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Tark 28.9 Mnuscript version 2004-08-16

In: Raimo P. Hämäläinen and Esa Saarinen (eds.). 2004. Systems Intelligence – Discovering a Hidden Competence in Human Action and Organizational Life, Helsinki University of Technology: Systems Analysis Laboratory Research Reports, A88, October 2004.
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Systems Intelligent Awareness and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Matti Knaapila

We present herein the phenomenological notes on Systems Intelligence introduced by Hämäläinen and Saarinen and revisit Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. We extend the common picture of The Art of War from the static to the dynamic and find that Sun Tzu’s ideas of realizing opportunities by adequate timing represent Systems Intelligence being crafted by information centricity and unexpected methods. We suggest that this form of Systems Intelligence both realizes and requires early comprehension, ‘systems intelligent awareness’, borrowing from situation awareness concept but particularly contributing to creative work with personal emphasis. Characteristics of early comprehension in a simple multi-disciplinary team have been discussed as a prototype example.


Where holistic systems thinking introduced by Churchman, Senge, and others (Churchman 1968, Senge 1990, Senge et al. 1994, Checkland 1999, Flood 2002) appears a contrast to isolated analytic thinking—Systems Intelligence (SI)1—reaches beyond both. SI was formulated for the first time by Saarinen et al. (2004b) and Slotte (2004) as intelligent behaviour in complex human systems involving interaction and feedback. The first thoughts on SI are described in Bäckström et al. (2003). Word for word, SI links intelligence with the system concept similar to that in the systems thinking referring to the dynamic complex wholeness of human thinking and activity whose emergent properties cannot be explained by regarding the properties of its parts alone. Further, according to Saarinen et al. (2004b), SI combines insights from a variety of disciplines and schools of thought having a particular inspiration in the work of Senge (1990) where the concepts of personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning are formulated, and where systems thinking is understood as the fifth discipline combining the four first disciplines. However, while the method in systems thinking is considered from a distance, SI assumes an observer to be an active part of it. According to Slotte (2003), the understanding of the concept requires understanding thinking as a process (see also Bohm 1996). Saarinen et al. (2004b) and Slotte (2004) find that SI is a key form of human behavioural intelligence, hitherto not formulated as such. There are several further interpretations and Bäcström (2004), Salonen (2004), and Vilén (2004), for example, emphasise social skills in SI. SI differs clearly from traditional intelligence concepts and adds both to emotional intelligence (Goleman 1995) and multiple intelligence (Gardner 1983).

Competition is an inevitable part of life whether we like it or not. The discussion of general principles in competition has always fascinated scholars and—like the development of SI— been motivated by the necessity of formulating practical advice for human activities. In the vast literature and tradition of strategy and decision making, the oldest text of the kind, Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War has been translated and rewritten on several occasions (e.g. Sun Tzu 19102, 1963, 1988, Sun Tzu and Sun Pin 1996, or Krause 2002). While little is known about the exact birth of the 25 centuries old text, the ideas have since been relatively well-analyzed in literature. Besides the natural interest in military history (e.g. Turner and Vandervort 1997), and modern military (e.g. Arm-San Kim 2002), The Art of War has been discussed in terms of business (e.g. McNeilly 1996), or in those of game theory (Niou and Ordeshook 1994), or e.g. with the emphasis on Taoism (cf. Zhuge Liang 1989, Cleary in Sun Tzu 1998). Analogies to the central tenets have been found in international politics (e.g. Barkawi 2004), in strategies of Japanese companies (e.g. Benjamin 1993), or even in evolution theory (Gammel and Hardy 2003). It has been used as a source of inspiration at a highly metaphoric level of SI by the present author (Knaapila 2003). Any gross comparison between ancient war and e.g. business is, of course, irrelevant. Based on contemporary understanding of strategy, much critique can be presented also when The Art of War is read at a metaphoric level (e.g. McCormick 2001 and de Man 2002). The text itself evidently contains peculiarities which have little value or cannot be understood outside their historic framework. Nonetheless, it is a marvel that this ancient book can give us what it does.

