Operational systems engineering is a methodology that identifies the important components of a complex system, analyzes the relationships among those components, and creates models of the system to explore its behavior and possible ways of changing that behavior. In this way it offers quantitative and qualitative techniques to support the design, analysis, and governance of systems of diverse scale and complexity for the delivery of products or services.
Many peacebuilding interventions function essentially as the provision of services in response to demands elicited from societies in crisis. At its core, operational systems engineering attempts to understand and manage the supply of services and product in response to such demands. Thus, the question before the workshop was “When can operational systems engineering, appropriately applied, be a useful tool for improving the elicitation of need, the design, the implementation, and the effectiveness of peacebuilding interventions?”
On November 20, 2012, the Roundtable on Science, Technology, and Peacebuilding (Box 1-1) of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) sponsored a workshop to explore this question. The workshop convened experts in conflict prevention, conflict management, postconflict stabilization, and reconstruction along with experts in various fields of operational systems engineering for a day of invigorating, multidisciplinary discussion.
The Roundtable on Science, Technology, and Peacebuilding
The Roundtable on Science, Technology, and Peacebuilding is a joint initiative of the National Academy of Engineering and the US Institute of Peace. Its membership consists of senior executives and experts from government agencies, universities, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The Roundtable was established in 2011 to make a measurable and positive impact on conflict management, peacebuilding, and security capabilities by bringing together leaders from the technical and peacebuilding communities. Its principal goals are:
- To accelerate the application of science and technology to the process of peacebuilding and stabilization.
- To promote systematic, high-level communication between peacebuilding and technical organizations on the problems faced in and the technical capabilities required for successful peacebuilding.
- To collaborate in applying new science and technology to the most pressing challenges faced by local and international peacebuilders working in conflict zones.
The Roundtable has sponsored four workshops. The first examined how agricultural extension systems might be adapted to serve the purposes of peacebuilding. The second addressed the role of data sharing to improve coordination in peacebuilding, and the third investigated the use of information and communication technologies to sense and shape emerging conflicts. The fourth workshop, the subject of this summary report, focused on harnessing operational systems engineering to support peacebuilding.
Workshop co-chair Peter Cherry, an independent consultant and retired analyst and executive from Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), noted that the peacebuilding and engineering communities often use different concepts, methods, and even vocabularies, yet they need to understand each other to work on shared problems. Achieving such understanding requires both a willingness to consider new perspectives and an acknowledgment of the complexity of peacebuilding goals. As Sam Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction and the other workshop co-chair, added,
“Any peacebuilding effort ultimately is based on multiple stakeholders coming together in very complex environments.”
Some peacebuilders have already adopted elements of systems approaches in developing frameworks and qualitative techniques to understand peacebuilding and provide support to planning and decision making. Most project implementation organizations collect data but focus on specific issues immediately related to the project. Legitimate concerns about data privacy and security limit more widespread sharing and use of information. Similarly, most peacebuilders generate and use metrics to assess and measure progress, but these are not, in the context of systems engineering, complete, consistent, or independent. This workshop thus had as a goal the initiation of a dialogue between peacebuilders and operational systems engineers to begin to identify what additional types of nonnumerical systems methods might be available for application to peacebuilding. The workshop steering committee intended that the day’s agenda would create opportunities for further development and application of quantitative operational systems engineering methods to peacebuilding by initiating discussions on the collection and use of data, the development of numerical models, and the construction and use of metrics. Specific solutions to particular problems were not the goal of the workshop.
To provide a starting point for this dialogue, the workshop began with three presentations by peacebuilders, showing the diverse challenges faced and approaches adopted to meet those challenges, thus giving the operational systems engineers an initial understanding of the peacebuilding “system.” Two perspectives of systems engineering were then delivered, the first showing the development and use of quantitative data, models, and metrics, and the second demonstrating a qualitative application of systems methods. Both addressed the process employed in data specification and collection, model development and use, and the construction and application of metrics aimed at providing peacebuilders with an understanding of the Operational Systems Engineering discipline. The dialogue that began in the initial presentations was then focused and expanded in three workgroups in which peacebuilders and systems engineers explored the potential application of systems engineering to specific peacebuilding initiatives.
