Version 031021-1240


The systems approach to design,

and inquiring information systems:

Scandinavian experiences and proposed research program



by Kristo Ivanov

Umeå University, Department of Informatics, SE-901 87 UMEÅ (Sweden).

Phone +46 90 7866030, Fax +46 90 7866550, E-mail:

Copyright(2001). An edited version of this manuscript was submitted for publication in
Information Systems Frontiers, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2001



This paper starts with a short history of the application of dialectical social systems approach in Sweden in the sixties, and emphasizes its later application to the field of information or inquiring systems. This is followed by a reflection on the meeting between the systems approach and some other approaches mainly in Scandinavia and Europe, notably the postmodern aestheticist trends of the eighties which grew further in the nineties and now apparently dominate the stage of many computer applications in multimedia and virtual reality. The paper concludes with some reflections on the possible causes and import of these trends and possible shortcomings of the systems approach itself which make it difficult to offer the necessary resistance requiring the future energetic work of systems researchers and educators in a proposed research program.

KEYWORDS: critical, interpretive, postmodernism, aesthetics, ethics, theology.

On the systems approach and information systems in Sweden

In 1970, after experiencing some very particular practical problems while working in the computer industry, a no longer so young electronic engineer entered the program of graduate research in information processing, common to the Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology and University of Stockholm. This engineer who is the author of this article had been struggling with problems of accuracy and quality of data in data bases like "bills of materials" which supported the engineering and manufacturing of computer equipment in plants scattered around the world. Much to my surprise, very few scientists had tackled this important but immanently practical issue. In my research, by chance, in a book shop, I came across the first of a long series of writings by a certain professor C. West Churchman at the University of California, Berkeley. It not only allowed me to frame and address my problem but also provided a methodological and philosophical framework which worked as a bridge to broader organizational and ethical issues. At the same time I and my fellow students could become conscious of the fact the academic tradition we had been working in was informed by the school of logical positivism, and that it had been unconsciously regarded as the one best way, with no other known alternatives.

My own contribution in my dissertation which, by the way, became the first Swedish dissertation in the discipline of administrative data processing — informatics (Ivanov, 1972) and its context, as related to part of the Swedish history of informatics is found in an earlier paper of mine (Ivanov, 1995). It turned out to be a silent but rather subversive complementing of the concept of elementary message of information with an error term "epsilon". The original "atomic" units or terms of an elementary message of information were the object or entity (identifier), the characteristicum (property part composed of variable type and variable value), and the time of measurement (or time during which the object is predicted to hold the characteristic). In the spirit of the Churchman-Singer teleological theory of measurement I supplemented or complemented them with the error term. At the time of writing I had not yet obtained access to Churchman's latest work in order to see how he himself had related that — in the context of the design of information systems (inquiring systems) to the Singerian concept of error (Churchman, 1971, pp. 201f). I had myself "reconstructed" that development from what was already implicit in his available earlier work (1959; 1961, chap. 5). It was clear to me that error was the missing theoretical link between the concepts of information and of system, as well as the link to political social theory — from Lockean liberal consensus to the intricacies of democracy in its contacts with power, responsibility, and with the "ought" of ethics. Similar insights whose value is barely recognized as of today had been already advanced in the context of economic information systems and statistics (Morgenstern, 1963).

The subversivity which I did not advertise but was clearly spelled out was that the social definition of error required democratic participation. As a matter of fact it required more than democracy if, as it often is the case, democracy is narrowly interpreted in formal or in the well-meaning consensual terms of cooperation, co-creation or co-construction. It also required more than the political correctness of a partisan attitude in favor of the poor and the oppressed. I even claimed that participation should be sought in order to enable disagreement or, rather, in order to enable agreement in the context of maximum possible disagreement. Why and how I did not turn to Marx, or, for that matter, to Apel-Habermas or to Heidegger, but rather to the humanism of Carl Jung, and later to Judeo-Christian thought, is another story.

This was my entrance door into the real world of science and to the systems world of C. West Churchman who has had extensive influence on the teaching and practice of operations research, management science, information systems, and related philosophical thinking in Sweden, as he has in several other countries of the world. His contributions in Sweden have been recognized in part by his being granted Honorary Doctorates in philosophy and economics at the University of Lund in 1982, and the University of Umeå in 1985. These later honours, however, simply culminate a much more extensive relationship.

No long after is was published in 1957 Swedish schools began to teach the new scientific approach to solving organizational problems by adopting Introduction of Operations Research. Soon thereafter graduate students were immersed in Prediction and Optimal Decision (1961). Churchman's thinking in these areas was also applied at the Swedish Defence Research Institute (FOA) by experienced applied researchers including Per Agrell, Sten Wandel, and Owe Brandes. A professor of marketing at the department of Business Administration of the University of Lund, Curt Kilhstedt introduced his students to both Introduction to Operations Research, and to Churchman's later systems approach. The Systems Approach having been published in 1968 was then available, and combined with the Introduction to Operations Research and Prediction and Optimal Decision formed the basis of a program of studies which became known and respected throughout the country. The Systems Approach gained acceptance in undergraduate and graduate education as well as in research in Business Administration at Stockholm, Lund, Stockholm, and other universities. In addition to Kihlstedt, Solveig Wikström, Björn Bjerke, Björn Leonardz, John Skår, Olle Högberg, and others drew heavily on this kind of systems thinking in their teaching and research.

One person who was touched by these Churchman's early works was Staffan Persson. Persson went to Berkeley to study in the early 1960's and finished his dissertation with Churchman as advisor in 1966. The title of this thesis Some Sequence Extrapolating Programs: A Study of Representation and Modeling in Inquiring Systems disguised some rather profound contributions to systems thinking. Persson applied a concept of data representation and invented techniques that now belong to the body of traditions of artificial intelligence and expert systems. His software could predict what the next numeral would be in a sequence akin to those used in intelligence tests, provide an explanation for the function that generated it, and indicate which items in a stream of data were likely to be in error. This insightful use of computers showed that the power of information technology could reach well beyond simple data processing, explored inherent limitations, and inspired some to extend their horizons about computer applications.

