Systemic c.f. systematic

The Open University has a good description of “Distinctions between systemic and systematic practice”, written by Professor Andy Lane.

Systemic thinking, thinking in terms of wholes, may be contrasted with systematic thinking, which is linear, step-by-step thinking.

Table 1 summarises some of the characteristics that distinguish between systemic and systematic thinking and action …

For completeness, the interested reader should really refer to the original article (with 10 rows). Since I’m a stickler for general systems theory, I’ll comment that most of the students at the Open University are interested in human systems. I’ll highlight some of the rows that might be more acceptable across social systems as well as biological systems.

Systematic thinking Systemic thinking
The whole can be understood by considering just the parts through linear cause-effect mechanisms. Properties of the whole differ, they are said to emerge from their parts; e.g. the wetness of water cannot be understood in terms of hydrogen and oxygen.
Analysis is linear. Systems are characterised by feedback; may be negative, i.e. compensatory or balancing; or positive, i.e. exaggerating or reinforcing.
A situation can be understood by step-by-step analysis followed by evaluation and repetition of the original analysis. Systems cannot be understood by analysis of the component parts. The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties, but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole through studying the interconnections.
There is a foundation on which the parts can be understood. Systems are nested within other systems – they are multi-layered and interconnect to form networks.
Analytical Contextual

Table 1 continues, making the distinction between thinking and action. This is a distinction that I usually prefer to NOT make, although I’m a strong proponent of The Systems Approach and Its Enemies by C. West Churchman. Thus, of the 5 rows, I will emphasize just a few.

Systematic action Systemic action
The espoused role of the decision-maker is that of participant‑observer. In practice, however, the decision-maker claims to be objective and thus remains ‘outside’ the system being studied. The espoused role and the action of the decision-maker is very much part of an interacting ecology of systems. How the researcher perceives the situation is critical to the system being studied. The role is that of participant‑conceptualiser.
Ethics and values are not addressed as a central theme. They are not integrated into the change process; the researcher takes an objective stance. Ethics are perceived as being multi-levelled as are the levels of systems themselves. What might be good at one level might be bad at another. Responsibility replaces objectivity in whole‑systems ethics.

My quibbles with definitions should be seen as context-dependent. The Systems Thinking: Free courses offered by the Open University are the online courses I recommend. (I’m picky).

Source: Andy Lane, “Distinctions between systemic and systematic practice (Week 2, Section 5)”, Mastering systems thinking in practice at

One of the professors at the Open University (who sometimes teaches the for-credit course at ISSS meetings) is Ray Ison. He provides some brief descriptions of concepts, based on experiences teaching at Open University.

Table 1 outlines how we currently explain the ‘S’ words to OU students.

Table 1. Explanations associated with the use of the word ‘system’ and related terms
System An integrated whole distinguished by an observer whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts; from the Greek synhistanai meaning ‘to place together’
System of interest The product of distinguishing a system in a situation, in relation to an articulated purpose, in which an individual or a group has an interest (a stake); a constructed or formulated system, of interest to one or more people, used in a process of inquiry; a term suggested to avoid confusion with the everyday use of the word ‘system’
Systemic thinking The systemic action of our own cognitive system that is not limited to language and logic (background systemic thinking). Within language (i.e. in the foreground) it can be understood as the understanding of a phenomenon within the context of a larger whole; to understand things systemically literally means to put them into a context, to establish the nature of their relationships
Systematic thinking Thinking, which is connected with parts of a whole but in a linear, step-by-step manner
STiP [Systems Thinking in Practice] A term to convey the understanding that systems (systemic + systematic) thinking and practice operate as a duality
Source: Ison (2010)

Systems Thinking in Practice is a program at the Open University in which a MSc, diploma or certificate can be granted.

Source: Ison, Ray (2016). What is Systemic about Innovation Systems? The Implications for Policies. Governance and Institutionalization. In: Francis, J.; Mytelka, L.; van Huis, A. and Röling, N. eds. Innovation Systems: Towards Effective Strategies in support of Smallholder Farmers. Wageningen: Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and Wageningen University and Research (WUR)/Convergence of Sciences-Strengthening Innovation Systems (CoS-SIS), pp. 37–52. Open access version at

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