Systems Thinking, Not Just Specialized Professional Degrees, Will
Be the Future.
University of Washington – Tacoma
To All College-bound Students,
What are you going to be doing for a living in fifteen years? Here is a good bet: You not
only can’t guess what your job will be, you can’t even know what your career will be!
You might think, right now, that you can guess. But you would most likely be wrong, no
matter how much you believed it.
The reality in today’s world is that people are not just changing jobs every few years;
they are finding it necessary to change careers. In the fast-paced, technological
innovation-driven, global economy more and more people who graduated with
professional degrees are finding that their professions are either changing rapidly or, in
the worst cases being shipped overseas. Individuals who are dedicated to one profession
are finding themselves in the same predicament as buggy whip artisans did in the late 19th
century – lots of skills but no buyers.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the point of a liberal arts education was to prepare
professionally bound individuals to go into a wide variety of careers. Liberal studies
focused as much on thinking skills as on specific subject content. More importantly, the
breadth of liberal studies was meant to provide an individual with more than facts. It was
to provide one with an understanding of the world. It’s one thing to know a lot about a
subject area. It is something entirely different to understand that subject, especially in the
context of how the rest of the world works.
The sixties, seventies and eighties were a period of rapid specialization and
compartmentalization of professions. A business school graduate didn’t need to know
much science, other than neoclassical economics; they just needed to know how to read a
balance sheet and project sales. It didn’t matter if the social implications of unfettered
capitalism made long-term social sense. The sociologists would figure that one out. That
was their specialty.
And heaven forbid that a climatologist should understand anything about politics. Their
job was to work out what was happening with the climate, especially with this business
about anthropogenic CO2 causing a rise in average temperatures worldwide. The
politicians would have to sort out the policy issues. That was their specialty.
That last example is a good one for recognizing the flaw in isolation and overspecialization, in which our education system, well, specializes. The gulf in
understanding between policy wonks and scientists, as a result, is having a major and
negative impact on the world.
On the other hand, looking at the career paths of some of the most successful people in
the world you find that they are far from what I call deep specialists. In fact they tend to
be more generalists in terms of subject knowledge. Tom Friedman (“The World Is Flat”)
calls these people ‘versatilists’. That is, they are extremely flexible and adaptable. They
bring some generally applicable thinking and communications skills to bear on any
number of problems and work effectively to solve them. They have learned how to learn
continuously and to learn quickly the knowledge specifics they will need to work on a
problem in many domains. These people are able to switch jobs and even professions as
the world changes and as our metaphorical buggy whips go out of fashion. They are
prepared for the contingent future.
How did they get that way? A first guess might be that they are simply smarter and more
generally knowledgeable than the rest of us. They are the smartest guys in the room. But
that would be a mistake. What they are, more often, are the luckiest, reasonably smart
guys in the room. They were lucky in their lives to have been exposed to ideas and
patterns of knowledge that enabled them to incorporate new knowledge quickly and
What these people gained, partly by chance and partly by intelligence, and whether they
realized it or not, is enhanced general systems thinking.
Systems thinking is actually natural to everyone. Human beings automatically categorize
things, we see relationships, we note boundaries, and we apply many other built-in
cognitive skills to our interactions with the world. These are parts of a general systems
thinking ability. Unfortunately most people develop without guidance in how to make
this kind of thinking skill work in a consistent way. Most of us go about with what is
called a ‘folk’, or intuitive, systems approach. Education is not designed to make systems
thinking a rigorous practice.
Rigorous systems thinking – what I like to think of as systematic systems thinking – is
fundamentally applicable to all problem domains in the real world. Someone who thinks
systemically knows what to look for in a novel problem domain. For example someone
who has learned the basics of network theory, how to make maps of what relates to what
else in a complex organization, is able to recognize the network relation aspects of any
new domain with a little learning of the terminology. They are able to analyze from deep
principles, which is always more efficient then analysis with no framework.
Someone who has mastered systems thinking is positioned to learn new domains and
hence learn how to perform well in a new career if need be. And in the future, the need
will be. But looking at it from the positive side, someone who has mastered systems
thinking can change careers whenever they want to.
In this series of articles, I will be explaining rigorous systems thinking and how it works
in real life endeavors. When you understand the benefits of learning systems science you
may find that your academic preparation for your future will take a different path than
you may currently be thinking about. After describing systems thinking and how learning
Systems Science develops it, I will finish the series by introducing the framework for a
baccalaureate degree program in Systems Science as it is being developed at the
University of Washington, Tacoma.
George Mobus can be reached at: [email protected]