how a system generates its  power if you look only at its separate parts or components. Understanding comes from looking at the relationships among the components that put into effect powerful principles that then generate the systemís quantum leap in power. This results in the major identifying characteristic of a system, that the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.  A sum is the result of simple addition as with 8+7+5=20.  One item doesnít interact with or add to the value of any other item.  But if the whole is to be greater than the sum of its parts, a different mathematical formula must be used to describe what happens. The impact of components interacting for the good of the whole within a system is better described as a product, such as 8x7x5=280. This is over 20 times the power that would result from separate items being added instead of components multiplied.

Now, imagine putting one more factor of 10  into the equation. The ten multiplied by 280 empowers  the whole to take another tremendous leap to 2,800There is theoretically no limit or ceiling on what is possible for systems to achieve or become given that they are able to apply the power of natural principles and laws and put them interactively into effect. No wonder, then, that in recent times as we have begun to understand more fully the power of natural principles and systems every area of productivity to which such knowledge has been applied whether in agriculture, transportation, business, industry, telecommunications, or medicine has skyrocketed above anything we could have previously imagined. The sad truth is that the power of systems has never been comprehensively and seriously applied to education. There are, however,  some indications in the educational community that this is about to change.

How Systems Work

In an empowering system, each component or subsystem receives what it needs and in turn contributes what other subsystems need for the benefit of the whole.  This means establishing a coordinated division of labor or function for the good of the whole in which each subsystem specializes in what it is organized to do best and depends on other subsystems to receive what it needs to best make that contribution. Without this specialization and division of labor, each subsystem would have to do everything itself and instead of a multiplication effect, we would be left with simple addition.  More advanced systems usually involve a greater number of specialized subsystems that together have greater capacity to apply the power of principles and laws for the good of the whole.   

Working synergistically together:


But, as separate items:


And if even one sub-system is left out or becomes dysfunctional:


This has major implications for education!

Systems are Powered by Principles and Laws

We are fortunate indeed to live in a world where we benefit from the operations of natural systems. Consider, for example, how our harbors are cleaned. The interaction of the earth and the moon provides a remarkably effective system to clean our harbors. Because of the tides, contaminated water is made to run down hill out of the harbors into the open sea. It is then twice a day replaced by cleaner water again running downhill back into the same harbors. Imagine our plight if this natural system did not exist. The cleansing action of the tides is millions of times more effective than it would be to try to do the same job with a fleet of tankers or with the most powerful water pumps. We certainly couldnít do it by having volunteers working individually with his or her own bucket.

It is important to understand that it is the interaction among components that puts into effect principles and laws that in turn  generates the often magnificent power of a system. We would not be able to understand the tremendous capability by which our harbors are cleaned by looking at the moon or the earth in isolation.  What is needed is to look at the principles or laws that come into operation, such as gravity, as the moon and earth interact. The phenomena of tides was well known and used even in ancient times, but it took Sir Isaac Newton who published his law of gravitation in 1687 A.D. for us to understand the principles of why tides occurred.

The more we learn about natural laws and principles and how they are or can be put into effect within systems, the more we are able to use that knowledge for our benefit. We have relatively recently become aware of our need to protect the natural systems that already exist in our environment, such as our coastlines,  the systems that purify the air we breathe, the ozone layer that can effect our weather, and on and on. We have also become more and more able to create ever more powerful manmade systems by discovering and using natural principles to improve our food production, transportation, health and medicine, and many other areas important to our well-being. 

It is certainly time that education be added to that list.  It is not that research on how people learn has not been done and very powerful learning and development principles identified.  It is simply that most of what we know is not currently being applied because we lack the necessary management and empowering systems to put them into effect. Charles D. Spielberger, past president of the American Psychological Association, claims:

The last 20 years have witnessed tremendous advances in theory and research in developmental and cognitive psychology, and on the emotional, motivational, personality, and social processes of individual learners that contribute to the dynamics of the learning process. Such findings obviously have considerable significance for education, but transfer of the accumulated psychological knowledge to education has been limited at best, especially in terms of applications in classroom and school settings. (Foreward to How Students Learn edited by Lambert, Nadine M. & McCombs, Barbara L Washington, D.C.:American Psychological Association, 1998.

We learn the following from the study of natural and man-made systems:

1.        The power of systems lies in the interactions and relationships of its components or subsystems.

2.         The power of interactions is based on the application or use of natural principles and laws.

3.          Systems in nature continue because they have reached a balance or equilibrium based on natural principles and laws.

