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Unraveling the Complexities of Systems Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio Flores, Tracy Rickman and Don Mason
July 23, 2018

A leader must know many topics to be successful. Besides possessing intelligence—on various levels—there is also corporate knowledge, finance and managing human capital. Together these elements, along with other dynamics form systems. Understanding systems is as much a part of a leader’s abilities as is emotional or cultural intelligence. A review of notable persons that have left or been fired from public administration have one thing in common, they failed to understand how systems affected their organization—and ultimately, their success.

Systems came into Western management during the Second World War as a way to grasp how large complex organizations work together. Systems management has since grown into a science that has two hemispheric approaches to the structural constructs of systems-based thinking. One is based on Western philosophies and the other on Eastern philosophies.

When viewing systems from a global viewpoint, knowing which hemisphere you are working in or with, provides a savvy leader with the advantage of how systems can best be managed. This is like knowing which set of tools to bring to the job—US customary units or metric.

The first perspective on systems from a global viewpoint is the western point of view that holds the universe is disaggregated into several functional capabilities that work with other functional capabilities in unique ways that maintain autonomy. The Western management concepts have evolved from merit based and scientific management principles to political patronage and administrative effectiveness. Progressive social upheavals in the west, has led to employee rights changes, equity, affirmation action, representation, partnerships, third party agreements and other like solutions to wicked problems.

The second perspective on systems from a global viewpoint is the eastern point of view which holds the universe is a single entity that is comprised of various supporting components. Emphasis is placed on the harmony of all the connecting entities in the system. Problems are addressed from the position that all the actors must work collaboratively to address the challenges encountered.

Grounded respectively in the philosophies of Plato, Kant, Sun Tsu, Lao Tse and other notable writers of the fundamental nature of knowledge, there can be notable differences between these two approaches to managing systems. If a successful system is seen as a truth that systems are effective and efficient, how one perceives the truth of the system affects operational competences.

A contemporary example of a system working in an emergency is the case of the fire service responding to a major conflagration. Management and leadership skills in the sense of setting direction, managing activities, prioritizing and balancing operational demands, calls for systems management. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a key component that facilitates operational competency and the ability to effectively work with multiple organizations to solve complex problems during a perilous situation. Depending on the challenges, a leader can use either philosophic approach to systems management to confront the conflagration.

The Western approach to leading a system is that the truth of the system’s construct has to be proven. This scheme focuses attention on the distinct parts of the system working independently to substantiate that the system is functioning. The weakness in this approach is that when a specific part of the system does not work, the rest of the system blames the deficient element as interfering with the system’s ability to function as an effective complex organization. This can be problematic as seen in the case of Enron that had one subsystem operate independently and as a result, the organization collapsed because of a lack of checks and balances to make the needed corrections to the overall system.

An individual in a Western system, sees themselves as a unique part of the system. Their contributions are an individual effort that have a strong deference to the rights of each member supporting the system. Fostered in this process is a linear approach to the system and its outputs having distinct beginning and end states.

The Eastern approach to leading a system is that the truth of the system is an assumption that all elements in the system are acknowledged. The lack of searching for a truth to represent the system, allows the parts of the system to focus on developing a balance to support the complex interaction of the system’s parts. Balance facilitates the interconnectedness of all functionaries in the system, and the system status are all key areas that need to be recognized. Likewise, the system is part of a larger universe of systems working together in various environments.

The individual in the Eastern system, sees their efforts and being a duty to support the larger social order. Instead of a linear perspective on the system’s existence, actors in the Eastern system have a circular viewpoint of operation grounded in a perpetual recurrence where the beginning and end are fused in a continuous existence.

Both systems have vulnerabilities inherent to their philosophical methodologies. While the Eastern approach to systems management favors the status quo, this practice can stifle innovation or ground-breaking research. Conversely, the Western approach to systems management embraces innovation and the champion in the system.  One constant is both systems is the political influence upon the systems themselves. The loyalty of a specific political system can impact decision-making and promote a lack of influence from opposing thought, thus providing viewpoints guarded by blinders. In today’s climate, a hybrid of the philosophies can be beneficial. We must be mindful that the “champions” remain humble and maintain the harmony of the duty-bound servant-leadership of the “East.”


Authors: Ygnacio Flores, Tracy Rickman and Don Mason. We are all faculty members in Public Safety at Rio Hondo College.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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