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Systems Engineering at the Web and I


Systems engineering is a discipline that brings together people, hardware and software to create new products and services. Systems engineers use data modeling to make sure their systems work well, while human-computer interaction is key in making sure that users are comfortable with their technology. Safety is the first principle of systems engineering, which means that if you're building something for humans then you have to keep them safe as well as satisfied. You have to keep people's data safe. You have to maintain compliance with all regulations regarding your programs, websites, and presentations. You have to ensure uptime for all of these solutions. You have to ensure that your clients are protected from hacking with ongoing programs.

Proper systems engineering is a process with a full lifecycle. At the beginning, it is important to do a full analysis of the business processes of the office and all of the areas in it. Lines are drawn as files are moved from one team to the next. Normally when analyzing an established office, the lines between teams showing the progress of work becomes tangled, much like a bowl of spaghetti or a large amount of disorganized wiring. After the analysis is complete, it is usually discovered that some of the work effort is duplicated by multiple teams. This creates difficulty in looking things up as errors are introduced including duplicate files. A business process re-engineering takes place where all of the work is completed, but redundancies and areas of extra effort are removed whenever possible. When the initial and proposed business processes diagrams are compared, one should be able to see a great deal of simplification in the process. Proper analysis always leads to a more organized and efficient workflow. Often there is a staffing reduction possible as a result. Decision-makers in the organization are inevitably empowered with access to all the data they need including the most advantageous and useful forms of analysis. Instead of only having these reports at the end of the quarter or year, decision-makers can have access to analytics of the live data, enabling better strategic decision-making. Interfaces between legacy software and new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software or full integration into the new ERP program helps make this happen. This also means that the data flows evenly between departments with no bureaucratic delay, as the bureaucratic processes are controlled by algorithms, therefore less human editing and fact checking is necessary. Routines can be added to the data entry to encourage more accurate data entry including checking the entries against algorithmically applied logical tests that the new data must pass prior to update. This helps to ensure uniformity and reduces the incidence of duplicate entries of data.

The next step in the systems engineering process is to create all of the forms and reports and algorithmically program data interfaces and data logic checks for data entry areas. Routing by virtue of completion passes the work from one person and one team to the next automatically. Everyone has access to the parts of the system they need, but they do not have access to anything they do not need access to. Highly granular security policies are implemented by the types of roles each employee may need to play in the system. All of these interfaces, forms, reports, data entry validations, and algorithmic workflow management has to be thoroughly tested in development and production to ensure accuracy, validate security and governmental compliance of all aspects of the program. When the initial unit and functional tests are complete, the software needs to be load tested beyond the maximum utilization expected during peak times. The software is crashed by overuse, the problems and errors are analyzed, and corrections are made. Then the process begins again. Once the project has been implemented by the technical staff, the functional staff will provide training and security access to the production environment with the live data. There may be many more changes, and all of the employees on these systems are questioned about errors and improvements. The original stakeholders must approve the projects' move into full production based on the satisfaction of all of their business needs. Once the system is in full production and the needs of the main software users are satisfied, it is time to revisit the data and reports with management. Do they have all of the charts, graphs, and metrics which could be useful to them for decision-making? Very often, a worthy systems administrator can imagine new charts, graphs, and reports that provide insight into the health and completeness of the work. The art of Edmund Tufte has been known to show brilliant ways that visual displays of quantitative data can provide strategically vital insight. Insight can also be made into bottlenecks or problem areas in production where the work gets slowed down. These inefficiencies can be corrected and updated throughout the lifecycle of the business software. Once a good ERP implementation has been done, these procedures, forms, and reports will be the basis for future solutions even as software and hardware technology changes.

Although the hardware and software that people use to communicate with computers, the keyboard, screen, and mouse, pen, touch or joystick controls has remained much the same in the last seventy years of computing, new ways of helping humans communicate with machines are on the horizon. An entire science now looks into human-machine interfaces.

What's a human machine interface?

  • A human machine interface (HMI) is any device or software that allows human interaction with a machine.

  • An HMI can be physical, like a keyboard and mouse, or virtual, like a touchscreen.

  • Many HMI's are graphical user interfaces (GUI's), which allow users to see and interact with the system's functionality through graphics on the screen instead of text commands. Some HMI's also use command line interfaces (CLI's).

HMI's are one of the key components to systems engineering, which involves creating a working system from its conceptual design to construction. HMI is a critical part of ensuring that the system operates as intended and solves the problem it was designed for. In this way, HMI's can be considered applications created for specific devices.

The latest developments in the human machine interface are the most exciting in a long time, as scientists at Elon Musk's Neuralink and other companies are trying to make humans into trans-human androids by creating direct links from the human brain and nervous system to computers. Many people are very nervous or wary about being connected to machines, but futurists such as myself love the idea. I will personally be made much more useful if I have access to all of the information and memory I need beyond my mind and into computers as well! Moving with the times will not be a sacrifice to me: it will be liberating. It will make me feel as an engine that finally has access to a transmission and tires on the road. I think that myself and many knowledge workers will have great benefits of new types of human machine interfaces. Of particular interest are having unlimited memory storage, access to network and personal calendars, access to ERP software, telephony, and all of the books and periodicals in the Library of Congress in a searchable form. Knowledge workers will be free to pursue new heights of creativity and productivity. This will result in a great increase in human ingenuity. Many people who have a mind that tends to invent solutions to problems are frustrated by the slow work of the unaided human mind. They will be the first to accept these advances. HMI's may also help bring about new methods for human team collaboration in an accelerated environment. My work at Columbia University taught me all about how the limited flow of data caused much resistance to change that would tend to slow progress. If all parties are informed continually and all stakeholders are also encouraged to see that their proposed changes are implemented, then the process of consensus building needed for complex work performed by multiple teams will become far more efficient.

