SLA Biomedical and Life Sciences Division

Systems Thinking Perspective

”Mastery does not mean having a plan for the whole, but having an awareness of the whole.”
Peter M. Senge. The Dance of Change, 1999.

The intent of this site is to provide a collection of resources about systems thinking, with a focus on how systems thinking can benefit information professionals and help them increase leverage in their interactions with professional colleagues. Please browse the webliography to find articles, newsletters, or web sites that will give you a more complete picture of systems thinking concepts and applications.

What is systems thinking?
The heart of systems thinking is the principal of interconnectedness. Systems thinking enables individuals or an organization to study and understand interaction between individuals, departments, or business units within an organization. These elements, in turn, produce behaviors that feed back into the overall output and processes of the organization. Systems thinking expands the views of those who embrace it to take into account increasing numbers of interactions as an issue is being studied. This breakdown of parts can result in strikingly different conclusions than those generated by traditional forms of analysis, especially when what is being studied is dynamically complex or has a great deal of feedback from other sources, internal or external. Information professionals who apply systems thinking concepts in their work are sensitive to learning from their organizations and are well-positioned to directly impact organizational goals.

The intent of this section of the DBIO site is to provide a collection of resources about systems thinking, with a focus on how systems thinking can benefit information professionals and help them increase leverage in their interactions with professional colleagues. A unique assessment process is provided to help individuals explore how they can adopt the powerful behaviors that support systems thinking.

Why systems thinking?
  • It allows for an information professional's work to be effective and innovative, not isolated. System thinking facilitates a newfound awareness of the environment in which we function. This improvement will play a role in enhancing how an individual approaches both information and knowledge management initiatives.
  • Systems thinking can help situate the information professional's efforts as proactive not reactive because it orients thought and behavior to seeing the continuum of the world in which we work.
  • A systems approach can help an individual seek the root causes of persistent problems, rather than focusing on surface issues such as the fault of a colleague or staff person. Through seeing a deeper understanding of the forces at work to minimize and negate effective work, more constructive dialogues and effective solutions will result. The systems mind-set can be applied to all professionals whether they are managers or not.
  • It is an important tenet of systems thinking to continually learn from your experience: both negative and positive. For you to be aware of what the system you work in tells you every day is an asset. By knowing to watch for the feedback you get - both immediate and delayed - to programs initiated and decisions made, an awareness of the importance learning from what the system tells you is pivotal to acquiring a successful systems thinking philosophy.
How can information professionals adapt a systems thinking perspective?
  • Read The 5th Discipline (1990) and associated texts. These classic texts are definitely the place to start. The 5th Discipline touches an individual by instigating exploration of personal motivations and improvement areas. It encourages reflection. Through this introspection, the book and Senge’s message will affect personal behaviors that in turn impact professional activities. Senge’s inspirational approach is a refreshing reminder of how things should work and underscores the value of approaching working life with an emphasis on openness and learning. Once an information professional is inspired to take on systems thinking, Senge’s Fieldbook (1994) provides a variety of tools—both for personal growth and professional implementation—that can be used throughout a learner’s quest to make systems thinking an active component of their professional armamentarium. Please see the selected book list and article bibliography for citations for these and other helpful readings.
  • Talk to other systems thinkers. Brainstorm about problems and solutions from this perspective. It's also important to seek systems thinkers out in your organization—both within the information center and beyond its staff. Finding individuals who are like-minded can only improve your ability to adopt these philosophies and work through the struggles that result in the behavioral and attitudinal changes they inspire.
  • Change actions. The assessment will point the way to methods of work that support systems approaches and behaviors. The insular “it's all about me” attitude that sometimes can be a defense against downsizing, lack of autonomy and overwork are counterintuitive to a systems way of thinking. As comforting as it may be at times, it tarnishes the decision making process and can minimize the effectiveness of decisions made due to shortsightedness.
  • Adopt a broader perspective about understanding your work and role in the organization you work in. Expanding the field of individuals you interact with can deepen the understanding of the world you function in. In addition to the personal interaction suggested above, attending sessions just to learn about what others do, once you see the possibilities for improved information and knowledge management, the ideas and partnership opportunities will flourish.
  • It’s not always easy, but it’s worth the struggle. As with any self-improvement activity, the adoption of a systems thinking perspective won’t always be easy. It challenges us to change behaviors that have been engrained over time and enforced by the organizations within which we work. Nonetheless, no matter where an individual is in his or her career journey—new to the field or seasoned veteran—systems thinking can provide a mechanism for enhancing interactions with our world.
Rev. June 2, 2005