Sustaining a superior rural system   

A Systems Approach:
Notes for a New Community

by Robert H. Giles, Jr., Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, College of Natural Resources
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
April, 2003

There are hermits and then there are groups. Families are a small group, but they can be at odds with each other. A community is more than a group. It is more than a place on a map and where people live. There are useful relations within it. My wife broke her hip; she was glad for a lot of help, a special kind of relationship in her two-person community … then an amazing number in a medical and caring community. Sport teams know the importance of teamwork and the difference such work can make in championship contests. Companies experience profits from mass purchasing. Being a hermit will suffice for a while but it's not a bad idea to be a functional community.

How to be a good community may not even be a good question. We are a community!; we just "are." There is rarely any discussion of being good or even better. We just are a community. I think that "how to be a good community?" is a good question because it begins to face the question of what one is, then what it does, and then what it might do. How can we answer that question and the later ones are sketched within this little paper.

When personally hurting, sad, sick, afraid, really tired, or cut off from being a member of a community, there is not much energy…none!…to think about and plan for new or improved communities. The power of the community, however, is that there is never more than a little surplus energy but that it can be directed for the betterment of everyone. I want to present ideas for betterment and as a group those ideas and actions can be called an approach. I've tested this approach, as have others, for well over 50 years and find it worth recommending.
Not the place to do comparative studies of "approaches," nevertheless a look at the alternatives may be convincing that the systems approach is worth considering.

Lindbloom advocated "muddling through" since there are so many uncertainties, changes, and chance events in most modern situations.

"Eclectic" or using an un-named combination of approaches and practices is widely practiced.

"Sequential" is ok for simple sets of problems, but many things have to be solved simultaneously.

A "game theory" approach is interesting but defining the meaning of "win" is difficult in complex systems. Some people may chose to play conservatively, others not be averse to risks at all.

A "philosopher/religious leader" approach works for some as they ask in each decision and situation, what would the leader do? Unique and new events pose special problems, and of course there is no way to check on the interpretation.

One element of a systems approach is called synergism. Its best example is the question of: when does 1 + 1 + 1 = 4? The implication is that more can be gotten from a system than is usually thought. Systems work seems to go against some of the laws of nature. The answer is: when the three things are triangles, and they are arranged as a tetrahedron (shown here) thus there are four triangles. Synergism occurs in insecticides so that when two are mixed carefully, they can be more effective than either one used separately. (The threat of pollutants is just this same, but bad, effect.) With planning and knowledge of systems, synergism can be gained. Synergism can make communities special. It can allow truly unbelievable systems to emerge.

The closed system of modified general systems theory.
A community can be seen as a system and within that synergism can be discovered. Different definitions exist for a systems approach. I like to think of it as using the adjacent picture most of the time. At least it is an answer to the common question of "how can we get it all together?" and a response to "Things are so complicated! Things seem so different! How can we organize or ideas and activities? How can we communicate better?" If we were playing ball and had a coach, how would we improve as a team? What would he/she tell us?

I think the answers are in taking a systems approach. It may mean just using the six parts. It may mean a common way for a group to communicate. It may mean a rapid move to advanced procedures and techniques…or none of these. Just knowing how some people approach life may be of at least passing personal interest.


A person taking a systems approach sees things as subsystems. He or she puts a box around them, temporarily, so that the thing can be studied, looked at, worked with. It's just temporary. In the next step, the move is either to look more closely (make the box smaller) or be more expansive. You can't handle everything at once! Some people try to do so. Not enough people can see the total picture, even the big picture, to even make it interesting to discuss. We need to build. We need the design, but we need the bricks, the pieces and parts. We "go large" or "go small" as we see the needs, but we do not get lost (except for fun) in vague discussions about regional monetary policy … unless the committee's charge (the context) is to write such a policy.

In rural conditions, the context can be the farm, the pond, the store, or the mine. The "mine," for example, may be too large a context for work for it means many things and has many components and conditions. Temporary smaller systems should be named, worked on, then more precise systems used (e.g., highwalls in region x) or a larger system (e.g., acid drainage in y stream). An ecosystem like a white pine forest might be the context for some work. "That business" (pointing at it) may be the context for another system. The concept of the context of a system is dynamic but for practical work it means "that system…now."