Peacebuilding can be defined as a social transformation designed to build institutions that manage conflict without resorting to violence. To do this, reforms may target a broad range of sectors including economics, security, the judiciary, social institutions, and government. It is a highly politicized and complex process that transforms power structures, broadens participation, and often requires a renegotiation of how citizens relate to
their national institutions. Conflict is present in war and in peace. It is an inevitable aspect of human interaction when two or more parties pursue mutually incompatible goals. Conflict settled by violence is war, but conflict can be settled peaceably through elections or an adversarial legal process. In planning the workshop, it was hypothesized that systems engineering is relevant to managing this process of social transformation. Systems engineering may enable more effective planning, coordination, management, and evaluation of peacebuilding activities by deploying a structured development process that identifies needs, functionality, and requirements for success as stakeholders proceed from concept to design to operation.1
The workshop began with two plenary sessions featuring formal presentations, which are summarized in the next two chapters. Chapter 2 describes the characteristics of peacebuilding, a framework for conflict assessment, and approaches to managing conflicts. Chapter 3 explores the potential applications of operational systems engineering to peacebuilding, looking at both quantitative and qualitative approaches.
After the plenary sessions, workshop participants divided into three breakout groups designed to develop systems-based methods to generate solutions to the problems facing peacebuilders in three fragile societies: Kenya, South Sudan, and Haiti. Chapters 4–6 summarize the breakout groups’ presentations and discussions and the reports that followed. The goal of these breakout sessions was not to develop particular solutions to a problem faced by each of these societies but rather to develop methods that could be deployed to develop a solution. Box 1-2 lays out what the generic elements of a method might be. If sufficient interest were generated, groups were asked to organize follow-on activity to begin implementation of the work plans that they developed.
In the final plenary session, workshop participants identified lessons learned from the day’s discussions and broad paths forward for applying operational systems engineering to improve the effectiveness of peacebuilding. These discussions are summarized in Chapter 7.
1 “Glossary of Terms for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding,” United States Institute of Peace, http://glossary.usip.org/resource/peacebuilding; http://glossary.usip.org/resource/conflict; “What Is Systems Engineering,” International Council on Systems Engineering, http://www.incose.org/practice/whatissystemseng.aspx.
Elements of a Systems-Based Analysis
Each working group was asked to design a method for future systems engineering activities to investigate the major challenges facing peacebuilders in one of the three conflict zones addressed during the breakout session. Chairs in each breakout session were asked to ensure that discussion addressed the following key areas:
• Possible Technical Approach(es)
- network analysis,
- analysis of operational data,
- experimentation, etc.
• Expertise and Perspectives Needed
• Decision Alternatives or Other Variables
- data availability,
- future demand, etc.
• Data Needs
• Expected Analysis Outputs or Deliverables
- process changes,
- resource allocation changes, etc.
• Suggested actions needed to implement analysis plans and improve peacebuilding service delivery.
The following themes emerged from the presentations and discussions during the workshop.
Operational Systems Engineering May Support Better Management of Peacebuilding
Participants acknowledged the complexity and challenges of peacebuilding. Interdependencies and relationships are numerous, at times convoluted,
and often not completely understood. Data can be difficult to collect, are not always precise, accurate, or complete, and frequently are proprietary. All “solutions” must be situation specific, and local buy-in and ownership are critical to long-term success. And, as Sam Worthington noted, “We have to be talking at multiple levels, from the field level all the way up to the overall policy level for a particular country.” Given this context, many argued that operational systems engineering could make significant contributions to the effectiveness and efficiency of peacebuilding and that the complexity and challenges of the peacebuilding process need not be barriers to successful applications.