In this essay, some features of SI of Saarinen et al. (2004) which relate to rapid comprehension and intelligent action in competition are approached. We refer loosely to situation awareness (SA) (e.g. Endsley 1988, 1995) or situational awareness (e.g. Spick 1988) and team SA (e.g. Endsley 1989 and Salas et al. 1995) which are known as being important factors e.g. for the military (e.g. Kim and Hoffmann 2003, 2004), aircraft pilots (e.g. Spick 1988 and Schnell et al. 2004) or aircraft maintenance teams (e.g. Endsley and Robertson 2000). However, while SA is usually discussed as a factor to prevent erroneous actions in stressed circumstances that are externally regulated (e.g. aviation) or when otherwise a finite number of well-defined options exist, we outline a situation where complexities are faced in creative work with infinite initially unknown options. As a working method, the issue is approached by considering this in the terms of The Art of War. The competition is broadly understood as a system which occurs when we have something important to seize or when we are in danger. Similarly, the war is thought to reflect loosely a contemporary system which occurs within the minds of those who comprise the constituents of an organisation or within an individual (cf. Krause 2002). Where the previous authors considered e.g. game theoretic interpretation of The Art of War, we aim at a new insight, the first systems intelligent interpretation of The Art of War.

We are of course mindful of the cultural evolution that has occurred between the considered texts and therefore our hypothesis is that these sources have totally different character and give opposite advice for one in competition. For this reason, the issue of how to best interpret and analyze them in the context of the overwhelming differences is addressed. Furthermore, it is necessary to highlight which, if not all, aspects of The Art of War fail, particularly from the systems intelligent point of view.

We suppose that the SI discipline still benefits from seeking out analogies, as long as their original character is kept in mind. We are mindful of the risks and traps of this approach and underline that the same phenomenon may be discussed using different concepts but also the same concept (say the harmonic oscillator in physics) can describe phenomena which have nothing to do with each other. In order to avoid artificial narrow-mindedness, such a technique is used as a source of inspiration in many fields. One may refer for example to far reaching analogies between natural sciences and management in managerial cybernetics of organisation presented by Beer (1995), which are yet distinguished. We discuss The Art of War without any strict historic consideration.

Moreover, in this framework, we discuss SI in action and try to get a grip on whether The Art of War can contribute here, too, or not. The practitioner’s discussion is based on the experience in research work and organisations in multi- and inter-disciplinary natural sciences and technology, in Finland (Helsinki University of Technology and University of Helsinki), in UK (University of Durham), in France (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility), in Germany (Deutsches Eletronen-Synchrotron), and in Hungary (Budapest Neutron Centre) as well as with e.g. the University of Wuppertal, University of Groningen, University of Twente, and University of Coimbra, during 1997-2004 having included the work of around 60 co-workers from very different backgrounds and cultures. The individuals and interim organisations reveal the following properties: (i) Traditional intelligence or technical skills do not limit their performance, (ii) An early comprehension is impeded by a serious tendency to be swamped by secondary issues. Their success is determined by how they seize critical information (related to SA) and opportunities (related to SI), (iii) As organisations, they are relatively simple so that we may try to reflect some ideas without the serious expense of generality, important for the general reader and possible future extensions. In the appendix, we present further hypotheses and speculations.


According to Churchill, “The first duty of a university is to teach wisdom, not a trade, character, not technicalities.” (Winston Churchill. House of Commons, September 19, 1950) This sums up what the teaching of Systems Intelligence is much about
urthermore, throughout the essay, we exploit freely a few aspects originating from the extensive ideas of the premier lectures3, Philosophical Lecturing, given by Saarinen (Saarinen and Slotte 2003, Le Bon 2004) and a seminar given by Saarinen and Hämäläinen (Bäckström et al. 2003) at the Helsinki University of Technology in 2000-2002. In particular, given the discussed context, we try to absorb something about Saarinen’s idea for triggering a breakthrough requiring practical knowledge, openness towards others, and tuning to the (mental) upscale register. Further clarifications are made below.

