There has been much attention on the London Underground in the past few days. It reminded me of an experience I had standing on one of the station platforms.
The London Underground is the oldest, busiest (and most expensive) Underground railway in the world. Parts of it have a feeling of having been there forever (they really creak, too). Recently, whilst changing trains at Baker Street station, on the oldest of the lines (“the brown one”), I was intrigued by a sign on the platform that proudly announced that this was the very first Underground station to open in London. The obvious question, of course, is, where did the trains go on the opening day?
A similar thought struck my mind when considering the wheel. To be honest, a single wheel is not much of an invention. Its really only useful as a childs toy. But put an axle between two wheels and we’re talking a whole different story. And the fax machine, too. What did the owner of the very first fax machine actually do with it?
These are examples of (simple) complex systems. In these types of systems, the more connections that exist between component parts of the system, the more impressive, useful and powerful the whole system itself becomes (the Internet is the best current example). In these cases, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The same is true when we think of businesses today.

We are increasingly competing on the basis of our connections, rather than the quality, price and placing of our products. As the 21st century unfolds, more and more, competitive advantage, and even survival, will be predicated on our ability to attract, retain, motivate and get the best of today’s “bright young things”. This new generation of young people have grown up in the digital era, where technology is a utility and a new set of values is beginning to emerge. This new crop of customers and employees are system thinkers, having been forced from an early age to survive a deluge of data, and sink or swim in the sea of information overload.
Today’s young people need to be good at finding and assessing data and facts, analysing and synthesizing like never before. The best of them engage within a context, and then often mentally step away to create higher level mental models and frameworks to guide them in their further interactions with information. This is not a new approach, but historically it has been the preserve of the cleverest philosophers alone, rather than a necessary survival skill for life.
John Seely Brown, as head of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), has explained it this way (quoted in Growing Up Digital, Don Tapscott, McGraw Hill, 1998 – get it here at
“In our generation (referring to Baby Boomers), we reach for the manuals – if we don’t know how to do something, we ask. We don’t engage directly with the unknown and then do sense-making afterwards. Kids today engage and synthesize. Our generation is good at the analysis of things, as opposed to the synthesis of things.”
Systems theory is all around us. It was Peter Senge who first popularized the notion of systems thinking, in his book, The Fifth Discipline (get it here at or The science of the past century has been quantum physics, which emphasizes the fundamental inter-relatedness of everything. Organisations need to take this shift towards systems seriously. It is a matter of survival.

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