Persson returned to Stockholm as the chair of "Economic Information Processing", later renamed "Information Management", at the Stockholm School of Economics where until his untimely death in 1984 he continued to have substantial influence of the teaching and practice of information systems and management science throughout the country. He was in great demand as consultant and was noted for his unique ability to place problems within their broader economic and political context. He also introduced the idea of prototyping to Sweden as an alternative to the burdensome machinery of standardized methods for systems development. Swedish mainframe computer scientists were astounded when by using the newly released personal computers he was able to develop new systems in a fraction of the time previously required. Moreover users liked his approach because they could participate actively in the design. Systemskisser, the Swedish word for prototyping, became a byword.

Again, drawing on Churchman's ideas, Staffan tried to convince Swedish educators and executives alike that Administrative Automated Data Processing (ADB in Swedish) was much more a question of corporate or organizational strategy. Managers should understand and take control over the development of information systems. It was in the context of such attempts that Staffan volunteered to participate in the key-role of opponent for the grading committee in the disputation of my Churchman-inspired Ph.D. dissertation about quality-control of information, mentioned earlier.

With my dissertation the Churchman-school entered definitely as an innovation in the broader Swedish academic field of information processing, renamed later "informatics". After extensive lecturing in the seventies and beginnings of the eighties I was appointed full professor of administrative data processing (informatics) at the university of Umeå. In this new position I had the opportunity to encourage the next generation of graduate researchers to work in the tradition of Churchman's systems approach as represented by his conceptualization of decision-support and information systems as inquiring systems (1968a; 1968b; 1975). The Umeå program became one of the three major programs in systems analysis and information systems in Sweden, aiming at educating systems developers and designers who have a broader philosophical view as well as practical skills. These included the roles of the designer as well as the participation of users and citizens in the design and maintenance of management information systems (MIS), computer supported cooperative work, computer supported collaborative learning (CSCW-CSCL), human-computer interaction and multimedial virtual reality (HCI-VR), together with a philosophical understanding of artificial expert systems and computer artifacts (AI and design). All this became the key distinguishing ambitions of the educational program. My own Churchman-oriented teaching on decision-support systems and my research with applications to MIS, statistical information systems, and issues of privacy vs. participation, culminated with a social-political interpretation of information systems (1986; 1987), and with the development of the concept of "Hypersystems" (1992; 1993). It extends Churchman's and Al Schainblatt's concept of dialectical implementation (1965), and, further, the conception of Hegelian and Singerian inquiring systems to the complex groups of organizational actors which were envisioned in The Design of Inquiring Systems.

Olov Forsgren was one of the first doctoral students in Umeå, and incorporated some of Churchman's and my reflections on participation in his dissertation on "co-construction" which also included some neo-pragmatist and postmodern influences (Forsgren, 1988). Together with the work of Ian Mitroff, Dick Mason, and Burt Swanson and others who also visited us in Sweden this effort constituted a first attempt to translate Churchman's earlier practical work and theoretical insight into more concrete and "exoteric" prototypes of IS applications, involving many users and actors. The diffusion of personal computers, Internet and networking applications finally merged these efforts with the mainstream of consultancy and of many commercial applications of Internet technology in business and education, while neglecting the political and ethical sophistications of Churchman's original message. At the same time, we edited Persson's posthumous work Så Tuktas en Dator (1987) (roughly: "how to tame a computer") about executives' and managers' responsibilities in strategic use of computer technology, a book which has been also taught to all kinds of students in the field. There were other graduate students who in different ways considered in their dissertation work some of these developments of Churchman's messages (Grönlund, 1994; Levén, 1997; Whitaker, 1992). Occasionally there was a problematic interest for if not outright postmodernism, at least the sort of John Dewey's aestheticizing pragmatism which is expressed in the idea of use of data that "works out satisfactorily" (and in Donald Schön's idea of the "reflective practitioner"), clear object of Churchman's sound scepticism (Churchman, 1971, p. 189).

Whither "systems approach"? During the spring of 1987 Churchman took a "sabbatical" as guest at the department of informatics of the university of Umeå. With the enthusiastic support of the president of the University, Churchman, among other things, helped to found a local university program of Peace and Conflict Studies, a kind of mirror image of his dearly loved PACS program at the University of California in Berkeley. He talked less about systems, and more about poverty and peace. And this leads us eventually to a reflection upon the whither of the systems approach.

The systems approach has been challenged in these last fifteen years by alternative approaches with emphasis on marxism in the seventies, critical social theory in the eighties, and other "-isms" in the nineties connected to new international "prophetic schools" associated with such names as Habermas, Foucault, Giddens, Latour, and other provincial national gurus. Some of Churchman's best students, especially in the USA, preferred to leave the academic battle in order to dedicate themselves to an equally challenging, but more profitable and prestigious exoteric consultancy. Others kept defending and developing the systems approach on the basis of its practice, and noticed, lately, that students seem to have been increasingly attracted to the so called "design" approach, actor network theory, interpretive methods, and many so-called postmodern variants. These trends, even when occasionally paying lips service to the systems approach, constitute a dangerous challenge to it in that they sometimes ignore or reject some basic tenets of Western thought that stand at the root of the systems idea. In the meantime Churchman forcefully keeps reaffirming the fundamental importance of the ultimate ethical message of the systems approach. Those among us who try to contribute to this message face the menace of postmodernism which appears in the form of the advent of academic emphasis on IT-aestheticism, or of an aesthetics which is theoretically and practically dissociated from ethics. This will be the object of the next sections of this paper.

Consider the following. Labour unions' participation in systems development and maintenance in the seventies had given place in the eighties to attempts to combine individual workers' skill with the fun or imaginative intelligence afforded by the new visual information technology. Systems and hypersystems would no more do since they were wilfully or unconsciously ignored. Also in this respect Churchman was a pioneer by including first ateleology in Prediction and Optimal Decision, and then outright aesthetics as an important concern of the systems approach in both his The Design of Inquiring Systems and, especially, in his The Systems Approach and its Enemies. He could not, however, imagine that in the nineties information technology would jump from artificial intelligence to interactive multimedia and to virtual reality, moving from economic and political systems to the brave new world of design and "feelies", and exposing what seems to be an extremely unfortunate misunderstanding of aesthetics. Despite occasional second or third hand references to Kantian aesthetics it seems that even those who happen to consider themselves rather "Kantian", as Churchman often did, do not dare to complete their readings of the Critique of Pure Reason and (more seldom) of the Critique of Practical Reason with study, application, and challenge of his third most controversial and misused Critique of Judgment.

