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What does 'Holistic' mean?

First, 'Holistic' could be considered a very old spelling error.  It refers to considering systems as 'wholes', making 'holistic management' another name for 'whole system management'.  Jan Christiaan Smuts, a South African military officer and statesman, coined the phrase to describe the observation that there is a tendency in nature to form 'wholes' (whole systems) that are far greater than a simple sum of all their component parts.  His writings launched 'holism' as a system of thinking that considers the whole system.

The methodological reductionism that underpins most of modern science, and the philosophical tendency toward ontological reductionism that many scientists have adopted, has tended to undermine the consideration and management of complete or whole systems.  This is especially important when considering systems that are not merely 'complicated', but actually 'complex'.

General Smuts was pushed toward Holistic Management by his military experience.  The nature of warfare did not give military commanders the time or resources to exhaustively study every situation in detail.  Therefore, they had to make a plan on the best available information, put that plan into action knowing full well that it was probably going to be inadequate in dealing with unforeseen or unpredicted influences.  However, they then observed the results, and based on these results, combined with new information as it became available, re-planned and put the revised plan into action.  They then repeated the cycle as required.

Managing a complex ecosystem must be tackled in much the same way.  As it is impossible to understand and predict all the interrelated effects of a complex system, one needs to look at the overall system to determine what is working and what isn't and apply the knowledge available to create a plan of action.  Once the plan is put in motion, one must observe the results, determine what is or isn't working toward the goal in mind, and alter the plan accordingly.  Each alteration of the plan will produce results that will refine one's picture of the overall system.

This continuous cycle of planning, acting and re-planning is the core of 'Holistic Management'.  Those with a military background will recognise it as a variation on applying the 'Combat Estimate' to the military planning cycle.

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