Synergy Matters: Working with Systems in the Twenty‐first Century


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 June 2000



Harwood, C.J. (2000), "Synergy Matters: Working with Systems in the Twenty‐first Century", Kybernetes, Vol. 29 No. 4, pp. 523-529.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Synergy Matters: Working with Systems in the Twenty‐first Century is the theme of the 6th International Conference of the United Kingdom Systems Society held 5‐9 July, 1999, in Lincoln, UK. The book is an edited version of the conference and unlike so many edited proceedings of conferences it has been compiled intelligently and with some flair. The papers presented have been arranged systematically into sections that can be easily accessed and referenced by readers. Although some of the published contributions appear to be the type of abridged paper demanded by conference organisers prior to the conference, with the caveat that they should not exceed six pages, many benefited from being presented in précis form.

Having to write a paper that is precisely not more than, say, six pages reminds me of the government ministers who insist on briefs that should not exceed half a page. While politicians may not be able to comprehend the essential details of a subject in anything other than summary form scientists can at least expect that topics are not only dealt with in depth but reported in some detail. It would, for example, have been much better to leave out the contributions to the conference of at least a third of those contained in this volume and allow the remainder their head. Another criticism, which publishers should take to heart, is that potential readers differentiate between the publication of the bare conference papers that are usually available pre‐conference for participants and those publications that appear after the conference. The former is based on what in fact are “abstracts” of the work to be presented, while those chosen for publication after the conference should be fully updated to take account of conference interactions and the opportunity to present papers in greater depth. Potential readers have, I believe, the right to know what the publication really aims to achieve.

Reading some of the papers presented in this text leads me to believe that it is a collection of the “abridged papers” that are published before the conference. Even so, there is nothing wrong, in scientific terms, in providing such a text. Indeed, it is a most useful reference of what was intended to be presented at the event. The quality of the papers selected is high and the editors make great play about the rigorous methods employed by the Programme Committee to ensure high quality standards prevailed. This is clearly shown in the papers chosen for publication. The organisers will no doubt be commended by the research assessors from the 19 countries whose systems thinkers’ papers were chosen.

The theme chosen for the conference was a very wide‐ranging one and the section headings selected had, of necessity, to be very general. Indeed I felt that almost any discipline could have been included in many of them. It is interesting to note that they included:

Action research; Business and management; Change management; Community and social systems research; Critical systems thinking; Developments and applications of systems methodologies; Educational systems; Information systems; Organisational learning.

The shortest section (Critical Systems Thinking) contained five papers and the longest section (Information Systems ) 17 papers. Each paper was a regimented six published pages long. The first two sections of the book presented the conference plenary papers and the second contained a most interesting collection of student papers. The plenary papers provided much of interest, particularly Professor Raul Espejo’s “Seeing systems: overcoming organisational fragmentation” (see also Espejo, 1999). His elaboration on the value of seeing systems must have provided a stimulating start to the conference, as did the papers of other plenary speakers: Joyce Fortune (Fighting failure), John Mingers (Critical management education), Richard J. Omerod (Putting sysems theory to work) and Frank Stowell (Making sense of chaos‐systems and the information society). The student papers which followed in the book were most original in content and style and most certainly should give the systems community hope for the twenty‐first century, which was the conference’s main preoccupation. Although the sections were clearly set out in the contents pages, it was odd to find that in the text they were not included – it made the book rather like an expanded issue of a scientific journal which contained some 109 papers that finally came to an end when it was decided an index was needed. The index, incidentally, was most useful, but could have been more so if subwords had also been included for each main word indexed; having, for example, 49 page numbers for a reference to “information systems” was most frustrating.

The book would have been better for some feedback about what actually happened at the conference. As the editors of the book say in their preface “…synergy comes from the Greek word synergos which means working together. This demands a platform for participation through the development of dialogues, between disciplines and people, the very stuff of systems thinking”. This was an opportunity missed of producing a book that not only presented systems thinking into the twenty‐first century but also included some responses to the new and old ideas presented.

Even so the book is a worthwhile addition to any department or institutional library for reference purposes and can be recommended as such.


Espejo, R. (1999), “Aspects of identity, cohesion, citizenship and performance in recursive organisations”, Kybernetes, Vol. 28 No. 6/7, pp. 64058.

Related articles