Excellence and holistic thinking

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 21. May 2012 - 15:38


Arthur Lyon Dahl

(Presentation at the EBBF Make It Meaningful event "Redefining Excellence" - Selsdon Park, London, UK - 13 May 2012)
See also http://ebbf.org/blog/arthur-dahl-excellence-from-holistic-and-systemic-thinking/

Our scientific and technological civilization has flourished by encouraging increasing specialization. The universal man (think Leonardo da Vinci) has not existed since the renaissance. With the rapid multiplication of knowledge and the techniques for storing and transmitting it, the human capacity to absorb and use knowledge is rapidly saturated, so we end up by knowing more and more about less and less, compensating our increasing specialization with a division of labour among more and more specialists, with managers ensuring (hopefully) that everything fits together. This is accompanied by a reductionist approach that assumes that if you know each part, you also know the whole. While this may be true of machines, more complex systems like computer programmes, ecosystems and people show emergent properties that cannot be predicted simply from a knowledge of the component parts.

Many of the world's problems today are the result of failures of holistic thinking. The economy ignores as externalities things that are not bought and sold in the market. New chemicals are discovered and used without consideration of unintended consequences, or even of what happens to them after use. The short term wins out over the long term. The financial crisis was caused by an overconfidence in scientific tools of risk assessment for each financial product without considering the overall behaviour of the system. Many aspects of our unsustainability are due to failure to consider all the consequences of our economic activities and consumption patterns.

In today's complex world, we can no longer afford the risks and failures that result from the compartmentalized structure of government, academia, business and most other human activities. A capacity for holistic or systems thinking should be one of the basic goals of education, in complement to whatever specialization is relevant to the natural talents of each and everyone. We may even need to create the specialization of “generalist” able to integrate all the relevant domains of knowledge in a particular management context.

We know that this is humanly possible, both because of those exceptional individuals in the past who mastered many fields, and because this is among the ambitious goals of the Bahá'í Faith. In that wonderful manual for the construction of a modern nation, “The Secret of Divine Civilization”, written by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1875, the standard of the “learned” includes “perfection in learning and the cultural attainments of the mind”. This should comprise a thorough knowledge of those complex and transcendental realities pertaining to God; the sacred scriptures and laws of all the religions; the natural sciences; those regulations and procedures contributing to progress and civilization; the laws and principles, the customs, traditions and manners, and the moral and material virtues of every nation; all the useful branches of learning of the day; and the historical records of bygone governments and peoples. He admits that such fully developed and comprehensively learned individuals are presently hard to come by, and could be replaced with a body of scholars each expert in one of the above branches of knowledge. However by setting such a standard, we know it is humanly possible, and future educational systems will have this as a basic purpose. In this sense, the standard of excellence in holistic thinking is very high indeed.

Already today, a holistic approach can be of great value in business strategy and management, governance and scientific research, among others. So how can we develop the capacity to think systemically, integrating all the relevant perspectives and kinds of knowledge to address a particular challenge? In a group setting, thinking systemically is a dynamic process achieved through a cycle of action, observation/reflection and consultation among stakeholders. It means learning to think about all facets of a system or process, integrating all the dimensions and their interactions. Tools like scenario building and back-casting can help to develop systems thinking in planning for the future. Learning to analyze symptoms and trace back to underlying causes, values and motivations can help to identify where action can be most effective.

Sustainability is one issue where holistic thinking is most important, exploring the balance between the economic, social, environmental and cultural/ethical dimensions of development. However, since it is impossible to anticipate all the complexities of the combination of human and natural systems at multiple scales, the most rational approach is to practice adaptive management, following the type of cycle of action, reflection and consultation mentioned above. Other important principles are precautionary action, and ensuring the right signaling mechanisms with indicators and full-cost accounting.

Last updated 21 May 2012