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What is Systems Engineering?

The increasing amount of software-driven products, rising product complexity, and shorter cycle times make things challenging for product developers around the globe. A key way to manage that complexity is Systems Engineering, an approach which uses systems thinking principles to create high-quality products which meet customer needs and don’t kill your budget or project timelines.

Read on to learn more about Systems Engineering, what it means, where it comes from, and what the key benefits of using this methodology are for your organization!


So, what is systems engineering? INCOSE, the International Council on Systems Engineering, defines systems engineering as the following:

Systems Engineering is a transdisciplinary and integrative approach to enable the successful realization, use, and retirement of engineered systems, using systems principles and concepts, and scientific, technological, and management methods.” 

In other words, systems engineering is an efficient way for developing any type of system. It is especially helpful if you’re in the business of creating complex systems, and are interested in making sure that the end product meets stakeholder needs, while staying on budget, and on schedule.

Curious about Systems Engineering?

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Before we dive further into the who’s, what’s, where’s and when’s of the systems engineering approach, let’s take a moment to review a few key INCOSE definitions:

“An engineered system is a system designed or adapted to interact with an anticipated operational environment to achieve one or more intended purposes while complying with applicable constraints.”

This means that an “engineered system” is a system, which can be physical, conceptual, or technological for example, and has been created to serve a specific purpose.

A system is an arrangement of parts or elements that together exhibit behaviour or meaning that the individual constituents do not.

Systems can be physical, conceptual, or a mix of both. Physical systems are made up of matter and energy, while conceptual systems are abstract and are composed of pure information. Physical systems also contain information and demonstrate observable behaviors, while conceptual systems don’t precisely show behavior, but they have meaning all the same. 

A system can be characterized as a whole by all the different parts and elements which make it up (as well as their specific properties) and how those parts interact with each other, the system as a whole, and the surrounding environment. This comes from systems thinking, which we’ll explore in the next part of this article.

What is systems thinking?

Systems engineering is largely based on systems thinking, which makes it important to familiarize yourself with the latter as well. The concept of systems thinking can be traced back to Professor Jay Forrester, who founded the Systems Dynamic Group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, as well as the concept itself, in 1956.

Systems thinking can mean slightly different things depending on who you’re talking to and which field you operate in. At its core, systems thinking is a way of analyzing systems. It is considered a holistic approach because it focuses on how the different parts of a system relate to each other, how they perform over time, and how they work as part of a larger system.

This contrasts with traditional analysis which typically broke down each element and looked at them individually instead. Systems thinking in research is used across many different disciplines and areas, such as medical, economic, and educational fields for example. 

A couple of areas systems thinking focuses on (which feeds into systems engineering practices) are as follows:

  • Observing system behavior, particularly the effects of reinforcing and balancing processes
  • Paying attention to relevant feedback allows management to pivot instead of wasting resources
  • Using computer simulations, diagrams, and graphs to model, illustrate, and predict system behavior

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s move onto the systems engineering methodology itself.

Related reading:

Using Model-based Engineering in System-of-Systems Development

A systems engineering overview

What is the systems engineering process? Well, whether it’s mechanical, electrical, chemical, biological, or related to business processes, systems engineering allows you to create, analyze, manage, and report on a system. The systems engineering methodology empowers you to do this because it combines all the related disciplines, creating a combined team or joint task force, and supports a structured development process that takes the team through the full production lifecycle.

Download this guide, written in collaboration with NTT DATA experts, to learn more about the basics of SE:

A Beginner’s Guide to Systems Engineering by NTT DATA & Intland Software

One of the main things which set systems engineering apart from its predecessors when it comes to the approach is that it considers both the technical and business needs of customers and all stakeholders involved, with a focus on creating a high-quality end product.

This means that the systems engineering framework doesn’t just deal with the technical side of the system in question — it also looks at business logistics, optimizing work processes, and risk management strategies. It is a more holistic way of looking at systems development because the systems engineering methodology ensures that all aspects of a project or system are considered and addressed throughout the development lifecycle.

Similarly to manufacturing processes, the systems engineering process begins by identifying which problems need resolving, as well as the biggest risks and failures which might crop up. Then it goes through the process of addressing these flaws and smoothing out risks while finding viable solutions for the problems.

Learn more:

An Adaptive Approach to Executing Projects in High-Risk Industries

Where does the systems engineering approach come from

Systems engineering as a process was first defined in the 1950s, although the term itself can be traced all the way back to Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1940s. Originally, it was intended for the creation of large-scale defense systems, but has since been adopted across disciplines and fields as a project development methodology.

The need for a structured systems engineering framework came about across different industries for a few reasons. Over time, as technology developed and customer needs changed, the complexity of engineering projects increased as well. It was necessary to identify and manage change in the properties of a system as a whole, which may be different to the sum of the parts' properties. 

Secondly, design evolution was no longer delivering system improvements and existing tools weren’t up for the job. As a result, a new method was needed to address the increasing complexity of creating, analyzing, managing, and retiring engineering systems. 

As a result, the National Council on Systems Engineering (NCOSE) was founded in 1990. At the time, it was made up of mainly U.S. corporations, and they used this professional society as a forum for addressing needs in the field of systems engineering practices and training. As the society grew and involved more and more systems engineers from abroad, the name became the International Council on Systems Engineering in 1995, which is still the leading professional and educational society in this field today.

Benefits of using the systems engineering framework

Since its inception, the systems engineering approach has been used across many different fields to produce higher quality products that better meet client and stakeholder needs, while staying on budget, on a timeline. Here are some of the main benefits of using the systems engineering framework in your organization:

  1. Tackle complexity with confidence
  2. Avoid omissions and invalid assumptions
  3. Gain a better understanding of client needs
  4. Manage change and configuration flexibly
  5. Produce the highest quality, economical, & efficient solution possible

Interested in learning more about the benefits of systems engineering and specific techniques you can apply to your projects? Check out our new webinar series titled Your Guide to Systems Engineering with NTT DATA & Intland Software! Join these webinars to find out how Systems Engineering can help you tackle product development challenges head-on while cutting costs and cycle times:

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