This is not just a word, but a world-view-and an impressively ancient one, by the fleet-footed standards of most buzz-words. SYSTEMS, as in the anthropologists’ catch-phrase “systems thinking,” goes back at least to the 1940s, when no less than Margaret Mead was apparently involved in its coinage or promotion. It applied, then as now, to the discipline of understanding and analyzing human organization, whether social or industrial. And it no doubt still has some far narrower meaning in the more rigorous academic circles.
Elsewhere, though, SYSTEMS has sometimes become little more than a catchall euphemism for “how things get done.” It is an honest term with many dishonest uses. Thus it is that “systems reform,” that touchstone of modern philanthropy, was recently derided by a frustrated grant-seeker as meaning nothing more than “changing the way things get done around here.” That frank definition admittedly yanks a few unneeded plumes out of the feathered bonnet of systems reform. But it goes a bit far.
The popularity of SYSTEMS is not based just on a pilfering of its anthropological cachet. The word is so popular because, used for its proper purpose, it is practically without synonyms. Dr. Mead, who was a fairly clear writer and a brilliantly clear thinker, did not need fancy words to make herself seem important. She did, though, need a word that would describe the many-headed organism that people become when they weave their separate tasks and ranks and enterprises into a larger functioning whole. She used SYSTEMS because she needed it. And so do many others.
For example, when writing about schools and their regulatory superstructures, one can refer to “districts” or “hierarchies.” But in describing the formal universe that comprises all the districts, institutions, boards, and bureaucracies in a city or state, it is most concise and accurate to use “education system.” There is no other term for it. We are talking about something much too formal and regimented to be captured by the (admirably modest) phrase “how things get done in education.”
The trouble with SYSTEMS is that it has too many friends, and it is constantly being lured into bad company. The mere fact that a process is complicated, has many parts and participants, or serves multiple purposes doesn’t make it a system. The business of making a soufflé is a stupefyingly complicated and delicate procedure, but it is not a “system” in any sense that Margaret Mead would have understood. Neither are most organizations, government agencies, or Tax Code provisions “systems” in that strict sense, however much they may require the genius of a Margaret Mead to explain.
Strictly speaking, a system emerges when many independent actors engage in a mutually reinforcing collection of endeavors, the whole of which may be unknown to its various participants, and produce results that no individual players sought to (or could) produce on their own. The challenge for users of SYSTEM, therefore, is not automatically to find a more ordinary word. The challenge is to make certain that the putative “system” is really worthy of the name. If so, then the word isn’t jargon; it’s a technical term, properly applied.