4.         If this balance or equilibrium is disrupted, major changes in results occur which could effect our life on earth. This is why we have become so concerned with ecology and how our actions (like cutting down the rain forests in Brazil) could result in severe problems for all of us.

5.          Living subsystems have organismic capacity to adapt to new challenges and conditions by reorganizing in ways that result in higher and higher levels of complexity and power.  (Evolution)

6.          The more we discover and apply natural principles and laws and the empowering systems that can put them into effect, the greater is our capacity to achieve whatever goals, and solve whatever problems, to which we decide to direct our resources.

7.       The purposeful development of man-made systems to achieve important goals by discovering and applying principles requires some type of central intelligence and comprehensive management capability to coordinate actions, responses, and resources.  A systemís power and ability to reach goals can be exponentially increased if each of itís subsystems also has its own central intelligence and management capability.

8.         In nature there are no principle violations. What happens is always the result of the interplay among the principles and laws that are put into effect by interactions within the system or with other systems. But in man-made systems we can get unwanted or unexpected results if we organize around what we perceive as true principles, but are in fact false (principle violations).

9.         We can also get unwanted or unexpected results if we fail to take into account the interplay among principles and laws that are put into effect in our system whether intended or not. For example, we would expect milk in a pail to pour onto the ground if the pail is turned upside down because of the principle of gravity. But if we swing the pail in a fast vertical circle, then the milk stays in the pail because of  the counter-acting principle of centrifugal force.

  Unexpected or unwanted results can also occur when  principles we have not identified or accounted for are generated by the interactions between our planned system and other systems that are interacting with it.  


Man-made Systems have Resulted in Tremendous Leaps in Productivity

In the last 120+ years, the concept of systems has become increasingly important in management science and has led the way in revealing how we could best put our resources to work for our greatest benefit.  It started with an American, Fredrick Taylor, who in 1881 first applied a somewhat primitive use of systems thinking and knowledge of principles to increase worker productivity.  Although the Industrial Revolution and the use of power machinery had already increased overall productivity somewhat by harnessing the power of steam, it still lagged far behind its potential. Unskilled workers made little contributions except to keep machines running. On the other hand, skilled workers, or craftsmen, working in individual shops, were sworn to secrecy about how their work was done and could only learn their craft through apprenticeships in strictly controlled guilds and unions.  One generation after another applied their crafts pretty much without change or significant increases in productivity. Taylor broke with tradition and studied the purpose of the tasks workers were engaged in and systematically designed ways the work could be more efficiently organized and accomplished. Simple and logical as it sounds now, it was earthshaking then, and Taylor was loudly criticized and condemned for tampering with traditional ways of doing things. But the factories and steel mills that used his methods leaped ahead in productivity. Competition and free enterprise took it from there.

It is more than just a coincidence that Henry Fordís leap forward in automobile production came shortly after Frederick Taylorís contributions.  In the early 1900ís when Ford designed his revolutionary and innovative system of the assembly line to increase worker productivity in the making of cars and thus make them affordable to the average American, he made another primitive, but dramatic move to a systems approach. Ford opened the way to a higher standard of living for millions in America. As other industries adopted these more powerful methods the average productivity and income of workers quadrupled from 1900 to 1920. But even greater advances were yet to come. Since that time, nearly a hundred years of change and development associated with a technological and information  revolution have changed modern management and productivity almost beyond recognition.

A National Example: The Mission to Reach the Moon

The Moon Mission during the 1960ís gives an excellent model of the emerging systems approach. It was a task outside the regular work of either government or industry. It required an extensive and unique combination of scientific knowledge and expertise. It by necessity broke new ground; no one had been there before. Many significant technological innovations came as a result of extensive organized research. Following President Kennedy's call to place a man on the moon within the decade, it became a strong national commitment and purpose. The knowledge, technology, research, and the management expertise essential to these projects all became coordinated elements of purposeful design. To put a man on the moon required a compelling vision, a strong national commitment to invest the needed resources, a systems approach, and a comprehensive management capability to successfully make it a reality. It required new levels of knowledge in science, technology, and systems with a central management component (central intelligence) capable of directing resources and translating the vision into action. This central management entity drew upon its own members, but also extended itself by creating  specialized ad hoc teams and brain trusts.

