Systems Thinking Basics: From Concepts to Causal Loops, Research Paper Example
Words: 9203Research Paper
A modern human life strikes by its complexity and diversity in all aspects of human activity: professional, social, personal, etc. Under this condition, it seems to be extremely difficult to choose a common behavior strategy because a human being’s consciousness can not embrace large quantity of relations and plexus of constitutive factors. Hence, it is easier to divide a large system into its constitutive elements until it will be understandable, and analyze its separate parts. However, one should remember that everything around a person is an integral part of a unity.
Everywhere people see a holistic system that exists owing to its components and their interaction: state economy in a world economic space, a political situation in a region, family relationship in a social environment. One may take an example of a business sphere. A businessman is interested in the performance indices of the company: profitability, competitiveness, etc. All these components are the result of the interaction of certain organizational units.
Modern management science offers to analyze various functional aspects of the company’s performance: financial-economic, strategic, marketing, productive, informational, etc. Each of these aspects refers to the scope of the interest of a corresponding department. Each specialist who works in the particular department evaluates the organization from his own point of view. Therefore, the company’s performance is viewed through this department; it gives a specialist an opportunity to form his own concept about the integral parts of the company. In its turn, it allows this specialist to find optimal solutions of the problems the department deals with. Top management should combine all parts of this mosaic or the optimal decisions from different departments.
Here, the following problem appears: in order to make a decision that would be beneficial for all the company, it is necessary to understand interrelations and principles of interaction of the constituent units. If the top management of the company does not follow a holistic approach, the company is doomed to collapse.
In this context, it is essential to reveal the essence of systems thinking. Systems thinking has been in the scope of interest of many researchers, and Jackson (2000) is not an exception. Systems thinking is tightly connected with this holistic approach or Descartes’ method of reductionism. Jackson underlines that this method would solve the abundance of modern problems that threaten organizations and society. The researcher explains this complex phenomenon in the book:
“Complex problems involve richly interconnected sets of “parts” and the relationships between the parts can be more important than the nature of the parts themselves. New properties, “emergent” properties, arise from the way the parts are organized” (Jackson, 2000, p. 1).
Proceeding from the information above, one may reveal the essence of systems thinking. A system approach to the research object can be considered as the synthesis of intuitive and analytical methods. On the one hand, the holistic approach rejects the attempt to bring the properties of unity to the properties of its integral parts; it is peculiar to the analytical approach. On the other hand, the analytical approach adds to the holistic one the interest to the internal structure of the object. Therefore, there brings to the forefront the research of those properties of the system that do not belong to its constituent parts. For this reason, the attention is focused on the interrelations and interactions that result in the appearance of these properties.
According to Jackson, the origins of the systems tradition should be found in the middle of the XX century. Exactly von Bertalanffy’s influential and successful “general system theory” marked the appearance of the holistic approach guided by systems thinking. In the 1930s, Bertalanffy became the author of the following idea: there are common objective laws under the interaction of the main one, but not the infinite numbers of physical, biologic and social objects. This way, the systems theory appeared in a scientific world (Jackson, 2000). Bertalanffy’s method is empiric by its nature: it takes the world as it is, investigates its constituent systems–physiological, zoological, etc., and makes conclusions about observable objective laws. At the same time, this method lacks mathematic accuracy and deductive power. For this reason, Bertalanffy’s method may be considered naive and unsystematic. Nevertheless, the advantages of this method can not be underestimated because it marks the appearance of systems theory.
Each scientific theory has its own peculiarities, weakness and strengths (Stavenga, 2006). In general, the systems theory can be understood as the scientific paradigm that offers a holistic approach to the research of systems. Within the limits of this theory, the following subjects can be under research: diverse classes, varieties and types of systems, basic principles and objective laws of system behavior, functioning processes and development of systems. In this context, it is worth to take into account the four fundamental factors: system organization, its elemental constitution, current global state of the system dependence, and the environment that give rise to its organizational processes.
The Austrian biologist believed that there are scientific disciplines that partially possess common aims and methods with the systems theory: cybernetics, information theory, game theory, decision theory, typology, etc. As the systems theory is considered a fundamental overarching science, it has its own correlate in science called systems science. This scientific movement is connected with modern automatic devices. Systems science covers such areas as systems engineering, operations research, and human engineering (Jackson, 2000).
The systems theory seems to be applicable in organizational and social systems. Exactly its application for analysis of social and organizational systems inspired the present essay. It is essential to outline the basic principles of these complex systems to understand how the systems theory may be applied.
Jackson believes that everything exists as an organization. The systems approach has the same point of view. In the book, dedicated to the systems approaches to management, the author explains the principle of organization in the following way:
“Organization (or “complex”) is constituted by elements and the interrelationships between elements. Particular complexes arise when specific elements are combined in terms of specific relationships. When a complex exhibits organization, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts” (Jackson, 2000, p. 51).
Nevertheless, the coexisting of men and nature presupposes some disorganizing process that lead to complex problems that are needed to be resolved. However, disorganization is not always undesirable because decomposition gives an opportunity to create new combination. Thus, organization and disorganization coexist side by side, and complement one another. Moreover, being mutually balanced, they give rise to a neutral complex.
Tektology is an organizational discipline, offered by economist Bogdanov in the 20-s of the XX century. Bogdanov’s idea lies in unification of human, biologic and physic disciplines. They should be considered as systems of interrelations with organizational principles in their base. Philosophically, tektology deals with the ideas intended to increase people’s social-working energy, plan and organize human activity (Jackson, 2000). On the whole, the originality of Bogdanov’s tektology is in unification of science, ideology and production.
Social systems are the other sphere where the systems theory may be applied. Both systems theory can not be examined social systems without human society. Ragsdell (2002) is interested in the role of modern social systems. In the book, the researcher describes the social systems as complex systems:
“A system requires a set of interacting elements, that whilst complex, form an organized whole, with the intention of creating outputs. A social system is more complex than a mechanical or biological system simply because you are introducing elements that are complex such as subjectivity, values, beliefs, attitudes, symbolism, etc.” (Ragsdell, 2002, p. 304).
In other words, social systems possess a certain environment that includes the following formative elements: technical systems, biological organisms, ecosystem, and psychical systems. For social systems, interaction of systems plays a vital role. Within the social systems, there is a social order, influenced by culture, religion, collective consciousness, division of labor, etc. (Jackson, 2000)
The principles of social systems are guided by Parsons’ theory based on “equilibrium-function model” that helps to analyze “all elements of the social world”, and “systems of action” inhabited by people, needed to survive in society (Jackson, 2000, p. 56). According to Parsons, human actions are the principal element of social systems. At the same time, social systems are global concept that that comprises the other social systems of the world: virtual worlds, digital social systems, role-playing games, etc.
To reveal how the systems theory can be applied in organizational and social systems, it is necessary to analyze research literature that deals with the problem of the essay. Besides, the paper synthesizes the researchers’ results, and evaluates the ways that allow the systems theory to be applied in the mentioned complex systems. The aim of the essay is to prove that the systems theory can be applied for analysis of social and organizational systems (especially, in a management sphere). For this, it is essential to deepen into the details of such complex systems as organizational and social systems.
Organizational Systems: the Application of Systems Theory in Management and Other Organizational Spheres
The organization theory serves the main ground for this section of the present essay. According to Ragsdell, the organization theory is rooted in the mentioned Descartes’ reductionist method (Ragsdell, 2002). All organizations are systems that have relation to management, organizational psychology, behavior, human and other resources, etc. The first part of the essay is focused on business-management and other organizational spheres as they are those areas, where the systems theory and its types find suitable application.
Business-management is one of the human organizational spheres that caused the appearance of such concepts as organizational behavior, managerial work, business organization, business ethics, etc. These concepts are extremely essential for the modern society that is engaged in the complex relationships of people, finance, and technology. Besides, business-management is rooted in the management science – an interdisciplinary mathematical science that deals with effective use of technology by organizations. Jackson believes that:
“Management science must be understood as an ideology in relation to the development of the capitalist society that it is its major concern to serve. Essentially, it has evolved in response to the changing demands imposed on twentieth-century capitalism by the need to control the workforce” (Jackson, 2000, p. 296).
Thus, the appearance of management science was conditioned by political, economic and social factors. However, one may not forget that according to the open system concept of the systems theory, the components of management science depend on resources from the environment; they provide management science with self maintenance (Jackson, 2000). Nevertheless, it is necessary to deepen into the nature of management to approximate to the aim of the present essay.
In a broad sense, management is an act of involving people to accomplish common goals. To do this, it is necessary to use the formative activities of management: planning, organizing, directing, controlling, etc. Usually, management can not be examined without engagement of such valuable resources as human, financial, technological and natural resources. In organizational and business activities, management is an effective and flexible instrument that helps to create a high-performance organization (Pasmore, 1988).
Management is one of the organizational systems of human society with its own support systems. According to some researchers, the “management support systems” (MSS) means such types of support systems as “decision support systems (DSS), executive information systems (EIS), knowledge management systems (KMS), and business intelligence (BI)” (Clark et al., 2007, p. 579). In this context, the essence of management can not be imagined without systems thinking or system approach that may facilitate the understanding of such global phenomenon. Proceeding from the systems theory, one may note that all components in management are interrelated; they interact with one another, functioning together, and pursuing their own aims. At the same time, each of the components of management can not be examined separately from the system.
Clark’s article reveals the components of MSS. For example, DSS support organizational and business decision-making activities. This computer-based information system serves management, automate complex managerial process, facilitate and project the work of any business organization, improving its performance. As managerial decision making is a complex process, DSS notably contribute to the awareness of problems; it analyzes the results and possible consequences of the company’s actions taken to solve them (Clark et al., 2007).
As management is practiced in business organizations, the essay is focused on systems approach to such organizations. Systems thinking found its application in management in the middle of the XX century. In Jackson’s book, one may see that the general system theory treats “organizations as systems” (Jackson, 2000, p. 3). These complex systems are divided into subsystems. In organizations, subsystems are various departments, level of management, social and technical components of organizations. As management science, organization model is an open system. External environment provides an organization with information, capital, human resources, and materials. The activities of organization process these external components, transforming them into services and goods. In their turn, these goods and services get into the external environment. If the management system is effective, a business organization increases its profits, market share, sales volume, and overall quality of performance (Jackson, 2000).
As management is a complex system with numerous subsystems, “systemic intervention” is peculiar to management, where each component is interconnected with other one (Richardson & Midgley, 2007, p. 163). However, each concept has its own boundaries; management and organization are not an exception. Richardson (2007) believes that systemic intervention is “purposeful action by an agent to create change in relation to reflection upon boundaries” (Richardson & Midgley, 2007, p. 168). In this context, boundaries of management seem to be those phenomena and concepts of the external environment that do not have any relation to the essence of management. Thus, the components of organization do not interact with other ones, because the system itself does not involve them.
As every day, business organization deal with messy problem situation, management is guided by soft systems thinking that solve hard and soft problems. Nevertheless, soft systems thinking differs from hard systems approaches in relation to the notion of “system”. By hard systems approach, a system is understood as a system that includes ontological entities – those entities that exist in the real world. In contrast, soft systems thinking treat a system as epistemological entity. In this context, a business organization is a system that makes profit, provides jobs for citizens, transform raw materials into goods and services, etc. Jackson proves that soft systems thinking is successfully applied into managerial work:
“The soft systems tradition of work is one of the most vibrant in the systems movement and provides managers with methodologies, methods, models and techniques which are extremely useful for resolving problems (Jackson, 2000, p. 212).
Thus, soft systems thinking contributes to problem-solving process of organization. Routine managerial work faces with numerous complex problems, and their cause may not be understood in an easy way. A manager may be confused with surrounding problems; however, soft systems methodology (SSM) allows dealing with messy issues because it is guided by the problem-solving approach. All business organizations are full of goal-oriented, complex and dynamic processes, functioning together to produce a certain result (Jackson, 2000).
For example, if a company’s primary goal is to maximize its profits with the help of new products on the world market, all the systems of the organization should coordinately work to achieve this goal. When something goes wrong with the system or a subsystem of the organization, a manager should analyze the corresponding integrate parts to find an optimal solution. However, a human factor (for example, individual perspectives, corporate politics, etc) makes the problem-solving process difficult. For this reason, Peter Checkland, a management scientist, found the way to solve confusing situations by means of stakeholders, complicated relationships, numerous goals, etc. Ragsdell believes that the essence of SSM is “to change existing situations into preferred ones” (Ragsdell, 2002, p. 12).
Some researchers suggest that SSM is an ability to see a problem from different perspectives. Sousa-Poza and Kovacic (2008) dedicated their article to the phenomenon of complex situations. They note that:
“The multi-faceted nature of complex situations cannot separate decision making from execution, strategy from operations, technology from people, etc. Complex situations are a multidisciplinary field of study where the pursuit of knowledge is conducted across all aspects of the domain of interest…” (Sousa-Poza & Kovacic, 2008, p. 33).
To solve a complex problem, a manager should evolve the understanding of the problem, involving sufficient relevant information that helps to make an optimal decision. Practitioners of SSM may work out original and effective business strategies. On the whole, SSM bring new knowledge to management sphere that give a manager an opportunity to transform incompleteness and high uncertainty into deep understanding and management practices that facilitate the solution of the faced messy problem (Sousa-Poza & Kovacic, 2008). Thus, it is possible to develop SSM scheme: awareness of the problem-incompleteness and high uncertainty–involvement of relevant additional information that exists in the context of interest domain–gained knowledge–understanding of the problem–managerial practice work intended to eliminate this complex problem.
The mentioned approach deals with knowledge management systems (KMS), as well. According to some researchers, implemented KMS effectively contribute to the organizations’ competitive advantage (Chun et al., 2008). However, it seems to be necessary to reveal the essence of KMS.
KMS perform supportive functions in business organizations because they provide employees’ with the necessary information, accumulate and store newly gained information, and disseminate it. For example, a document-based KMS suppose any technology that help to create, manage and share documents (for example, the World Wide Web, distributed database, etc.). KMS have lots of advantages: they allow to share valuable information throughout the organizational hierarchy; reduce redundant work and training time for new employees; codify intellectual property of a left employee, etc. KMS are successfully applied in any organizations, and Pratt-Whitney Rocketdyne is not an exception.
This international US Company is the world leader in designing and producing rocket engines on the basis of liquid propellants; it supplied NASA’s efforts for a long time. From the holistic point of view of Pratt-Whitney Rocketdyne, the organization is the system of people, technology, and processes. The experience of Pratt-Whitney Rocketdyne proves that knowledge is “a source of advantage” (Chun et al., 2008, p. 1). In the article, the researchers explain why the company had to apply systems thinking in knowledge management (KM):
“January 2001, the executives at PWR realized that the firm faced a significant threat of knowledge loss, as more than 50% of their scientists were scheduled to retire in the following years” (Chun et al., 2008, p. 4).
However, specially designed KM projects helped them to identify, implement and improve systemic KM environment in the organization. New stored and acceptable knowledge led to desirable states and management behavior: the employees could easily transfer pieces of knowledge to each other, apply them to solve problems, create new knowledge that allowed them to develop and design new products, etc. Effective KM of Pratt-Whitney Rocketdyne gives the employees an opportunity to learn lessons; in this context, KMS contribute to the desirable states and corporate behaviors (Chun et al., 2008).
Sometimes, KM deals with grey systems theory that allows solving problems with poor information and few data. Grey systems theory works on unascertained systems that process partially unknown and partially known information. In general, grey system dels with grey sets and numbers that may reveal necessary information. Moreover, it helps to identify symptoms of “diseases” of organization, or, in other words, “the causes which generate anomalies in the company’s activity” (Maracine & Delcea, 2009, 1). At the same time, the theory diagnoses the weaknesses of a business organization. According to the researchers’ article, the interest to the application of the grey systems theory is natural because:
“stockholders, creditors, auditors and senior management all have a mighty interest in utilizing and developing a methodology that will allow them to monitor and to regulate the financial performance of a firm via accounting ratios” (Maracine & Delcea, 2009, 2).
Exactly financial analysis is the main ground of the grey systems theory. Numeric indices of an organization may reveal the dangerous symptoms of “diseases”. The theory not only successfully possesses incomplete qualitative information, but also predicts dangers for an organization (Maracine & Delcea, 2009).
Business-management world may reveal many organizational secrets, where the systems theory serves as a root. One of such secrets is Pareto’s law, or principle 20/80. It is an empiric rule, called in honor of the famous economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. The essence of this principle lies in the following statement: 20% of efforts equal to 80 % of effect (Jackson, 2000). According to this law, in business-management, 80% of sales come from 20% of clients. Pareto’s law can be used as a base for the analysis of the factors of efficiency of business-management of a certain organization, and for optimization of its results. Of course, the mentioned indices are relative; nevertheless, the principle 20/80 reveals the secrets of achievements of considerable results at the least cost of efforts. However, Pareto’s law has a converse effect, as well: 80% of effort gives 20% of effect. Despite this law was criticized for mathematical incorrectness and lack of comparability with real life, this law finds its application in organizational systems.
Project management is other sphere of management, where the systems theory can be applied. Business organizations have certain experience with project management. In a broad sense, project management is the discipline of planning, organizing and managing resources to accomplish project objectives (Ragsdell, 2002). For example, a company may work out a project with the primary goal to increase the company’s profitability on condition of minimal cost of human and financial resources. Taking each relevant element of the company, it is possible to achieve this goal. The systems approach helps to take into consideration all factors that would lead to desirable effect, peculiarities of the process of achievement of the result for this particular organization, and possible consequences of the project. To do this, there is a project group (the employers who are able to accomplish the project objectives) guided by an experienced executive manager who is notably informed with business interests of the organization.
Systems thinking is flexible thinking that open lots of opportunities for management of the business organization. It allows creating a new type of organization, where all elements can be easily changed for the benefit of the company (Pasmore, 1988). Flexible thinking is to conform to circumstances to achieve an optimal decision, avoiding mistakes and stress. For example, flexible thinking of managers makes negotiation successful and lead to desirable results because all aspects of other organization (its strengths and weaknesses, business interests, etc.) are taken into account.
In the Jackson’s book, one may find another application of the systems theory in management. Sometimes, to achieve maximum result, managers work longer hours, but it does not bring a desirable effect. In this context, the functionalist systems approach solves the problem of work pressures, stress and fatigue. This approach offers the “shifting the burden” archetype that can be interpreted in the following statement: “don’t push growth; remove the factors limiting growth” (Jackson, 2000, p. 151). Thus, systems thinking give an opportunity to shift this burden to other relevant area, and optimize the business-management process.
Other Organizational Spheres
The systems theory is tightly connected with systems psychology that supposes motivational behavior of organizations. Motivational systems theory plays an essential role in such organizational sphere as education. Campbell (2007) dedicated his article to the application of this theory to the academic performance of college students. Mainly, the author is interested in those college students who pursue a business degree that would influence their career and professional future. The research proves the validity of the motivational systems theory that measures academic performance of the college students.
In the article, the author mentions Martin Ford as the author of the motivational systems theory. In the article, one may see the following formula for effective person-in-context functioning:
Achievement = (Motivation x Skill) x Responsive Environment
The author gives his explanation: “actual achievement and competence are the results of a motivated, skillful, and biologically capable person interacting with a responsive environment” (Campbell, 2007, p. 12). In terms of biological structure, the author is interested in gender and race of the college students. Responsive environment, in this context, is a college environment, where students study to obtain a business degree. The researcher notes that students’ persistence and achievement are essential components of motivation, accompanied with their goals, emotions and personal believes. However, the present part of the essay is focused more on the organizational system, than social aspect of motivation.
Campbell’s research shows how the systems approach to the problem helps to take into consideration numerous components that may reveal the nature of the students’ academic performance. The research proves the validity of Ford’s formula as a measure for students’ performance. