The Purpose Of A System Is What It Does

This is some dot points from an excellent article by Richard Veryard discussing Stafford Beer’s maxim that the “Purpose Of a System Is What It Does” or “POSIWID“.

Richard points out that there are two types of purpose in any enterprise:

  1. “the official intentions and plans of the leadership, which define what the purpose of the enterprise is supposed to be. We may call this the nominal purpose of the enterprise.”
  2. “the observed behaviour of the enterprise … sometimes called de-facto purpose.”

The second purpose, the de-facto purpose, is what Stafford Beer is referring to when he says that the purpose of a system is what it does; POSIWID. POSIWID refers by implication to the culture and the vested interests of the organisation and the people in it. This is why Richard has very carefully noted that an enterprise’s nominal purpose dexcribes what the enterprise is supposed to to be whereas the de-facto purpose is what the enterprise actually is.

“When you make changes to the business as well as changes to the systems, you may get more than you bargained for. Conversely, when you make changes to the technical systems without making changes to the human systems, you may get less than you bargained for.”

“As anyone knows who has attempted serious business transformation, an enterprise can be as stubborn as a teenager.” Never ignore culture and vested interests!!

Related concepts

  • Richard Veryard’s article about POSIWID
  • POSIWID blog
  • John Kotter’s 8-step approach to change
  • Emotional intelligence
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