Stephen B. Johnson
Space Studies Department, University of North Dakota, USA
With the advent of large-scale, complex systems in the middle of the twentieth century, the problem of systems integration has preoccupied many engineers, particularly in the aerospace and computing industries. We can define a complex system as a set of humans and technologies united to perform a specific function, which are collectively incomprehensible (in total) to any single person. Examples are legion, but include nuclear power plants, modern jet aircraft and ballistic missiles, computerized command and control systems, etc. In the United States, military officers, academic researchers, and industrial leaders created systems engineering primarily on ballistic missile and air defence programmes of the 1950s (Johnson 2002a ; Sapolsky, Chapter Two, this volume). From these programmes the methods spread into other industries and countries, and have been codified into procedures of the US military 1 and that of its allies 2 (Gholz, Chapter Fourteen, this volume). Through these regulations they have become the standard for those industries that develop technologies for the military and for many other industries as well. These disciplines have therefore been a significant element in the economic development of developed and developing countries.
Only since the 1980s, with research into the economics of innovation, the politics and sociology of complex systems, and the history of technology, has systems integration come to the attention of social scientists. Social scientists who are now investigating systems integration use the tools and methods in which they were trained. However, they are less likely to utilize insights and debates of engineering researchers and designers. Also, it is unlikely that social scientists can form a true picture of systems integration without understanding the technical and social problems that engineers face. If firms gain competitive advantage from systems integration, economists and organizational theorists must understand the technical and social issues of system integration. To do this, we must turn our attention to systems engineering, which is the disciplinary home of systems integration.