Systems thinking most often (alas, but it is so) uses “Aristotelian physics”: when the finger presses the table, but the table does not press the finger, because the finger is alive and active, while the table is passive! In systems thinking, the system/role object plays its role, performs its function—but is considered to be active, and the environment — mainly passive, undergoing changes. Changes in the system while performing its function are then considered separately. Alas, in systems thinking one sometimes encounters words about “interaction” of the parts of the systems, but in fact each time the pair of the active system and its more or less passive environment is considered. Why is this so? Remember that systems thinking is about attention management. In thinking, to say that “everything is connected to everything” and “everything interacts with everything” and “everything affects and interinfluences everything” would be very correct in physics, but useless in systems thinking. It is more useful to draw attention to some central object, to anchor this attention, and then to consider everything else in relation to this anchored object.
A role/functional object that plays a role/performs a function in its environment is the answer to this requirement to have a center of attention in the course of systems reasoning. Roles are very often treated exactly this way: the role object acts on another role object, and the reverse action is neglected—but if it is important, simply conduct another consideration specifically to take that action into account. If a cutter cuts a part, it gets blunt. This is neglected, consider the change in the part, it’s important! The role action of the cutter: to change the shape of the part! And then a separate consideration talks about what happens to the cutter. But then they call the part a “blunt medium/environment” instead of a part. Another role!
To some extent, this is the “animation” of the inanimate world, a convenient way to think of inanimate objects as if they were animate—not in terms of Newtonian physics, but in terms of Aristotelian physics (which divides objects-participants of action into “active” and “passive”, like “the hammer strikes the nail”). This way of thinking has its limitations, but it should at least be recognized and understood in such cases, how to understand such definitions.
One example of this approach is the engineering method of requirements development “use case” (but author Ivar Jacobsen stipulated that in the Swedish language in which he first proposed this method of development, the word “scenario” was used instead of the word case). A script is a sequence of actions by an actor, that is, an active acting subject. This can be a person (and in the proposed use case notation, a human figure is used to describe the actor) or a non-human, or even an inanimate object—the same hammer that is proposed as the active element in the sequence of actions that make up the play-script/scenario. Scenarios have been very successful in describing the work/processes/sequences/actions/scenarios/behavior of a system and its parts. This way of describing has become ubiquitous for engineers, it leads to the creating of functional/role views.
The term “function”, as we discussed in the first section, has many different meanings. Very often a role behavior/action (behavior for some purpose) is called a function. Thus, a common word usage is “the function of a hammer is hammering nails”. More often than not, function is expressed by a verb rather than a noun. It is “processes”, “works”, that are considered outside of “play by role” that are more often expressed by a verb. The process or work would be “to hammer a nail”, but if for “play according to a role” as behavior is chosen word—it will be a verbal noun (the -ing form in English, a reference to the continuation of an action).
Function/role behavior/action is assigned by people, things do not assign functions to themselves. It is not the hammer that is assigned the role of nail hammer; it is not the hammer that has the function of nail hammering. We can take a microscope and assign it to be “a hammer”—to hammer nails with it. The hammer in this case is nothing more than a role for the microscope (or stone, or even hammer), the name should not be confused. The behavior of the microscope in this role, its function, “play according to a role”—hammering nails.
If terminology with “function” is chosen, then function is performed by a functional object. Or, same thing, a role behavior is performed by a role object, or an action is performed by a role. Or a functional object is called a functional element, ignoring the fact that “element” means something inseparable further into parts. Term words are important and unimportant!
The method of thinking here consists in the fact that for each role (functional object) there is a culturally conditioned (sometimes they say “normative”, conditioned by cultural norms and rules) behavior. Thinking allows a variety of objects to be used in a role, and to think of them in the same way as “leading to the goal”, the goal is held in attention, and the nature of the object playing the role itself is secondary. If the role function/action/play is to hammer nails and the role/role object/functional item is a hammer, then a cobblestone, a microscope, or a hammer specifically made for hammering nails will generally do the same thing. And the coincidence of the names of the role object “hammer” (if we decide to call “nailing device” that) and the physical object the “hammer” here can be considered incidental.
Knowledge is transferred from situation to situation in the form of norms of behavior for roles, rather than norms of behavior for different physical objects.
This technique, where things are defined by their primary purpose/role/function, by their role behavior, allows for considerable economy of thought. Systems are primarily viewed as role/functional objects at the point in time when they fulfill their role, that is, are ready and working, and are useful. For example, an airplane as a system is primarily a role/functional object that flies itself while carrying passengers and cargo through the air. The most common purpose/function of an airplane is to plane through air, and this is reflected in the name. The primary and common purpose of a pump is to pump. But the pump could easily be called a “secondary cooling circuit antifreeze feeder” if its role is to pump antifreeze into the secondary circuit. The pump factory will sell the pump, but the person who bought the pump will convert it to a supercharger, and that’s fine. Without the context of use, it’s “just a pump”, a modular object, it has no surroundings. In the context of role play, it’s a role object, "the antifreeze blower in the second cooling circuit. Outside the context of using engineering abilities Maria is just Maria, she can be many things (like a microscope: it can show small objects, it can chop nuts, it can hammer nails, use it as a paperweight. So can Masha—she can do many things). But at the moment of acting as an engineer, role-playing, Maria will be called an engineer. And that’s okay.
Systems are usually named by their primary purpose, that is, by the roles assigned to them, and these roles determine their behavior/action/function. When we name a microscope, we are primarily referring to the fact that it allows us to “look small” at the moment when it is fully made and working. If we thought that a microscope was primarily for pounding something (pounding nuts, for example), we would call it a “pounder”.
Usually in language, the oldest names have obscure origins and often point not to a role/function, but to a form (gavel relates to taxes — but the hammer is from “to hammer”, “to beat”) or something else.
But if we design systems, or want to understand something about systems, it is correct to look in the name not for the physical object representing the system, but for the role — and an indication of the function/action of that role.
Well, if the system is suddenly a person, there’s usually not much to say about their purpose/function in the environment, with people it’s usually complicated. And the role behavior/function of people will always have to be dealt with separately and specifically. But people-in-role thinking and some kind of microscope-in-role thinking would be set up the same way!
*An excerpt from Systems Thinking course