This indicates the next challenge of the twenties facing those of us who believe in the deeper meaning and importance of Churchman's original and lifelong message. The challenge includes the following. We can claim, before IT students, researchers, and practitioners alike, that his magnum opus, The Design of Inquiring Systems published in 1971 is still one of the best, if not the best and most timely handbook for basic research on information systems that is available as of today. What is required is mainly to complete it with some chapters on the problematic postmodern or post romantic inquiring systems, and to show how its terminology can be updated in order to show how it extends to cover the latest trends in the field of information technology. And so, for example, instead of talking about artificial (arti-ficial) intelligence systems as in the eighties, in the twenties we will be talking about contextualized intelligent artifacts (arti-facts).

The present and the future of the systems approach and IT

As promised above, this is the place to reflect more specifically upon the character of some of these problems. The systems approach in IT is not being widely adopted as compared with other more or less "postmodern" approaches. I will complete the account above of the Swedish origins of the systems approach to IT with an outline of the possible meaning of its later vicissitudes on the basis of my own experiences from the Scandinavian scene.

After Churchman's two epochal books on The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971) and on The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979) his work took a new and final twist. Something like a personal confessional and final book on Thought and wisdom (1982) was followed by a series of essays in the journal Systems Research which eventually came to be renamed Systems Research and Behavioral Science (1984-1986; 1995). The Churchmanian systems tradition in IT is being continued mainly in the journals mentioned above and by Jim Courtney and others based mainly in Texas (Courtney, Croasdell, & Paradice, 1996; Eom, 1996) in the conference proceedings and the electronic journal of The Association for Information Systems. Despite of attempts to survey the importance of the systems approach in the IT and IS-fields (Xu, 2000), my impression is, however, that such systems approach today tends to be regarded as marginal to the mainstream research in these fields.

This is probably related to but not caused by the fact that, like so many other personalities of our intellectual history Churchman did not leave and did not care to leave a "school" after his retirement from the University of California at Berkeley. In the same subtle meaning as his admired Carl Jung who was proud of not being a Jungian, Churchman was content in not being a "Churchmaniac". Nevertheless he influenced many students and some of them have been quite productive, albeit seldom in the IT-field, whatever that means or should mean today and in the future. In the USA some names come easily to mind like Ian Mitroff & Richard Mason (1984; Mason, & Mitroff, 1973), Burt Swanson (1976; 1982; 1991). In Europe I think that the diffusion of Churchman's systems message was due mainly to myself (1972; 1983) and to Werner Ulrich (1980; 1981; 1988; 1994, first published 1983; 1999). Ulrich, in my view Churchman's most committed student, launched what came to be diffused as a critical systems methodology or critical systems thinking, and worked in the continental spirit of the critical social theory of Jürgen Habermas. He does not claim to have worked specifically in the IT-field even if his efforts, like the ones made in Britain main at the university of Hull and in South America by systems scientists who were later attracted by his ideas (Midgley, 1996), can legitimately be expected to be relevant to it. It is important, however, to make it clear that there exist two different streams of critical systems thinking, the original one developed by Ulrich in the late 1970s at Berkeley and based on a reinterpretation of Churchman's ideas, the other developed in the 1980s at Hull and originally not at all based on Churchman's or Habermas ideas but at variance with them as in their classification of systems methodologies. It is my impression that only lately there has been some genuine rapprochement to Churchman's message through Gerald Midgley's recent careful readings of Ulrich's work. The South American efforts, at the university of Mérida in Venezuela, have been to some extent countered by a commitment to Heideggerian philosophy, its proximity to the postmodern predicament, and its problematic stand in ethical issues (Macquarrie, 1994; Norris, 1990, chap. 7). There have been, however, some later deepening interest for the roots of the concept of justice, in the context of practical systems applications (López-Garay, 1999).

Further, in Europe, one well known exponent of European systems thinking and launcher of the so called soft systems methodology SSM, Peter Checkland, seems to have been initially influenced by Churchman touching explicitly the issue of IS (Checkland, 1988b) but did resolutely depart from its main tenets embracing what I perceive as a phenomenological and interpretive approach (Checkland, 1988a). I myself paid a timely attention to the problems raised around these movements with due consideration of what I understood as Churchman's core message (Ivanov, 1991b). There has been some recent attempt to "return" to or at least to revive Churchman's message, relating it to the latest trends (Boland, 2000). The conceptualization of the whole endeavour in terms of "language", however, biases the whole issue in terms of a phenomenology that stands close to the postmodern predicament as denounced by Christopher Norris (1990).

This brings us to what I believe is the main lesson to be learned from the present state of diffusion of Churchman message. To begin with I think that we, Churchman's students, have not always been at the required height of the task. On one occasion I pointed to several examples of how one can fail in taking the philosophical message in a sufficiently committed way, probably because a certain weakening of civic courage in the lures of big business consultancy and such (Ivanov, 1996a). Churchman's despair in his ethical preaching and appeals to think about the 40000 children dying of starvation in the poor world every day (Churchman, 1984-1986), is submerged in some of his students' business consultancy for, say, manufacturers of potato chips and salties, and now the "new economy" of e-commerce, computer games, and computer gadgets in the affluent world. This observation has been echoed by South American systems scientists (Fuenmayor, 1997) who were appalled by the irresponsible way in which Churchman's original message has been received by later postmodern philosophers, not to mention its possibly even worse fate with IT-consultants or genetic engineers.

The main content of the lesson to be learned is, however, that the diffusion and further development of Churchman's systems message came to be opposed by what would eventually reveal itself as being the postmodern predicament in Western academic research.

Aesthetical IS, artifacts, and the postmodern challenge

By the end of the eighties a couple of Swedish graduate students were working on dissertations that introduced me to some intriguing and challenging innovations. The author of one dissertation who had been an avowed Marxist and champion of labour union participation in systems development, accused Churchman for not being politically astute (that is, practical Marxist). For all his earlier political commitment the author preferred, however, to "conclude" his text with a lame aestheticizing section bearing the title of "postmodern reflections". The author of another dissertation insistently focused his work on "design theory" and referred to supposedly Kantian conceptions of aesthetics, while paying a lame lip-service to the systems approach.