In conclusion, the interpretation of SI made in this paper is much about SA, but SI links SA to a system and long-term work, and applies particularly when creating new, unthinkable options. The facets of The Art of War—the formation of opportunities and their use by means of adequate timing—are in agreement with this view of SI, while issues related to moral and relevance are troublesome. We suggest that The Art of War supports these actions emphasising unorthodox methods, adaptability, and information centricity. Unlike previous authors, we suggest that The Art of War sets an infinite number of strategies which all cannot be known equally by everyone or at any stage, which consequently renders a dynamic rather than a static ‘game is given’ character. Because the cultural and chronological differences between the sources are extreme, we suggest further that the nuance of SI already intuited in The Art of War supports the assumption that SI represents a part of fundamental behavioural intelligence, not restricted to the time or place. Furthermore, we suggest that a major practical obstacle of these actions lies in the difficulty in an early comprehension which may occur irrespective of traditional intelligence. Possibilities to overcome this problem by achieving ‘systems intelligent awareness’ are discussed and proposed borrowing tenets from SA, SI, and dialogue. We finally conclude SI to be a powerful tool in practice and valuable source of inspiration at any level, something which is by no means obvious or available in conventional university teaching.

Systems Intelligence and Situation Awareness

SA represents the detection of the elements in an environment, the understanding of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future (Endsley 1988). In contrast, SI represents an individual’s higher level cognitive capacity. “By observing one’s own interdependence in a feedback intensive environment, one is able to act intelligently” (Saarinen et al. 2004b, p. XX) [present author’s underlining]. Besides concepts familiar from systems thinking, like personal mastery and mental models, or the impact of thinking about thinking (cf. Slotte 2003, 2004, Bohm 1996), SI particularly realizes the systems concept where one, first of all, has the ability to see oneself in it, and, most importantly, to change it in an intelligent way with a pragmatic, active and personal emphasis. This is what we look for in The Art of War later on. As a framework to this emphasis, we present next selected notes on SI. Several generally essential aspects are avoided.

People’s ultimate aim is likely the good life, and their natural interests are likely in their families, friends, and values they believe in, respect and matters of which they dream. People become old, lose opportunities and die, which are good reasons to emphasise the good life here and now. It is plausible that in order to really behave intelligently, one must account for this ultimate timing problem. Also, in our understanding, the morals of SI (cf. Saarinen et al. 2004b) means referring to this issue in one way or another. Key ideas of SI, like perceiving a world through eyes of another person (Churchman 1968, Saarinen et al. 2004) are assumed to facilitate the consideration of moral issues.

At first sight, the competition or The Art of War do not fall well into the purview of seeking the good life or the moral of SI. However, the issue is obviously something highly personal and hard to conceptualise or approach, and this (i.e. the conceptualisation) cannot be our purpose. Rather, we might contribute to the possibility of living the good life by recalling change optimism (Saarinen et al. 2004b), good reputation, fair play, justice, and wisdom – and by encouraging and enriching friends and our beloved ones. We may discuss later how these aspects relate to the title of this paper. As the difficulties and opportunities of life can be extreme and unexpected, we feel that different approaches to these may give tools to unforeseen situations and indirectly help one to achieve or maintain what one really wants, and so avoid what one wants to avoid. SI, as we understand it, is clearly one tool for this purpose and discussion on SI in different unexpected contexts may enrich this tool and, we hope, make it even more personal and existential and thus strengthen one’s mental vehicles to answer how to achieve what one wants - rather than give ready-made answers as to what one should do to achieve what one wants or what one should want.

Thus, from moral point of view, a starting point of SI is an undefined target in the human system. This seems sound. Because SI comprises of an assumption where one is an active part of the system, the ‘system thinker’s’ advice outside reveals a different perspective and may seem useless inside (for someone placed within the system). However, the latter point is not necessarily true and the external view naturally enriches the internal one though the external observer may lack first hand information, which makes his position difficult. Compared to systems thinking, the view of SI seems more challenging: In other words, a Chief Executive Office (CEO) and an analyst have different views on the company and while the work of an analyst is important, it is the work of CEO which is vital. Note that this refers also to the dialogue concepts of Slotte (2003, 2004) where it is described that dialogic systems have no strict target in advance but rather find their targets themselves.

