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A system map shows the nested subsystems of a system.
A system map

Systems maps

A system map shows the components and boundary of a system and the components of the environment at a point in time. A system map is effectively a list of components, but some people find the graphical representation easier to assimilate.

The main use of a system map is to help structure a system and communicate the result to others. It allows you to: clarify thoughts at an early stage of analysis; decide on structural elements for a more detailed diagram of a different type; experiment with boundaries; decide on the level of interest, i.e. ‘focusing’; and communicate to others the basic structure of the system.

The elements of systems maps are blobs and words. Linking lines are not permitted.

The rules are:

  • that the blobs represent boundaries of system components; words are used to name each component;
  • blobs outside the main system boundary represent components of the environment;
  • blobs inside the main system boundary represent components of the system, and components may themselves be grouped into subsystems;
  • blobs may overlap only if some component (which need not be depicted) are common to both.

The guidelines for drawing system maps are:

  • the system boundary must be clear;
  • dashed lines can be used when boundaries are not clear;
  • irregular blobs are preferable to regular boxes since the latter suggest precision;
  • overlaps are to be avoided if possible;
  • maps should show components but not try to represent their properties;
  • the size of blobs does not represent importance, but we should avoid important blobs being smaller than less important blobs;
  • blobs can be anywhere, but it is best to put important components close together;
  • leave space in the map for clarity and later addition;
  • don’t divide blobs except when emphasising a partition.

The systems map above shows the components of a university system, but not the relationships between them.

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This article is from the free online course:

Systems Thinking and Complexity

UNESCO UNITWIN Complex Systems Digital Campus