Systems have to be somewhere. There has to be a named place -- a structure, a situation. Seeing and naming that is part of specifying and naming the context. Discussing "a mine" without naming, and think about a company, national laws, and recent transportation and labor union policy can be little more than an exercise.

The system named and put in the first context box might be the Clearfork Collaborative or Quilts, but that seems to be a large "box." It might be best to start with small boxes (temporary, as mentioned above) that are the "bricks" building the larger structure. For Quilts, we call these "nodes."These may be named health, forestry, employment, landscaping, etc.


There is no best place to start taking a systems approach. I think starting with clear objectives is the best place, but sometimes that is so difficult, it is best to start almost anywhere and then to work gradually toward stating and clarifying objectives. Hours will be spent debating what are goals and objectives and their differences unless people see that there are 7 types of objectives. Knowing this and working on them will allow most time to be spent of the tough task of defining primary objectives. Table 1 lists the types of objectives.
Table 1. Types of objectives (with wildlife resource examples)

There are 7 types of objectives. They have similarities to subsystem components. They are not hierarchical, not "levels." The list:

  1. General
  2. Fundamental
  3. Success Criterion
  4. Constraints
  5. Primary
  6. Actions
  7. Futuristic

General: vague; bylaws; political; include and exclude

Fundamental Objectives (a sample of 4 from 14 typically listed for wildlife management) are:

  1. Wilderness - To maintain fauna in a wilderness environment in variety and normal abundance compatible with other wilderness uses and adjoining land uses.
  2. Esthetic - To produce numbers, species, and characteristics of fauna in the proper setting for esthetic benefits to the maximum number of appreciative people.
  3. Trophy - To produce quantities of quality faunal trophies.
  4. Sporting Recreation - To produce the maximum amount and variety of recreation for people through all faunal use activities, observations, and experiences.

Success Criterion: The means for deciding whether objectives are being achieved; the objective function: Examples: B/C, present net value, minimize risk, maximize profit, or stabilize an index of performance.

Constraints: Policy like; equivalent to "Do x subject to y"; "subject to y" is a constraint; examples "to underspend the allotted money", "to operate safely", "to avoid offending person P"

Primary: Working rules of the manager; specific; measurable; the i's of the Benefit equation; functional; examples "To maximize the number of trophy animals taken having a score greater then x"; "To maximize a law enforcement compliance index in the region"; "To minimize maximum annual stream turbidity."

Actions: Confused with primary; means to other objectives; example "To build 100 wood duck boxes" is a type of objective, the success of which might help achieve a primary objective of "To maximize the number of people in a region that see a male wood duck annually."

Futuristic: Related to feedforward; specific to encourage and require improved study of the future and to bring such study results into daily decision; example "To maximize use of time series analyses of big game harvests"; "To maximize the number of years in the horizon used in planning."

"If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." Cute statement! Almost anyone who has gone to a committee meeting knows the feeling. "Sunday driving," just "out" and looking around, seems all too common. Taking the systems approach means pressing for objectives, making them clear. Trying to get them to meet all of the criteria of good objectives (Table 2) is part of taking the approach.
Table 2. A guide for evaluations the wording and structure of objectives
  1. It is important, worthy of specific consideration, and non-trivial.
  2. It is not a step to a higher objective.
  3. It goes beyond preventing deleterious effects.
  4. There is believed to be one or more ways of achieving it at some level.
  5. It attains at a level beyond presently known capabilities of use or benefit.
  6. It has no hidden objective.
  7. It tends to be long-term.
  8. Agreement on acceptable units of measure of attainment (at least tentative indexes) can be reached.
  9. Progress toward it can be measured.
  10. It expresses as a production function what to obtain or to retain.
  11. It is flexible, allowing for adjustment to new directions or conditions.
  12. It contains no methodology.
  13. It cannot be combined with another objective on the basis of the participant.
  14. It has been written for the proper audience.
  15. It can be understood to at least three people's mutual satisfaction.
  16. It is grammatically correct.
  17. It is brief.