Fundamentals are not directly referred to in Saarinen et al. (2004b) where SI is a multi-disciplinary subject and the underlying principles arise from several disciplines. SI seems underpinned on psychology in order to probe human behaviour and mathematics in order to avoid any slippery slopes of reasoning, misunderstandings of statistics or mixing of correlation and causality. SI emphasises personal characteristic in a way which is hard to conceptualise but the address of conceptualisation of what is hard to conceptualise such as ‘thinking about thinking’ or ‘existential view’, or claims that cannot be proven either true or false is yet clear and we may recall e.g. Russell and ‘the questions to which no definite answer can be given is what is called philosophy’ (Russell 1959, p. 155). Furthermore, SI in art has been discussed by Pakarinen (2004) and Akkanen (2004) elaborating general principles far beyond the ordinary.

In short, it seems clear to us that Saarinen et al. (2004b) and Slotte (2004) are not only applying SI on a wide front but they are also building it on the tradition of various sciences and art in a novel way without any artificial axioms or restrictions. Recognizing this, we find it a particular strength of SI and a requirement for widespread applications and understanding. It is plausible that it is the multi-theoretical approach that provides new insights for multi-disciplinary work. On the other hand, this appears a challenge from the attitudes and communications point of view and therefore skilful execution of SI must be performed. Obstacles in mutual communications may lead to a situation of the blind leading the blind, common in multi-disciplinary work. One may neither feel comfortable with respect to the primary message, if one finds lapses -no matter how secondary- in details related to one’s specific field, which in our experience is one of the starting points of vicious circles in attitudes of multi-disciplinary work. However, we believe that these issues are carefully accounted for by Saarinen et al. (2004b).

SI is pragmatic and applicable by definition (Saarinen et al. 2004b). In applications, SI occurs as a success of the system (Slotte 2003) and the applicability of SI in astonishingly various situations is unquestionably reflected by the present paper collection as well as in Hämäläinen and Saarinen (2004). However, at first sight, this seems to contradict to the generality aspect and directly useful methods are expected to be case sensitive. Again, as discussed above, concepts for use—but no ready-made answers how to use or for which to use them—are dealt with. We assume that this is the fact which renders generality possible. Furthermore, we assume that the lack of those answers is essential for innovation and creative thinking and problem solving.

The application of SI seems to imply that practitioners are able to master their everyday field, broadly understood. We have previously interpreted that in the systemic approach this is actually always true, because one may always define the limits of one’s ‘home ground’ where one is the only master (Knaapila 2003). So, SI would not take the place of professional skills, but rather would add to them. Consequently, if one always masters the ‘home ground’, one can always benefit from SI, no matter what kind of skills one has. Surprisingly, this implicit idea of SI seems to actually relate to the fundamental idea that everyone is able to make significant things in their life (Heidegger 1993).

In competition, SI is assumed to benefit more the weaker party, although the parties are not understood as concrete well-defined objects, and working best when one is initially competing against all odds. It is not possible to win without any strength –miracles do not happen– but we assume that there are strengths that may not be observed in too brief or in too narrow-minded consideration. Unsurprisingly, this goes back to both Senge’s idea of the least obvious highest leverages (Senge 1990) and Saarinen’s idea that everyone is more than outwardly seems.

Given the mentioned phenomenological assumptions, we suggest that SI provides a particular benefit and competitive advantage when considering both long-term general preparation and the problematics of short-term ‘thousand-dollar opportunities’. Over a short period, one cannot either get any crucial advantage by training oneself a little more, or there is simply no time to do that. The exploitation of this opportunity might be understood as a higher order change which is illustrated as an awakening by Saarinen et al. (2004b). This hypothesis seems paradoxical: The underlying work behind the opportunity is decisive but the opportunity was clear-cut in a very short period only. In other words, we would suppose that one may create ‘higher order change’, the awakening, without being beforehand aware of either its exact nature or how to elaborate it.


Situation awareness prevents errors. Systems Intelligence creates opportunities.

