Is a Conversation a System?

Last weekend I wrote a post about Collaborative Computer-Assisted Argument Visualization, or CCSAV. In the spirit of systems thinking, I am inclined today to explore how that fits into the bigger picture. To do so, I’m going to start off with a bit of a step back.

Collaboritve CSAV, or any kind of CSAV, is a specific form of dialogue mapping. Dialogue mapping is a simple concept with powerful potential. In my time, I’ve attended just a few workshops and meetings where a facilitator artfully mapped out contributions from the group onto a whiteboard or flip chart, drawing up categories and occasionally illustrating links between the two. If you ask me, that is a form of dialogue mapping. CSAV is, of course, another form, and you can read all about it in my first post on this blog. Simon Buckingham Shum laid out the 2010 televised election debate in the UK using a CSAV tool, and it’s a really great example.

But what does this have to do with systems thinking in a broader sense? Well, as is becoming a common refrain in my discussion of systems thinking, I am not 100% sure. However, I am at least able to draw some connections. A 1956 paper by Kenneth Boulding laid out a hierarchy of systems. The first levels of the hierarchy seem to map easily onto things like physics and other natural laws. Then moving up we get a few more levels, like the cell level, and then a few levels later, the human level. The level just above humans is the one that intrigues me most, quite likely because it is the level that I’ve devoted the majority of my studies to: the level of social organizations. Systems thinking evolved in the decades following Boulding’s paper, but reading it did cause me to ask the question: what level would CSAV fit into as a system? And I believe the answer would be the level of social organization. According to Boulding, the “unit” of a social organization systems is not the human, but the “role,” and a role is a part of a person. I think this maps quite neatly onto the concept of a dialogue, or argument.  But what really is the system here? I suppose everything is a system. But is a tool, a technique, really a system? Here’s an idea I’m a lot more comfortable with, and I think has more potential: a conversation is a system.

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to dive into Boulding’s 1956 paper for the rest of this post. I’m here to synthesize! And I’m well aware that decades-old works should not be taken by themselves. So, thinking more about how a conversation is a system leads me once again to the question of, what is a system? As Dori and Sillito (2017) point out, there are many definitions that come out of different communities. As I wrote in my previous post, it seems that gaining a broad understanding of systems is more important than finding the correct definition for the word “system.”

That brings me to a an important concept I learned this week: Object-Process Methodology (OPM), a model-based methodology for visualizing systems. A leading expert on OPM is Dov Dori, whose hour-long webinar explaining OPM is freely available on youtube. According to Dori, OPM is one of six foremost methodologies for model-based systems engineering. I highly recommend the video, as it is a pretty clear overview of OPM, which is designed to be intuitive.

My major takeaway is this:

  • Objects are things
  • Processes are things that transform objects
  • It’s helpful to diagram a system in an Object Process Diagram (OPD)
  • It would be useful if we adopted a single language universally– Object Process Language (OPL)

There are of course some more key terms and concepts, which Dori explains in a paper that supplements the webinar quite well.

So, back to conversations as systems. I’m immensely curious about what a well-made OPD of a conversation would look like. I wonder if it would be too complex a system to even try to map out. But here are some ideas I came up with based on the thought, just a brainstorm:


  • Idea
  • Feeling
  • Speaker


  • Tacit
  • Explicit
  • Knows
  • Does not know


  • Expression
  • Reception
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis

A problem I’m already encountering is, where do we draw the line between conversation and thinking? The two are so interdependent. This leads me to a much broader question: when diagramming systems, how does one decide where to draw the boundaries of that system? I’m looking forward to gaining a broader understanding that might serve to flesh out these ambiguities.

Next week’s workshop: Idealized Design and Soft Systems Methodology.

References / Further Reading

Boulding, Kenneth (1954). “General Systems Theory.” Management Science, 2, 3 (Apr. 1956) pp.197-208.

Buckingham Shum, Simon. 2010. “Real-Time Mapping Election TV Debates.” April 15, 2010.

Dori, Dov. 2006. “Modeling Knowledge with Object-Process Methodology.” In Encyclopedia of Knowledge Management, 683–93. Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Dori, Dov. 2014. OPM as the ISO Conceptual Modeling Language Standard. Web Video. MIT.

Dori, Dov, and Hillary Sillitto. 2017. “What Is a System? An Ontological Framework.” Systems Engineering 20 (3):207–19. Abstract and paywalled article available at:

Iandoli, Luca, Ivana Quinto, Anna De Liddo, and Simon Buckingham Shum. 2016. “On Online Collaboration and Construction of Shared Knowledge: Assessing Mediation Capability in Computer Supported Argument Visualization Tools.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 67 (5):1052–1067.


2 thoughts on “Is a Conversation a System?

  1. Wow, you’re pulling hard towards epistemology (or at least ontology), whereas the course is really supposed to be working on techne. I’m reminded by an INCOSE fellow who said that engineering (as applied science) precedes science. Practically, we don’t need to know why something works (i.e. episteme) for us productively use it (techne).

    That being said, I’ll provide some quick references that are way beyond the scope of the discussion of Day 2.

    If you were really interested in conversation theory, the place to look would be in the community following Gordon Pask, e.g. on Paul Pangaro’s site, see .

    From computer science, Terry Winograd (with influences by Fernando Flores, influenced by Hubert Dreyfus), you’ll end up in the Language Action Perspective, see .

    To tie everything up, you should look at Peter Jones | “The Language/Action Model of Conversation: Can conversation perform acts of design?” | Interactions | January 2010 at .

    After that, you really should attend Systems Thinking Ontario, because it’s an offshoot of the Design with Dialogue community started by Peter Jones.


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