Several years ago, there was an intriguing debate in the systems community. On one side was the majority of the community, emphasizing “systems engineering.” On the other side – almost in isolation – was MIT countering that it’s about the “engineering of systems.” At the time, I thought it was purely word play, a way for MIT to stand out from the crowd. Today, I realize that we were wrong. MIT was right. If we want to be successful – in our projects and in the advancement of our craft – we must focus on the engineering of systems rather than systems engineering.
While this may feel like semantic nuance, it’s far more. Fundamentally, it’s about maintaining the right perspective. “Systems engineering” focuses us inward on our own needs and the processes, methods, and tools to meet those needs. Practices and fields of study naturally gravitate to this inward-looking direction, a direction spurred by Western education which encourages us to be deeper and deeper specialists in narrower and narrower areas. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as this is how practices mature and advance. But perhaps more than any other group, systems engineers should recognize that we can’t do this in isolation. As Russell Ackoff, the noted systems thinking advocate, reminded us, “understanding proceeds from the whole to its parts, not from the parts to the whole as knowledge does.” If we are to advance in the right direction, we must advance, informed and guided by our greater context.
Systems engineering is transdisciplinary, and we must always begin with the end in mind. The purpose of systems engineering is not process. The purpose of systems engineering is neither specification nor model. The purpose is not even the system. The purpose is delivering the required value to the customer and the stakeholders in an effective and efficient manner. That mindset – that perspective – is exactly what MIT was trying to communicate. It’s not about looking inward to advance the practice of systems engineering in isolation. It’s about looking outward and understanding how we help advance the engineering of systems.
We live today in an age of complexity. The challenges we address and the technologies that we use are defined by interactions and non-linear change. No longer can we break problems and systems down into clean hierarchies with low coupling between the parts. Instead, we live with the reality of high coupling, multiple interconnected cause-effect relationships, and interdependence. It is not possible for a team of all-knowing, all-seeing systems engineers operating in isolation to understand all of the first-, second-, and third-order effects (and more) that characterize both problem and solution. When addressing anything but the narrowest of problems, a team of even the best systems engineers working in isolation today is all but worthless. A team of systems engineers working in concert with the right subject matter experts to understand the problem and characterize the solution can be a thing of beauty delivering elegant solutions to complex problems.
To do our job and advance our practice, we must embrace the inherent collaborative and transdisciplinary dimensions. As much as this may be at our core, it is easy for reductionist tendencies to take over and for us to lose the more holistic perspective. As we advance our processes, methods, and tools, do we look inward to optimize for our own needs, or do we look outward to truly enable the through-life concerns of engineering a system? As we continue our transformation to a model-based discipline, do we limit ourselves to the system specification and represent knowledge in a manner that excludes the greater team of customers, stakeholders, engineers, and subject matter experts? Or do we leverage the digital revolution to better capture and connect the full breadth of information necessary to engineer a system, addressing both specification and the design journey and harnessing a breadth of fit-for-purpose representations to effectively engage the greater project team in a collaborative engineering journey?
Do we change the nature of the gaps which characterize the design process, or do we fundamentally close the gaps and enable a concurrent, connected engineering lifecycle? The choice is ours, and the right choice depends upon perspective. Shifting our focus from systems engineering to the engineering of systems does not mean that we reject the progress we have made. It simply represents a course correction to ensure we arrive at the right destination.
As Sandy Pentland (coincidentally of MIT) observed, the collective intelligence of groups has little to do with intelligence of individual members. It has much more to do with the connections between them. As we tackle complicated engineering problems and complex grand challenges, let’s not fall prey to the natural tendency to revert to reductionist thinking. We should not build a silo called systems engineering, optimized in our practices but somewhat disjoint in a disconnected lifecycle. Instead, let us maintain focus on the big picture and advance our practice of systems engineering as a critical enabler and connector in the successful engineering of systems.