Suppose someone working with a game or wildlife group said that they "wanted more raccoons." The person taking the systems approach would probably ask: "More, as compared to what?" After an answer, then they would press for answers to and the specifics for "more pelts?," "better prices for the same pelts?," or perhaps: "more sightings of raccoons throughout the year?" (the same number of animals might suffice). Later may come the questions: At what cost? How stable? Even if they become pests? Even if reports of rabies increase? Clarifying objectives and writing them so that they might be used in a meeting on accountability needs to be done. Imagine the demand from a consultant in a legal debate: "You said you wanted more raccoons! We signed a contract. I trapped one and brought it into the county. You have more raccoons than you had before. Now pay me!"

But that's not what we meant!!!

Taking a systems approach includes avoiding such situations.
Importantly, it allows everyone to work together for the same end (suggested if people are the arrows in the sketch at the left).


Collecting information and storing it and retrieving it are processes that I shall discuss next. The inputs are the facts and figures. Data are numbers and words; information is the sense made from processing data. Decisions are made from among alternatives that are, hopefully, based on information . To get to those alternatives, facts and figures and information are assembled, processed, and alternatives created. Inputs are the stuff from which decision alternatives are made.

For a house (considered as a system) the inputs are lumber, roofing, concrete, nails, etc.

In an animal considered as a system, the inputs are food, water, energy, etc.

In a community considered as a system, there are conventional physical inputs such as water, electricity, radio waves, precipitation, dust and air pollution, imported foods, imported clothing. There are also people moving into the community (inputs to the population). There are books and TV ideas and images (e.g., of better or worse living conditions) that are inputs.

There is a large modern field of information technology. It is about collecting, sending, storing, and retrieving facts and figures. What to do with such information banks (built and maintained at high cost) is the systems question to be answered first by referring to … what are the objectives?

People think "garbage in, garbage out" is a funny phrase and a way to poo-poo information. Mistakes in entering data are well known, but also well known are mistakes made in the family checkbook. Of course information needs to be clean and well processed but modern systems have ways of checking, cleaning up, and flagging mistakes. A systems approach uses information dynamically. It is probably always changing; it can be improved; it needs to be treated with caution but, over time with many samples, it can get better and better. Recycling is a good idea for information, as well as waste paper.

Research is a well-known, well-tested process that when well-done results in reported conclusions. When local and national systems are working well, these conclusions become inputs to design and decisions for new products, new methods, and new systems. They have no special power of themselves. They are often stored on shelves and discovered years later. The notable discovery is when a conclusion becomes an input to an explanation or a prediction.

When objectives are clear, not one extra unit of information or one extra input is needed. Inputs are gathered and allow in for the explicit objectives. Clear objectives are likely to provide enormous economies.

We are now learning that nature works in fairly simple ways. We need to learn more about these simple links and processes. We need to learn in order to reduce the risks of decision making and taking actions. Research is always trying to simplify and control systems, to reduce the variation, to increase the confidence in decisions. The scientist needs to know: If I apply this much fertilizer, does it really increase the crop and pay off, or is the change just my imagination and possibly due to chance? Research is the practiced way to try to get confident answers to such questions. In human or ecological communities, things are rarely so clear. Large samples cannot be gotten. Each community is unique. Thus a systems approach may be the only reasonable, cost-effective way to solve the problems of communities and engage them in creative, dynamic efforts for their future.


Inputs are processed in order to achieve objectives. (Research conclusions, above, are processed by thoughtful people to help understand the present and past world and to be able to make better estimates and predictions. Those predictions, often in mathematical equations, can be used in simulations, discussed below.)

People always seem to want more information. Modern sampling procedures show that getting more data can be costly and not needed. The perfect sample size can be calculated. Processes improve the inputs, both the amount as well as the quality. Mistakes can be recognized and dropped from data sets, for example.

"Getting the facts" is often stated as a big need and "getting" is the process verb, but being able to process them well, consistently, and logically may be as important as having precision and confidence in the inputs for the system.

Once a systems approach is used, it becomes evident that many things seem to be systems. They have the same six components. When recognized, then the same practices, procedures, computer programs, etc. can be used to solve well other problems…very effectively.

