By Dr Bruce Copley
The word "holism" is commonly used throughout the modern world. However, it is not generally known that the father of modern holism was the South African statesman, General Jan Christiaan Smuts. He was the first to coin the term "holism" from the Greek "Olos" which means whole. In his book "Holism and Evolution" (1926), Smuts referred to the whole as being greater than the sum of its parts. His ideas, visions and concepts were so advanced that it has taken almost 80 years for them to be recognised and understood by enlightened individuals working in the fields of science, education, politics, philosophy, conservation, medicine, art, psychology and religion. Smuts was of the opinion that we live in a world that has an innate tendency towards wholeness. In his view, material, organic and spiritual wholes are not isolated entities, but profoundly reticulated systems of interconnections and interactions that are continually evolving.
Peter Senge (1990) demonstrates the importance of a systems or holistic approach in business. Senge describes systems thinking as a discipline for seeing wholes, seeing inter-relationships rather than merely relationships and seeing patterns and systems rather than just things or objects. He points out that the systemic approach requires a "metanoia" which means a shift of mind. This shift involves three new views. Firstly that we are not separate from the world but intimately connected to it. Secondly that any part of a problem or system is both cause and effect. Thirdly that we create our own reality and as such have the power to change it.
A classic illustration of the limitations of specialisation was described by Senge. An American car manufacturer was perplexed by the extraordinary engine mounting precision and reliability, at lower cost, of a Japanese car, compared to a similar vehicle they were producing. It was discovered that while there was only one engineer for the Japanese vehicle and that the same standard type bolt was used three times on the engine block, the Americans had three engineers each of whom designed a different bolt. Because of this, three different wrenches and inventories were required costing more in both time and money to produce the American car. Although each of the 3 different bolts did what they were designed to do, the specialist engineers failed to consider the larger picture and in particular, how their bolts related to the whole assembly process.