The purpose of a system is what it does

The purpose of a system is what it does

The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does, (often shortened to POSIWID) is a systems thinking heuristic coined by Stafford Beer.

Origins of term

Stafford Beer coined the term POSIWID and used it many times in public addresses. Perhaps most forcefully in his address to the University of Valladolid, Spain in October 2001, he said "According to the cybernetician the purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment or sheer ignorance of circumstances." [cite journal
last = Beer
first = Stafford
authorlink = Anthony Stafford Beer
year = 2002
title = What is cybernetics?
journal = Kybernetes
volume = 31
issue = 2
pages = 209-219
publisher = MCB UP Ltd
doi = 10.1108/03684920210417283
url =
accessdate = 2008-08-24

Uses of term

The term is now widely used by systems theorists. It is generally invoked to counter the notion that the purpose of a system can be read from the intentions of those who design, operate or promote it. From a cybernetic perspective complex systems are not controllable by simple notions of management, and interventions in a system can best be understood by looking at how they affect observed system behavior. When "side effects" or "unintended consequences" reveal that system behavior is poorly understood then taking the POSIWID perspective allows the more political understandings of system behavior to be balanced by a more straightforwardly descriptive view. For example, if the effect of world trade is to make developed nations rich at the expense of less developed nations then that is its purpose, and for a cybernetician it is down to the sponsors of world trade to show grounds for the purpose being conceived otherwise.

The term is used in many fields including biology, [cite book | last = Boogerd | first = Fred | title = Systems Biology | publisher = Elsevier Science | location = Amsterdam | year = 2007 | isbn = 0444520856 ] , economics, [cite newsgroup
title = Nothing Happens by Accident, Don't Panic!: Transgenerational Financial Terrorism
author = BarnacleBob
date = 11-02-2004
newsgroup =
id =
url =
accessdate = 2008-09-29
] and business management. [Citation
last = Ward
first = Aidan
author-link =
last2 = Smith
first2 = John
author2-link =
title = Trust and Mistrust : Radical Risk Strategies in Business Relationships
place =
publisher = John Wiley & Sons
year = 2003
volume =
edition =
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 978-0470853184


External links

* [ A relevant excerpt from "Systems Biology", from Google Booksearch.]

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