Busy as I was with managerial duties, I had up to then barely hoped to be able to follow up some of my colleagues' enthusiastic references to some thousands of pages of so called critical theory and Habermasian applications in the IS field. And, then, I felt that I was also supposed to follow up and understand some thousands of pages of new and apparently ill conceived so called aesthetical design approaches.

In any case I began reviewing the import of the first accretions or reforms of the systems approach under the banner of soft systems methodology, constructivism, and critical systems thinking (1991a; 1991b; 1996b). I found that these reforms opened up as many questions as they purported to answer about the excessive "rationality" of computer systems development. In particular, they did not take into consideration the more advanced versions of the systems approach. Besides that, critical theory itself has several flaws which are difficult to discover because of its sheer complexity (Ferry, 1990; Ottmann, 1982; van den Berg, 1980). As I discovered later, this must be also one main reason for the postmodern twist in IS artifacts research. So, I concluded from the available evidence that Churchman's more advanced texts were either too difficult for the average researcher, or, rather, not sufficiently motivating in view of their expected or hoped for benefits. This is double-edged since one of the most common expected benefits is to be able to publish (publish or perish) by claiming relevance by means of reference to the phenomenal reality of computer applications in "the field". It is indeed the case, as Plato writes in his famous Seventh Letter (Plato, 1961, 342a-344c), that where as a result of bad training we are not even accustomed to look for the real essence of anything but are satisfied to accept what confronts us in the phenomenal presentations, we are not rendered by each other -- the examined by the examiners who have the ability to handle all aspects of information with dexterity and to subject them to examinations. To try to reach beyond "phenomenal presentation" spells trouble for most researchers and exposes them to the criticism of more superficial researchers. This seems to be indeed one of the main reasons for the often violent war waged against Plato levelled by post moderns and nonmoderns (Ivanov, 2000b). The result that I have witnessed in my field is a suffocating proliferation of rather trivial research published by narrow "interpretive communities". Their main if not only merit is to describe phenomenal realities, often named "intricacies of practice" with no other conclusions than the "how" things happened, disregarding the "why" and the ethical "ought" of what should have happened, and how that would be achieved. And I know that there are graduate students who do not dare to use Churchman's work in the IS-field because his name is not common currency in the interpretive communities that run the new journals that happen to be the most prestigious in the field in "statistical" terms, where they hope to get the papers published. The time seems to be gone when an author's text was used and promoted because of a personal conviction of its intrinsic value and this must be related to what many experience as the decadence of universities in the Western world. Under the banner of information technology and "new economy" universities become a pale imitation of institutes of technology and of business schools.

Nevertheless, the postmodern predicament, with its more or less unconscious and heavy misuse of particular romantic and post romantic readings of Kantian aesthetics (Norris, 1990), has the merit of calling our attention upon its importance in the multimedial and virtual reality of the latest forms of IT-applications. It is indeed the case that Kantian aesthetics as put forward in Kant's third Critique (1790/1987) is to my knowledge mentioned only once, in a late work by Churchman (1979, p. 188). From the context of the reference, and from my reading of most of Churchman's publications I estimate that he may have browsed this Critique but never incorporated it in his systems approach. That is, unless his chapter dedicated explicitly to aesthetics as "enemy" of the systems approach (1979, chap. 11) happens to be read as an extremely sophisticated and bland "discourse" illustrating its import. Some support can be found for this interpretation in repeated references in Churchman's main works, long before that appeared in postmodern IT-literature, to anti-teleology and a-teleology, as well as to terms that abound in postmodern literature, such as import of imagination, caring, failures, ridicule vs. seriousness, hospitality, and improvisation as implicit in "to run your life through surprises" (Churchman, 1971, pp. 203f, 216f, 251-257, but see also "aesthetics" etc. in the word index at my website mentioned in an earlier footnote; Churchman, 1979, pp. 26, 151f, 191-194).

So, after all, perhaps Churchman had been more astute than supposedly astute Marxists, self-appointed representatives of the working class in the seventies and eighties. They were the folks who during the nineties suddenly turned away from Marxism to aestheticist postmodern design. This happened in pace with the decline of labour unions' Marxist interests and research funds, and in pace with the decline of the fortunes of the communist world. The strongest criticism they had mustered against Churchman was a magisterial ironic statement that "certainly Churchman's designer learns from experience, but in his idealistic conception of design...he foresees the social history of the labour process to be redesigned. Though humanistic in spirit, the systems approach provides no means for understanding the social and historical conditions for emancipatory design. Hence, in practice it may foster heroic designers to whom no one listens, as well as narrow goal oriented designers that follow the methodology instrumentally, but leave the humanistic ethics behind. Socially, both are tragic results of a great idea." (Ehn, 1988, p. 188)

It is therefore instructive to compare this old-leftist framing of the would-be shortcomings of the systems approach with what a more sophisticated modern leftist intellectual states about leftists who for all practical purposes have left Marx, participation, or critical theory for postmodern design. As Christopher Norris expresses it (1990, pp. 1, 14, 16) one could argue that a recourse to theory is typically the response of any marginalized fraction of dissident intellectuals, excluded from the mainstream of political life and left little choice but to cultivate a range of more or less hopeful alternative visions. He suggests that still one might think it a curious turn of events when this response takes the form of a deep investment in issues of aesthetics, philosophy of art, and literary theory as the chief areas of concern among a sizeable number of committed left-wing activists. In his words, the suspicion must be -- or so it would seem from a common-sense realist standpoint -- that these theorists are just whistling in the dark, discovering all manner of pseudo-radical rhetoric and postures by which to disguise their own deep sense of political failure or defeat. And, he goes on, this offers a refuge (some would say, a convenient bolt-hole) for thinkers who maintain their belief in socialist ideals against the kind of hard-nosed cynical wisdom that looks to current events in Eastern Europe as proof positive that socialism has failed wherever it has been put into practice. The recourse to aesthetics would then appear little more than a desperate holding operation, a means of continuing to talk, think, and theorize about issues of a vaguely political import while serenely ignoring the manifest or supposed fact that socialism is everywhere in a state of terminal decline.