Both government and modern corporations have taken a great interest in the systems approach. The pentagon, space administration and most major corporations today use the systems approach. It has increased the proficiency of planning defense and space operations. Our accomplishments in a wide variety of fields are almost daily news. The understanding of systems has empowered many corporations to cope with the fast growing commercial competition in the world.

Following the advent of man's first step on the moon it became common to say, If we can put a man on the moon, we should be able achieve almost anything. And during the years since then, we have had tremendous advances in almost all areas of human endeavor and production. The one exception is education. The mission of reforming education is at least as complicated as going to the moon and is certainly as important. We should expect such work to require a a similar national commitment, gathering of resources, systems analysis and design,  and effective management no less dramatic and comprehensive than were those to accomplish the moon mission itself.

The lack of a systems approach and comprehensive management capability is the primary reason for education's poor performance. We cannot expect 21st century results using 19th century methods.  Fads wonít do it. Piecemeal efforts wonít do it. More money, greater pressure, and harder work won't do it. If we are to empower teachers and students so that all can reach their full potential, then we must design systems in which that can take place.

A systems approach is characterized by its wholeness. It is not effectively served by simple additions or uncoordinated, fragmented improvements put here or there in atomistic, disconnected ways. Each process needs to be developed as a subsystem within a more comprehensive whole. Each subsystem becomes powerful because of its contribution and synergistic relationship to a more comprehensive system. Piecemeal changes and reforms have little power to achieve what we now know that education is potentially capable of achieving. What is worse, piecemeal changes and reforms can even hinder or delay true improvements.

 ďAnd one thing characterizes all genuine systems, whether they be mechanical like the control of a missile, biological like a tree, or social like a business enterprise; its interdependence, the whole of a system is not necessarily improved if one particular function or part is improved or made more efficient. In fact, the system may well be damaged thereby, or even destroyed. In some cases the best way to strengthen a system may be to weaken a part -- to make it less precise or less efficient. For what matters in any system is the performance of the whole; this is the result of growth and dynamic balance, adjustment, and integration rather than of mere technical efficiency."  Peter Drucker.

The systems approach has been a major force in the development of the technological and information revolutions that have so greatly advanced our abilities to reach desired goals and solve important problems. It has become a critical factor to success in a world filled with competition. It offers education as an institution an effective way for it to cope with its most debilitating problem, its propensity to deal in bits and pieces. It is highly improbable that education will ever achieve substantive reform without an effective application of the systems approach.

Our National Report Card to date might be:

Education                 D-
Electronics                A
Medicine                   A
Telecommunications   A
Transportation           A

Isn't it time we do what we need to do so our National Report card might be:

Education                 A+
Electronics                A
Medicine                   A
Telecommunications   A
Transportation           A

Why a Systems Approach is Ideal for Education

q First, education deals with information and service to people. It is significant that one of the more prominent elements in the current revolution is the Information Highway. Information can now be readily digitized and transmitted by way of satellite, cable, fiber optics, radio waves, computers, cdís, dvdís, personal storage devices, etc. and accessed easily, instantly, and inexpensively through the World Wide Web. It is interesting and alarming, however, that although there are dozens of new books published each year on the business use of Knowledge Management or Intellectual Capital, there are virtually none for education.

q Second, we can use systems theory and the use of ad hoc structures and teams in much the same way as they were in the Moon Mission.  In this way, we can efficiently accomplish the planning and structuring necessary to identify the needs, goals and systems needed for us to be able to draw upon the forces of the technological revolution that could be of such service in bringing substantive reform to education. As one of our oldest institutions, education copes with a massive bureaucratic structure. Much could be done through the use of ad hoc teams functioning under the general jurisdiction of a central supportive leadership and management service component. In this way, expertise from both inside education and outside can be brought together to serve on these teams. It would not be necessary to wait for major changes in the present bureaucratic and disconnected educational structure before we begin the study and design of effective educational systems.

q Third, in a systems approach, it becomes possible for one advantage to be multiplied by another. Improvement can build on other improvements. Reform could thereby become more than a movement, it could become a new process. There is no excuse for education to retain a flat productivity curve. The problems of education may be complex and challenging, but new systems management tools and methods have been developed to cope with precisely such problems.

q Fourth, what we have learned within the last few decades about how learning takes place clearly demonstrates that many of our current methods create unnecessary obstacles to the learning success of many students and fail to take full advantage of the potential power of all students to increase their learning productivity. We need to make our schools more learner friendly.