Situation awareness serves the system. Systems Intelligence serves an individual.
he questions involved have been posed in the lectures of Saarinen (Saarinen and Slotte 2003) who illustrates those metaphorically in ice-hockey, a naked archetype of competition. A player must train himself his entire career but he, at best, has only a few seconds to make a crucial goal to win the Stanley-Cup. The chain of events requires SI revealing the following characteristics: (i) The long-term training is imperative but a player is not aware how to make the decisive goal, (ii) During the seconds for scoring, he must read the game and his relations to this system without any options for further considerations whatsoever i.e. he must reveal SA, (iii) According to Saarinen, however, a still third crucial factor is required: A player must trust that he will be able to be win in the very beginning, although he cannot know exactly how to elaborate his career and nothing about how make the very crucial goal. Otherwise, he would never start training. So, in order to be a decisive player when winning the Stanley-Cup, he must have magnificent long-term skills to create himself an opportunity to play in final but without the correct timing in scoring he still misses out on that.

In order to probe distinction between ‘traditional’ intelligence and SI in competition ‘against all odds’, we refer to another prototype of competition: chess against a computer. Although chess contains enormous amount of possible situations, it is –after all– a well-defined ‘solvable’ system. Chess players face two problems: Again, they may train whole their life but in the game itself they cannot learn any more. Moreover, against the computer’s analytic superiority any analytic intelligence or memory of the human being –no matter how good– has no chance whatsoever. Emotional or any part of multiple intelligences may not help either. The fascinating question is how we could explain the fact that a human being has still been able to play against computers, superior in traditional reasoning, without referring to SI. We cannot give a definite answer but we may refer to Garry Kasparov, who was still able to play against a computer and who is evidently familiar with his ‘home ground’. Interestingly, the first sentences reflect the nuance of systems thinking while the last one that of The Art of War, our specific topic:

Man will have to accept that using the specific faculties of the human brain is not the only way to solve intellectual problems. … Chess is initially a logical, calculating, mathematical game that makes use of the left side of the brain. But as a player becomes stronger he is using more and more faculties that are located in the right side hemisphere. …Against the computer … I have to rely completely on my experience and intuition, to try to probe for long-term weaknesses rather than to launch aggressive attacks.” 4 (Underlining by the present author)

Within this general phenomenological framework, we set the hypothesis that ‘timing’ is based on the overwhelming experience, but is executed in an intuitive or instinct manner. This seems very problematic even in phenomenological discussion. Unsurprisingly, experience is known to support SA (e.g. Endsley and Robertson 2000) but the difference between ‘professional’ and ‘SI’ experience is obviously blurred. The ‘instinct’ part in timing is obviously hard to conceptualise and instinct actions are difficult to probe using the tools of SI, like dialogue, either. This also contradicts any higher order cognitive capacity. How does this ‘instinctive’ timing differ from the strategy of an ambushing crocodile? Crocodiles with narrow genetic programming may not easily elaborate opportunities or new strategies but it may well be that the intuitive timing is anything but a higher order cognitive capacity. Nevertheless, its efficiency in action may not be underestimated recalling that SI occurs as success of the system (Slotte 2003). Secondly, how can our phenomenological view on SI add anything to SA which is so rigorously understood (e.g. Endsley 1995) and so minute experimentally verified (e.g. Endsley and Robertson 2000)? We might say that the research of SA reaches its best when concerning the prevention of errors and accidents, while SI, in our interpretation, is built on the idea of creating opportunities and breakthroughs. Of course, preventing errors is vital and like Nuorkivi (2004), we could exploit SI to this direction as well. From our point of view, situation-aware persons or organisations do what is planned or set in advance but, roughly speaking, nothing else. Whereas, system intelligent persons or organisations do not do just what is planned, but far more than what is thought to be possible. Moreover, SA is implicitly built on the idea to serve the system (e.g. aviation companies), while SI serves rather an individual. Further, SA refers to the near future, while our interpretation of SI is a continuum where both long and short-term actions are important.

In conclusion, although we cannot get a grip on all the roots of SI here, it is plausible that SI works. SI seems very useful when we, on the one hand, face overwhelming complexities and when we, on the other hand, must react rapidly to them. This requires both SA and intelligence in one form or another. We feel that in competition in diverse creative projects this problem is paramount.

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