The "systems" part of system engineering is about components and classes.

In systems engineering, the "system" part of system engineering is about components and classes. Components are the building blocks of a system and classes are sets of similar components that share some commonality. Systems engineers are focused on more than just individual components or classes; they also are designing how a collection of them interacts to form the larger system.

Human-computer interaction is important.

Human-computer interaction is important to the success of systems engineering. Humans need to be able to communicate with computers, understand computers, control computers, and have computers help them with their work.

  • Communication: It is imperative that humans can communicate with their computer systems. This includes both directions: from human to computer and from computer to human.

  • Understanding: Humans should be able to understand what a system does and how it works in order for them to effectively use or control it.

Control: Humans should be able to control the system. This is not just the ability of humans to manipulate controls on computers, but also their ability to determine what actions and behaviors will be taken by a system. Helpfulness: Computers should be able to help humans with their work and make it easier for them.

Data modeling is key to making sure your technology works well.

Data modeling is the process of creating a visual data model that conveys information not obvious to anyone looking at the raw data. A data model is a representation of the data in a system as well as its relationships to other systems. The purpose of creating these models is to visualize and describe how your technology works, so that you can better understand it and improve it over time. Business processes can be modeled and analyzed. At first, the way things are done in an office can look a lot like a bowl of spaghetti, with complicated interconnecting processes. Many times, a single point of data is entered repeatedly. This duplication of effort is not only a waste of time, but it is also a way that errors are introduced to the data. When the business process is understood, a new, cleaner, simpler business process can be re-engineered. The new business process design will look cleaner and more logical. Many redundancies and flawed policies change in favor of an efficient system where all the parts work together to form a coherent and accurate whole.

Data architects are people who have been trained to look at work process in terms of database structure, queries, and algorithmic data control. Data architects are schooled in a universal data model and taught about the formal reductionist methods for normalizing databases and algorithms. Having one of the rare people who think this way is a key part of implementing a new Enterprise Resource Plan (ERP). The software and hardware may change, but the business process analysis and re-engineering they perform provides a template that only needs to be tweaked to include future requirements: if it is done correctly, it should never need to be completely redone. For full data normalization, every type of recurring data needs to have its own table where there is this one data column as well as other columns with metadata including timestamps and update history. Each of these tables needs to be grouped together into data types and stitched together using database relationships and queries. I have always enjoyed this kind of analysis and thinking. I love the ability to empower an organization to be its' most efficient. I love to help reduce redundant work and staffing as well as to re imagine the roles of existing staff to leverage technology to improve their work day and free them of drudgery. Studies have shown again and again that employees that feel empowered and have efficient systems have better performance, morale, and loyalty.

In other words, it's a way to make sure your technology works well.

Change Management ad Human Engineering: the first principle of systems engineering.

One of the first reactions of employees to an ERP implementation is that they do not need it. They are used to the systems that they have, and they doubt the capability of Systems Engineers to understand and document the business process. They also have developed many workarounds to achieve the results they need. There will be some employee evangelists who welcome the change, but many and often most employees will show themselves to be resistant to change.

However, this resistance to change is an important tool for the systems engineer. The smart systems engineer will welcome all of the resistance, and they will want to hear each and every objection. All of the objections are ways that employees feel that the business could improve their processes. Instead of ignoring them, the staff will see that their systems engineer is busy implementing the system to give each employee everything they need within the system without the need for time-consuming workarounds. This refining of the business process reduces the paperwork burden as well as the actual volume of paper. In a complex office, total document scanning and uploading to the system means an end to paper files outside of official reports and printed results and work products. Electronic files are never lost nor degraded through repeated copying. Changing these documents is impossible, so that adds another level of security preventing internal malfeasance through document tampering.

The resistant employees need to be retrained after their needs have been addressed. The key employees need to be seen as stakeholders, and their acceptance is vital to the success of your ERP project.

Once all the changes have been accepted and before final training, full documentation for every role in the software has to be issued and agreed upon by all stakeholders. The most efficient work takes place only when all parties have agreed to the methodology. This also makes for easy defining of roles and staffing needs. On-boarding of new employees becomes a simple and clearly defined process with a training manual and a security role set up in the ERP software that is easily implemented by the Information Technology staff.

Safety and data security is also crucial to systems engineering. It is more important than any other part of systems engineering, for there are laws and business reasons that it is vital to protect data from internal and external threats. Penetration and user security testing needs to be ongoing throughout the software lifecycle. Systems engineers are trained to think about safety first, and everything else second. You have to maintain compliance with all regulations regarding your programs, websites, and presentations. You have to ensure uptime for all of these solutions. One has to ensure that one's clients are safe from hacking including data theft, data manipulation, and data hijacking and ransoming. Many hackers are aware at how valuable the ERP software and data is. They often even know how much insurance organizations and municipalities have available to pay for data ransom. Internal threats are also a possibility, and seasoned security experts expect both internal and external threats. Minimal control should be programmed into all security roles so that employees can accomplish everything they need to without being able to do anything they do not need to. Higher level management can have access to the most important reports often not visible to other users, but by definition decision-makers responsible for the software should not be actually inputting data or using the software beyond data retrieval and analysis and auditing functions. Penetration testing should be performed on a regular basis to try to hack all systems externally. One needs to find the weaknesses and patch them before the hackers do. Fortunately, there are so many great data security consultants available for hire so that management never has an excuse for poor security. Smart systems engineering includes full lifecycle security from the very beginning.


At the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of what systems engineering is and how it can be applied. You can read more about systems engineering in our resources section, or contact us to learn more about how we can help you with your project.


Martin Emerson Low
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