A systems approach usually leads to computer uses for they are fast processors. Wonderful techniques have been created for simulating crop growth, transportation systems, maps from satellites, power line location and, of course, the human body and the now-well-known advances in understanding the genetics of families and populations.

It is possible to pick the best options out of hundreds of thousands of combinations and permutations of facts and figures…if the objective is clear. This is called optimization. Around for years, it needs to be applied in small communities for everything from the optimum shape of rabbit hutches to the proper number of board feet to be taken from a mountain tract, given tree growth rates, money interest rates, and costs of logging…and the potential income from recreation and other activities on the same tract when done every year. I once (with my graduate students) located with a computer the optimum corridor for a high-voltage power line over a 70-mile route. It picked the best route (lowest cost as well as lowest environmental impact) from hundreds of thousands of possible corridors. We used a computer system with a computer program, a sub-system.

Simulation is a computer process that can benefit businesses and communities. A computer syatem can be created that gives a computer picture of the community and answers the question "what if…I make this change? What will be the consequences? " The change could be of building a road, building 5 homes, moving the school, putting in a pond, allowing a power line to come through. It displays the answers as consequences. Only with clear objectives can you tell whether the consequences are good or "ok" or bad. Simulation usually leads to optimization because once the decision process is seen clearly, people start leaning in this direction, and the demand increases, and objectives are reformulated and the shift is made from simulation to optimization.

There are many other processes useful. Some are pure logic. Others are found in statistics, some in economics, some in expert systems. Other non-computer systems also have processes. They are the verbs such as build, restore, tear down, meet, design, and try to improve.

Forming good committees is a process. Conducting them well, a "science and art," is another process. Committees need inputs (facts, figures, data, answers to specific questions, even advisors). They need a context too, and that includes knowledge of their budget, time to report, limits on members, and information about the charges that have been given to related committees. An agenda for each meeting is part of the context. Equally important, they need clear objectives. There are two other main parts of a system. Using them all together, most of the time, is taking the systems approach.


It seems too straightforward to discuss: you have objectives and so you get some stuff and process it to achieve those objectives. That is true. This is the most elementary form of the systems approach. A decision itself can be seen as an elementary system. You form a desired outcome, you gather some figures and apply some statistics and form some alternatives, and decide. The output of the system is the decision, an instant of time. Then you develop a system to implement the system.

Feedback is what happens next after the decision is made. In the human, they are usually asking in the next instant: was it the right one, did I have the right information, did I add them properly, and did I see the objective the same as the board of directors? Feedback is being applied.

Feedback is not monitoring. It goes beyond just keeping tab on the environment or on machinery. The concept is one of actively studying all parts of the system and actively correcting or adjusting the parts that seem "off." The objective may be clarified; there may be excessive data being collected; computers might be used when only a calculator is needed … these could be found. Feedback is checking and improving the system…relative to the objectives. It is making things better, correcting things…as compared to what? …the objectives!

Recent papers have discussed "adaptive strategies." This is old wine in new bottles. It just formalizes the idea of checking all parts of the system (even the feedback process itself), comparing them once they are used to the stated objectives, and making some cost effective changes. Large social and environmental systems are unique and do not yield well to classical science. Using the feedback component well can allow a dynamic, improving system to exist. What better? That's the feedback question, and the work is that of properly changing and adjusting to new objectives and dynamic conditions.

Some people use "feedback" simply to mean a response to a statement or speech. There is much more to it than that simple activity.


Rarely mentioned (it does not occur in nature) and usually not considered by classical scientists, feedforward is the concept of changing the present system to adjust it now to the predicted system. Not futurism, it makes and relies on predictions, and makes changes, based on them. It is a "look-ahead" function but it goes beyond that to make change based on what that "look" produces.

We cannot know the future. Neither, can we ignore it. If the only store in town is closing in a month, the community might need to find a way to open another one, find a way to bring in the missing goods and services, or make other arrangements. Waiting 30 days for some shortages is not engaging in feedforward.