So much, then, for the recourse to aesthetics by patently non-heroic designers who still make a good life with the now available research grants in new fashionable IT-multimedial areas. Their problematic humanistic ethics, if ethics is understood in an Aristotelian or genuine Marxian spirit, turns out to be equivalent to their (failed) politics. And the main point would be that the desperate recourse to what necessarily is "total design" in place of systems approach is indeed totalizing or totalitarian, an insight which because of some reason does not seem to appear in the narrow "interpretive community" of journals like Design Studies or Digital Creativity, but still makes it to appear in the Harvard Design Magazine (Wigley, 1998). It is curiously ironic and paradoxical that it was from design theorists that the accusation often came that the systems approach is totalizing and totalitarian, an accusation implicit also in the message from non-leftist design theorists who criticize the dictatorship by imposed "methods" and look for a design orientation in a "new informatics" (Dahlbom, 1996; Stolterman, 1994). But, of course, an astute systems philosopher like Churchman knew long time ago that all science is design (Churchman, 1970) and therefore would know that the late "new" postmodern talk about design and aesthetics has its own hidden or unconscious (a)political and (un)ethical agenda.

The net result of the postmodern twist in research has been that fashionable programs of research in informatics are now tainted by "ironies and paradoxes" like those implicit in the following aestheticist research program (Ehn, 1998).

It is said that digital information and communication technology change our understanding of time and space. The walls are there, but somewhere else. Time is also interactive and fluid as in a narrative where the reader, the observer, the consumer and the user participate in its creation. Software inherently becomes codes of values, aesthetic ideals, ethics and politics. Uses will be found for knowledge from aesthetic areas such as theatre, film, music, literature, architecture, painting, sculpture and graphical and industrial design. And this postmodernist language continues, promising a new modernism that will be a comprehensive sensuality in the design of meaningful interactive and virtual stories and environments, a critical and creative aesthetic-technical production orientation that unites modern information and communication technology with design, art, culture and society, and at the same time places the development of the new mediating technologies in their real everyday context of changes in lifestyle, work and leisure. And new promises are envisaged of a Scandinavian design that unites democratic perspectives emphasizing open dialogue and active user participation with the development of edifying cultural experiences and the production of useful, interesting, functional and maybe even beautiful and amusing everyday things and experiences for ordinary people. And humanistic and user oriented competence to design, compose, and tell stories using the new mediating technology, creating meetings between constructive, aesthetic, and analytical-critical knowledge. Research studios will educate people to meet the coming blend of fact and fiction, providing "set pieces" and "propos" for their continuous construction of ever changing lived-in worlds. Increasing cultural pluralism, a changing relationship towards concepts of authority, power, and nationality as well as the postmodern sense of "meaning" as something being continuously related and constructed will eventually let a new set of aesthetic principles emerge. The boundaries between artists and audiences will become blurred and the significance of the individual artistic fingerprint will grow less important, as in sampling and hybridization. There will also be a stronger emphasis on the different and changing contexts of the narratives, on the story commenting upon itself, and narratives and new media will become means of creating syntheses in a constantly changing society.

This aestheticist postmodern rhetorical apotheosis of total design as summarized above seems then to end with continuously recreated "syntheses" instead of the old outdated "system" envisaged by the systems approach. Any possible critical attitude against such a project is pre-empted by the bowdlerized caveat of an outright reference to a harmless if yet violent warning (Purdy, 1998), that it will be a project full of contradictions and stands the risk of degenerating into an adolescent doctrine of boundless individualism and technophilic hubris. This summons us to conclude with some reflections about the future of the systems approach.


By now it should be clear that the challenge to the future of the systems approach does not come from good old logical positivism but from politics disguised in aesthetics or in popularized superficial accounts of "Eastern", Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian speculation (Ivanov, 2000b; Ivanov, & Ciborra, 1998). Universities and research in many affluent countries are allowing themselves to be seduced by the rhetoric of postmodernism.The pre-postmodern business world, however still offers some resistance as in the columns of journals like The Economist or Financial Times. Universities and research, however, can be easily seduced by the hype of "empirical research" which aims at what Plato above called phenomenal presentations. They are the endless phenomenal reality of ever moving horizons of expected research results. Endless "intricacies of practice" are continuously reported on yesterday's uses of now already obsolete technology that was modern the day before yesterday, motivating always new research on the use of today's technology, to be published the day after tomorrow. As Churchman expressed it: "It takes only one or two days of work in many federal agencies to learn about practices that are unnecessarily time consuming; it takes several months of frustration to learn that this information about the system is useless because the obvious changes can't or won't occur" (1971, p. 14).

Which are the alternatives? In the course of this paper we mentioned soft systems methodology, critical systems thinking or critical systems heuristics, phenomenology, and many names of postmodern or non-modern prophets whose names I would rather prefer not to contribute with to the Citation Index. I see the danger of tiring the reader in general and the young researcher in particular with such an endless display of names, -isms, and schools, which is probably what prompts so many people today who have never been outside academia to dedicate wholeheartedly to apparently concrete descriptions of what is going on "out there" or in the "practice of practitioners". I would therefore streamline the following final suggestions against the backdrop of Churchman's observation that "disciplinary science may very well be a political device to convert broad-minded Ph.D. students , who want to study big problems, into narrow-minded assistant professors, who study small problems in accordance with accepted standards of research" (Churchman, 1979, p.13).

What appears to me most needed nowadays is (1) to concentrate the research effort on problems that are real ethical problems, and do matter for somebody like "our neighbour" in, say, the Biblical spirit of the "good Samaritan". Next (2) we should study and understand the rationale behind the main enemy of the systems approach in Churchman's sense of "enemy" (1979, p. 204f): this is no more positivism, the politics and morality of Marxism, or the misunderstanding of critical social theory, but, rather, the degenerated aestheticism of the postmodern approach and its use or misuse of so called interpretive methods. (3) In understanding this approach along the lines of several references suggested in the text we might also understand that aesthetics today is trying to take over the role of ethics and theology, while forgetting the lessons of the most important field of theological aesthetics (Sherry, 1992). (4) When this latter point is understood we will understand why the drive to aesthetics, or perceptual stimuli, or the body in a so called philosophy in the flesh, is at the same time a flight from religion in general, and in the West a flight from Christianity in particular. And then we might be ready to understand the theological roots of technology, and therefore the essence of modern technology which despite of its global reach is indeed eminently Western (Mitcham, & Grote, 1984). But we would also understand the theological roots of democracy ingrained in technology, and therefore the reasons for our desperate claims to use information technology and information systems or artifacts in order to enhance language, ideal speech situation, ideal communication, and Internet-democracy while turning democracy into a buzzword and secular God (Lindbom, 1996).

