Form-function; structure-function

In a private communication, @engdan asked:

We often speak of form and function but the Systems Changes speaks about structure and function. How can do these use of terms relate (or do they relate?)

More precisely, the phrase “form follows function” comes from architecture. On Wikipedia, the entry on Form follows function leads to another entry on Functionalism (architecture) as one of multiple entries associated with Functionalism.

An architect of a built environment works in form that is material. However, there are systems that are not material, e.g. information systems. In computer systems, we can clearly differentiate between logical designs and physical designs.

In my systems thinking lectures, I typically speak about function (as contribution of the part to the whole), structure (as arrangement in space) and process (as arrangement in time), based on personal communications with Jamshid Gharajedaghi (before he published his book on Systems Thinking). Jamshid had spoken at the ISSS 1999 meeting (see the digest), and was a consultant who worked with Russell Ackoff. (@davidlhawk was at the ISSS 1999 Asilomar meeting, so we both remember Jamshid interrupting his talk to answer his mobile phone).

As I’ve lectured before, I often start beginners with Ackoff because he’s clear, not always because I agree with him. Ackoff was an architect before he became a professor of systems thinking, and thus could be described as a functionalist. However, as we broaden our perspective (to appreciate a general theory of systems), the definitions may be okay, but our use may be reified.

With Systems Changes Learning, we’re taking a processual-first (i.e. process-first) approach over the functional-first (i.e. function-first) approach. It could be argued that Christopher Alexander (particularly in The Timeless Way of Building) was an architect who did not ascribe to a functionalist approach, preferring something more processual.

To be more transparent, if you watch my video lectures at OCADU, I’ve traditionally had one slide that uses the function-structure-process distinctions. Since 2018, as a result of the research with Open Innovation Learning, I’ve added behaviour to that slide. Builders of physical spaces tend to not talk about behaviour, but human beings working with living systems do.

1 Like

This takes me back to the question you often ask in classes: which comes first, structure or process? It was a real a-ha moment when I realised that even mountains are just really slow processes.

1 Like
Creative Commons Licence Contributions to the Open Learning Commons are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Please honor the spirit of collective open learning by citing the author(s) in the context of a dialogue and/or linking back to the original source.