If our objective is to double the recreational quality experienced in the area, and knowing what we know about recreation and crowding, we can spend much money on facilities…or halve the number of participants. Both would achieve the objective… but it is probably not exactly what was desired. Whether we cut down the participants by zoning, licenses, or cost increases makes no difference here. We could predict the numbers will decrease and we might get awful scores because of that, even after spending enormous amounts to improve the quality score. We have to try to see the future (e.g., use statistics and models) so that we can properly judge what is happening and adjust out efforts and expenditures to that likely future. I compare it to hunting. The bird hunter "leads the target," shooting in the space ahead of the flying bird. Decision-makers need to prepare for the present system as it might change, emerging into a changed world…even in a few years. Planning periods of 5 years are ok for some people and annual crops; planning periods of 150 years are appropriate for trees and human conditions.

So What?

I and hundreds of other people think that taking a systems approach is a good idea. I keep applying feedback to that idea and have done so for 40 years and it has not drastically changed. I've used computers, based on the approach, and find that my best personal un-aided-by-computer efforts are always "off" from the computer solutions. Computers can improve my best decisions by at least 10 percent.

When my decisions are improved my risks are reduced. When those around me understand the systems approach, we communicate better, work more effectively. We have the same difficulty in stating objectives, but once we do, we can agree on cost-effective solutions much more rapidly.

Later, after using the approach, the use of computers just seems normal. We can use them or get others to use them for us. We build databases and harvest real gains from those enormous ones already built at such great cost to taxpayers. We use the Internet as a data processor as well as a communications medium. We have a database about the land and can be precise in making recommendations for each tract, each 30 x 30 meter spot on Earth. Since we know growing season, precipitation, soil, etc. (It potentially reduces our costs and risks and increases our profits…and the costs per item go down, the more we use the database.) We've found the optimum cattle herd size for Wise County, Virginia, abandoned surface mines, simulated the effects of a proposed hunting season on a deer population, calculated the pine harvest to achieve the most money over time and yet achieve a diverse forest for wildlife. We've found the optimum squirrel hunting season, designed wildlife law enforcement strategies, analyzed the information needed for decision making within a national resource agency. We've provided forest- and farm-specific advice in TVA. We've designed a dynamic planning system so that people can get their plans off the Internet…not from "that dusty book up there on the shelf." We designed an automated environmental impact system for general aviation airports, reducing by millions the costs to taxpayers. We've designed a rural enterprise, a system of 50-plus small companies, which can improve the land, make money, and provide employment ( ). We've created a small objectives advisory system for neighborhoods and small communities. Sure, we've built accounting systems and sophisticated budgeting systems, student grade systems, and even done distance-learning courses for graduate students via the Internet. But we've also used a systems approach to select a graduate school, buy a car, and even buy a book. It works. It pays off. It's the best available…until something much better comes along (that's the influence of feedback).

In the literature of a systems approach and general system theory I have found no discussion of "getting one started." A seed (from somewhere) gets the tree system started. Seeing a bunch of trees is all that is needed to start thinking about "forests." A spark is all that is needed to ignite the energy in a can of gasoline (system parts of feedback and feedforward are missing). Getting a real community, a business, a conglomerate started are creative acts. They have the highest chance for success when the participants use a systems approach.

A Small Vision

A sharp blow to the head with a small hammer will cause a small vision. Another kind could be of a group of people realizing some difficulties, needs, and increased risks that would say, "We can become a functioning community." They would take a systems approach, clarify their objectives. They would deny starting with "what's the problem?" since problems exist in the gap between where we are and where we want to be. This is called "starting at the end." We start with where (or what) we want to be. After clarifying objectives, they would begin finding the paths to those objectives. First, strangely,they would look into the future with all the help they can get and begin making decisions based on their beliefs for the next 5 to 10 years. They would use existing data banks and information, develop subsystems for achieving each objective, work on gaining synergism among the systems, constantly review and revise the objectives in the first year, seek the energy for the system (as needed, based on the objectives), develop the processes, and expand the context…just to see if economies could be gained by working with similar, nearby groups or with distant groups connected by the Internet. They would find the factors to which the objectives were most sensitive and work on them.

It is amazing what influence a vision can have. The vision is of a community of people deciding for themselves what they hold to be a high quality of life and seeing their progress toward that in the best way possible, using a systems approach.

Perhaps you will share ideas with me
about some of the topic(s) above at

Maybe we can work together
... for the good of us all
... for a long time.

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