Implementing this broad program of research will require some review in dept of the systems approach handed down by Churchman, with conscience and acceptance of the fact that he himself may have exhausted his sources of inspiration in keeping all the way faithful to his unchallenged Kantian ethics. To begin with we must consider that Churchman may have failed to grasp in depth the role of Kantian aesthetics, its errors or misuses, and its risks. Churchman fails in directing the reader to consider the risk that aesthetics becomes the natural home ground for a different, altogether higher mode of awareness that disowns the antinomies of Kantian critical reason and claims to effect a reconciliation of the various faculties whose separate domains Kant had attempted to delimit. The result of this would be an "aesthetic formalization" and an elevation of the "productive imagination" which collapses the difference between ethics or practical reason, and phenomenal cognition, and thus makes reason entirely subject to the laws or dictates of natural necessity as in technology, opening the way for a convergence between aesthetic ideology and a totalitarian politics needed to guarantee the social stability required by high-tech society (Norris, 1990, p. 270). We must, I repeat, complete The Design of Inquiring Systems and its chapters on Hegel and Singer with some chapter not only on Marx but mainly on Nietzsche, who is indeed mentioned in The Systems Approach and Its Enemies, and the Romantic movement where postmodernism and neo-pragmatism finds its Western sources.

And then we must dig into the very problematic relation between religion and morality that prompted Churchman's remarkably too "obvious" Kantian separation in two quite unrelated chapters in The systems approach and its enemies. I know from personal experience, not to say personal communication (Churchman, 1987), that this can be an extremely sensitive matter that requires to be considered with the utmost care and respect. The understanding of this point, however, could help to understand the deep historical and personal meaning for Churchman of the American Mayflower-heritage and of original Protestant Puritan theology. The William James-inspired "ethical pragmatism" of the systems approach would not be reduced to the aestheticist pragmatism of John Dewey or, worse to sheer unethical postmodern neo-pragmatism. Ultimately, it is hoped, this kind of understanding will help to relate more explicitly Churchman's message to studies of the "genesis of values" which has been often ignored in critical social theory (Joas, 1997), and, further, to theology. Or, then, it will help us to sense the possibly unavoidable limitations of pragmatist systems thought and the ultimate reasons for the failure of its implementation and its failure to face the postmodern onslaught.

Until that happens, however, I will repeat to all interested readers my "mantra": Churchman's systems approach in general, and his The design of inquiring systems in particular, still is thirty years after its launching the most advanced textbook and platform for research on information, information systems, and computer artifacts. It covers most if not all the later taxonomies and guidelines for IT-research (Klein, & Myers, 1999; Robey, & Boudreau, 2000). Its strength and fruitfulness is also evidenced by the support it gives for the understanding and the evaluation of recent research and of new schools of thought and research on IT-applications (Ivanov, 2000a). I use to say that such a performance would be embarrassing in its implicit claims to genius of one particular person, deep thinker as he may be, if it were not for the simple fact that this person is one of the few in the field who has cared for, and capitalized on our Western philosophical heritage. In this sense he is also great because he stands on the shoulders of giants.


Boland, R. J., Jr. (2000). The limits of language in doing systems work. In R. Baskerville, J. Stage, & J. I. DeGross (Ed.), Organizational and social perspectives on information technology (pp. 47-57). Boston: Kluwer. (A fictional account of a roundtable with Pierre Bourdieu, West Churchman, Geoffrey Vickers, Bruno Latour, and Richard Rorty. Proc. of the IFIP TC8 WG8.2 Int. working conf. on the social and organizational perspectives on research and practice in information technology, June 9-11 2000, Alborg, Denmark.)

Checkland, P. B. (1988a). Churchman's "anatomy of system teleology" revisited. Systems Practice, 1(4), 377-384

Checkland, P. B. (1988b). Information systems and systems thinking: Time to unite? Int. J. of Information Management, 8, 239-248

Churchman, C. W. (1959). Why measure? In C. W. Churchman, & P. Ratoosh (Ed.), Measurement: Definitions and theories (pp. 83-94). New York: Wiley

Churchman, C. W. (1961). Prediction and optimal decision: Philosophical issues of a science of values . Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall

Churchman, C. W. (1968a). Challenge to reason . New York: McGraw-Hill

Churchman, C. W. (1968b). The systems approach . New York: Delta. (Page references are to the 2nd ed., 1979.)

Churchman, C. W. (1970). The artificiality of science: Review of Herbert A. Simon's book The Sciences of the Artificial. Contemporary Psychology, 15(6, June), 385-386

Churchman, C. W. (1971). The design of inquiring systems: Basic principles of systems and organization . New York: Basic Books. Out of print

Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies . New York: Basic Books

Churchman, C. W. (1984-1986). Churchman's conversations. Systems Research, 1-3(1-4)

Churchman, C. W. (1987). Interview: The development of the systems approach . Umeå: Umeå University, Dept. of Informatics (Information Processing). (C.W. Churchman video-taped two-hours interview by prof. Kristo Ivanov during his guest stay at the department of Informatics - information processing in April-June 1987.)

Churchman, C. W. (1995). Ethics and science. Systems Research, 12(4), 267-271

Churchman, C. W., Auerbach, L., & Sadan, S. (1975). Thinking for decisions: Deductive quantitative methods . Chicago: Science Research Associates

Churchman, C. W., & Schainblatt, A. H. (1965). The researcher and the manager: a dialectics of implementation. Management Science, 11(4, Feb.), B69-B87. (Cf. also the subsequent debate in the same journal.)