Initial Applications of Systems Methods Have Demonstrated Value
Peacebuilders have begun to use systems methods primarily to identify actors, the relationships between them, and the conditions that influence those relationships. The workshop’s breakout groups allowed participants to begin considering how to identify such actors, relationships, and conditions in the context of an ongoing conflict. To help peacebuilders perform such analyses, the development of tools, techniques, and training would be beneficial. Andrew Reynolds of the State Department noted that “the full range of actors needs to be identified and incorporated into systems analyses, not just NGOs and governments but also the many other parts of societies that influence the outcomes of peacebuilding.” Systems maps are useful tools in such analyses. They enable the visualization of causal relationships between variables in a system by graphically linking activities that affect each other.2 From the perspective of the operational systems engineers, systems maps and related techniques can be used throughout the engineering process to identify critical relationships and data requiring greater detail and analysis. From the perspective of the peacebuilders, the act of constructing a systems map can lead to better understanding of the situation, the risks, and the potential outcomes of proposed actions.
2 Robert Ricigliano, Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), 112.
Applications of Operational Systems Engineering to Peacebuilding Will Evolve
The methods of operational systems engineering can be brought to bear on a problem whether data are ample or scarce by using the appropriate tools. The full power of the systems approach will be realized as the range and nature of the methods used expands. As Robert Ricigliano, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee put it, “Peacebuilding needs to move beyond constructing maps of causal relationships to developing and elaborating models for analysis and design that are continually improved through data gathering and hypothesis testing.” Beth Cole, USAID, observed that systems methods will also require peacebuilders to become more process-oriented, adding that “the fact of the matter is there are gaps [in our understanding of how to realize particular goals] and we have to attend to those if we want to try and address peacebuilding in a systemic approach.” Bill Rouse, Stevens Institute of Technology, illustrated the application of more quantitative methods and the potential for deriving data development priorities from quantitative models, supplementing and enlarging on the understanding gained from the qualitative systems maps. All agreed that the initial steps in a systems approach—involving differentiation of functions, identification of actors, and specification of relationships and effects—have inherent value both through the insights they provide and the collaboration and communication they produce between stakeholders and operational systems engineers.
Time Invested in Modeling Has a High Payoff
To apply operational systems engineering successfully to peacebuilding will require close collaboration between peacebuilders and systems engineers. Peacebuilders understand the conflict and are working to develop a response to a crisis; the systems engineers can develop a model (or models) to understand the dynamics of the situation, assess risks and outcomes, and evaluate possible interventions through analysis. Frequently, this requires that multiple simulations be made to understand a range of possibilities. Steven Robinson, University of Wisconsin–Madison, observed that “a range of outcomes with probabilities attached to each is often more useful than a single outcome.” To produce such insight will require iterative development of a model with extensive back-and-forth between the modelers and the peacebuilders. This is potentially quite time consuming, but experience applying systems engineering across a broad range of domains confirms that this process of model building ultimately has a high payoff.
One approach to cope with this complexity is to begin with simpler, bounded problems (subsystems) and then build out, adding actors and relationships to include additional subsystems until all relevant effects are modeled. Marvine Hamner, George Washington University, put it succinctly: “You start simple … and you add complexity.” This approach is manageable, allows for checking model validity, and can produce usable results early in the process.
Focusing on Specifics Is Critical
The workshop demonstrated that the value of operational systems engineering was most apparent when specific situations were considered. All three of the breakout groups emerged from their discussions with suggestions for specific projects that could respond to challenges and take advantage of opportunities. Understanding and influencing specific situations is consistent with the goals and missions of most peacebuilders, because each situation has its own key attributes and differences. Lessons that can be applied more broadly will emerge, but a local, specific focus and local buy-in are essential.
Institutional Capacity to Use Systems Engineering in Peacebuilding Must Be Expanded
At present, the peacebuilding community has only limited capacity to use systems engineering as a tool to realize its ends. If this is to change, both individual skills and organizational management must be enhanced. Andrew Reynolds remarked that “programs and curricula in colleges and universities need to be reshaped to provide students with the tools and concepts necessary to apply systems analysis to complex societal problems.” Thus, efforts should be made to include systems engineering in programs that address the practice of peacebuilding at levels from field operations to the funding, direction, and management of provider organizations.
In addition to these themes, participants expressed support for future workshops such as this, but with a finer focus and an expanded set of participants.