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Systems Engineering is all about delivering solutions to complex problems, against a background of complicated socio-technical relationships. Doing this requires an ability to take a systemic view of the problem space and all of the related stakeholders, technologies and existing infrastructure – if you can't develop an appreciation of both the problem posed and the wider enterprise architecture that it sits within, then you won't even know if you are tacking the right problem. However, a systemic view is not sufficient to actually advance towards a solution. Systematic methods need to be employed to actually get things done, and this is where Systems Engineering has strong overlaps with project management. It is also where many people get hung up on system life cycles and processes as being all that is necessary to define Systems Engineering – which they are not.
It is not hard to know when system engineering fails, because when something important goes wrong it usually makes the news fast. People get killed, buildings fall down, companies go bust, lawyers become involved. When system engineering is done well, no-one notices – which is just how it should be. The computer works when you switch it on, trains run on time, your flight lands on time and no-one gets angry.
INCOSE UK has been instrumental in establishing the viewpoint that systems thinking needs to be firmly at the heart of any endeavour in order to ensure that the problems are addressed, but with systematic methods employed to ensure that the solution, and all of its enabling elements (organisational structures, processes, training, support systems, etc) are delivered as a coherent capability within performance, time, cost and risk constraints.
This can be viewed as nothing more than 'applied common sense', but it is readily apparent that 'common sense' is much more commonly observed looking backwards with hindsight, rather than as part of forward planning. A major contribution of Systems Engineering to any project is in the early identification of the systemic issues that will need to be systematically managed throughout the life cycle.