Courtney, J., Croasdell, D., & Paradice, D. (1996). Inquiring organizations. In J. M. Carey (Ed.), Proc. of the AIS Americas Conference on Information Systems, August 16-18, 1996, Phoenix, Arizona, USA (pp. 443-445). Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh, Katz Graduate School of Business, Pittsburgh, PA

Dahlbom, B. (1996). The new informatics. Scandinavian J. of Information Systems, 8(2). (, accessed 9 Feb. 2000.)

Ehn, P. (1988). Work-oriented design of computer artifacts. (Doctoral diss.) . Umeå-Stockholm: University of Umeå, Arbetslivscentrum and Almqvist & Wiksell International

Ehn, P. (1998). Manifesto for a digital Bauhaus. Digital Creativity, 9(4), 207-216

Eom, S. B. (1996). Assessing the contributions of systems science to the development of the decision support system research subspecialties. In J. M. Carey (Ed.), Proc. of the AIS Americas Conference on Information Systems, August 16-18, 1996, Phoenix, Arizona, USA (pp. 668-670). Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh, Katz Graduate School of Business, Pittsburgh, PA

Ferry, L. (1990). Homo aestheticus: L'invention du goût á l'age démocratique . Paris: Grasset. (English trans.: Homo aestheticus : The invention of taste in the democratic age, trans. by Robert de Loaiza. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.)

Forsgren, O. (1988). Samskapande datortillämpningar [Constructive computer applications] (Doctoral diss., Report UMADP-RRIPCS-3.88). University of Umeå, Inst. of Information Processing. (In Swedish. Summary in English.)

Fuenmayor, R. (1997). Systems thinking and world problems . (Book manuscript, personal communication in June 1997. Web site at

Grönlund, Å. (1994). Public computer systems, the client-organization encounter, and the societal dialogue . Umeå: Umeå University, Dept. of Informatics. (Doctoral diss.)

Ivanov, K. (1972). Quality-control of information: On the concept of accuracy of information in data banks and in management information systems : The University of Stockholm and The Royal Institute of Technology. (Doctoral diss. Diss. Abstracts Int. 1974, Vol 35A, 3, p. 1611-A. Nat. Techn. Info. Service NTIS order No. PB-219297 at fax +1 703 6056900,,

Ivanov, K. (1983). Computer applications and organizational disease (LiU-IDA-R-83-2, 2nd ed.). Linköping University, Dept. of Computer and Information Science. (Also in Churchman, C.W., Ed. The well-being of organizations. Salinas, Calif.: Intersystems Publications, 1989, pp. 283-312.)

Ivanov, K. (1986). Systemutveckling och rättssäkerhet : Om statsförvaltningens datorisering och de långsiktiga konsekvenserna för enskilda och företag [Systems development and rule of law] . Stockholm: SAF:s Förlag

Ivanov, K. (1987). Rule of law in information systems research: The role of ethics in knowledge-building procedures, especially in the updating of inference networks. In P. Järvinen (Ed.), Proc. of the Tenth Information Systems Research Seminar in Scandinavia, Tampere-Vaskivesi, Aug.10-12 1987. Tampere: University of Tampere

Ivanov, K. (1991a). Computer-supported human science or humanistic computing science? Steps toward the evaluation of a humanistic computing science (UMADP-WPIPCS-41.91:3). Umeå University, Inst. of Information Processing. Rev. ed. of paper presented at the Tenth International Human Science Research Association Conference, August 18-22, 1991, Gothenburg. ( See esp. chap. on Cooperative work: Examples of problems, pp. 55-76.)

Ivanov, K. (1991b). Critical systems thinking and information technology. J. of Applied Systems Analysis, 18, 39-55. (Report UMADP-RRIPCS 11.90, Univ. of Umeå, Inst. of Information Processing. ISSN 0282-0579.)

Ivanov, K. (1992). Computer-human interaction as continuous system reconstruction. In K. Ivanov (Ed.), Proceedings of the 14th IRIS: Rev. papers of the 14th information systems res. sem. in Scandinavia. Umeå-Lövånger, 11-14 August 1991 (pp. 85-98). (Reprinted in M. Bazewicz (Ed.), Information Systems' Architecture and Technology — ISAT '92 (pp. 37-49). Wroclaw: Politechnika Wroclawska.)

Ivanov, K. (1993). Hypersystems: A base for specification of computer-supported self-learning social systems. In C. M. Reigeluth, B. H. Banathy, & J. R. Olson (Ed.), Comprehensive systems design: A new educational technology (pp. 381-407). New York: Springer-Verlag. (Also as research report, Umeå University, UMADP-RRIPCS-13.91, ISSN 0282-0579.)

Ivanov, K. (1995). A subsystem in the design of informatics: Recalling an archetypal engineer. In B. Dahlbom (Ed.), The infological equation: Essays in honor of Börje Langefors (pp. 287-301). Gothenburg: Gothenburg University, Dept. of Informatics

Ivanov, K. (1996a). Future foundations of inquiring systems: Reformed pragmatism or spirituality? In J. M. Carey (Ed.), Proc. of the AIS Americas Conference on Information Systems, August 16-18, 1996, Phoenix, Arizona, USA (pp. 829-831). Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh, Katz Graduate School of Business, Pittsburgh, PA

Ivanov, K. (1996b). Presuppositions in information systems design: From systems to networks and contexts? Accounting, Management and Information Technologies, renamed Information & Organization, 5, 99-114. (Also available through

Ivanov, K. (2000a). Dialectical systems design and beyond. From logical positivism to post-romantic vs. postmodern design: Summary of 40 years in management and basic research . Umeå: Umeå University, Dept. of Informatics, (Commented headlines for a series of research seminars at the universities of Umeå, Hull, and The Andes-Mérida.)

Ivanov, K. (2000b). Platonic information technology. Reading Plato: Cultural influences and philosophical reflection on information and technology. In Proc. of ISTAS 2000, IEEE Int. Symposium on Technology and Society, 6-8 September 2000, Rome, Italy (pp. 163-168). New York: IEEE Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' Society for Social Implications of Technology SSIT

Ivanov, K., & Ciborra, C. U. (1998). East and West of IS. In W. R. J. Baets (Ed.), Proc. of the Sixth European Conference on Information Systems ECIS'98, University of Aix-Marseille III, Aix-en-Provence, June 4-6, 1998. Vol. IV (pp. 1740-1748). Granada & Aix-en-Provence: Euro-Arab Management School & Institut d'Administration des Enterprises IAE. (ISBN for complete proceedings: 84-923833-0-5. For an earlier longer version of the paper cf. Ivanov, K., Strategies and design for information technology: Eastern or neo-romantic wholes, and the return to Western systems . Umeå: Umeå University, Dept. of Informatics, 1997, also at ~kivanov/chinese.html.)

Joas, H. (1997). Die Entstehung der Werte . Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. (Cf. translated lecture on the book's issue, The genesis of values,, 18 May 2000.)

Kant, I. (1790/1987). Critique of judgement . Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett. (Trans. with an introduction by Werner S. Pluhar. Foreword by Mary J. Gregor.)

Klein, H. K., & Myers, M. D. (1999). A set of principles for conducting and evaluating interpretive field studies in information systems. MIS Quarterly, 23(1), 67-93. (Pre-publication of the paper found at, accessed 14 Dec. 1999.)

Levén, P. (1997). Kontextuell IT-förståelse [Contextual IT-understanding] . Umeå: Umeå University, Dept. of Informatics. (Doctoral diss. ISSN 1401-4572.)

Lindbom, T. (1996). The myth of democracy . Gran Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. (Swedish orig. Demokratin är en myt. Borås: Norma, 1991.)

López-Garay, H. (1999). The holistic sense of prison phenomena in Venezuela: I. Understanding and comprehending 'schizophrenic' institutions. Systems Practice and Action Research, 12(1), 77-94

Macquarrie, J. (1994). Heidegger and Christianity: The Hensley Henson Lectures 1993-94 . London: SCM Press

Mason, R. O. (1984). Information systems technology and corporate strategy: Current research issues, and discussion. In F. W. McFarlan (Ed.), The information systems research challenge (pp. 279-308). Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Mason, R. O., & Mitroff, I. I. (1973). A program for research on management information systems. Management Science, 19(5, Jan.), 475-487

Midgley, G. (1996). What is this thing called CST? In R. L. Flood, & N. R. A. Romm (Ed.), Critical systems thinking: Current research and practice. New York: Plenum Press

Mitcham, C., & Grote, J. (Ed.) (1984). Theology and technology: Essays in Christian analysis and exegesis. Lanham: University Press of America. (Esp. pp. 3-42, 53-119, 193-225. Bibliography of 478 entries.)

Morgenstern, O. (1963). On the accuracy of economic observations (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1st ed. 1950.)

Norris, C. (1990). What's wrong with postmodernism: Critical theory and the ends of philosophy . New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. (Esp. pp. 16-30, 77-133, 263-282.)

Ottmann, H. (1982). Cognitive interests and self-reflection. In J. B. Thompson, & D. Held (Ed.), Habermas: Critical debates (pp. 79-97). Cambridge: MIT Press

Persson, S. (1987). Så tuktas en dator: En diskussionshandbok för icke-tekniker i ledarställning [To tame a computer] . Stockholm: Prisma. (Edited by O. Forsgren & K. Ivanov.)

Plato. (1961). Plato: The collected dialogues . Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press - Böllingen. (Eds. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns. ISBN 0-691-09718-6.)

Purdy, J. S. (1998). The god of the digirati. The American Prospect, 37(March-April), 12-14

Robey, D., & Boudreau, M.-C. (2000). Organizational consequences of information technology: Dealing with diversity in empirical research. In R. W. Zmud (Ed.), Framing the domains of IT management: Glimpsing the future through the past. Cincinnati, OH: Pinnaflex, forthcoming

Sherry, P. (1992). Spirit and beauty: An Introduction to theological aesthetics . Oxford: Clarendon Press

Stolterman, E. (1994). Guidelines or aesthetics: Design learning strategies. Design Studies, 15(4, October), 448-458

Swanson, E. B. (1976). Information system approaches: Directions for research and practice. Management Datamatics, 5(4), 155-163

Swanson, E. B. (1982). A view of information system evolution. In J. Hagwood (Ed.), Evolutionary Information Systems (pp. 55-62). Amsterdam: North Holland

Swanson, E. B., Land, F. F., & Targett, D. (1991). Information systems as a field of study: Its place in the graduate business school. (Spring), 7-16

Ulrich, W. (1980). The metaphysics of design: A Simon-Churchman "debate". Interfaces, 10(2, April), 35-40. (Reprinted in a slightly expanded version as "The metaphysics of social systems design" in J.P. van Gigch, ed., Decision Making about Decision Making: Metamodels and Metasystems, Cambridge, Mass.: Abacus Press, and Kent, UK: Tunbridge Wells, pp. 219-226.)

Ulrich, W. (1981). Systemrationalität und praktische Vernunft: Gedanken zum Stand des Systemansatzes. In C. W. Churchman (Ed.), Der Systemansatz und seine "Feinde" (pp. 7-37). Bern & Stuttgart: Haupt. (Translator's introduction.)

Ulrich, W. (1988). C. West Churchman - 75 Years. Systems Practice, 1(4), 341-350. (Guest editorial to the Special Issue in honour of C.W. Churchman's 75 years.)

Ulrich, W. (1994). Critical heuristic of social planning: A new approach to practical philosophy . Chichester: Wiley. (First published 1983.)

Ulrich, W. (1999). An appreciation of C. West Churchman . Ponoma, Calif.: Website Luminaries of the Systems Approach of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS), (With an extensive bibiography from 1938 to 2000. August 1999, last updated 5 January 2000.)

van den Berg, A. (1980). Critical theory: Is there still hope? American Journal of Sociology, 86(3), 449-478

Whitaker, R. (1992). Venues for contexture: A critical analysis and enactive reformulation of group decision support systems . Umeå: Umeå University, Inst. of Information Processing. (Doctoral diss. UMADP-RRIPCS 14.92.)

Wigley, M. (1998). Whatever happened to Total Design? Harvard Design Magazine, (Summer), 18-25

Xu, L. D. (2000). The contribution of systems science to I.S. research. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17(2), 105-116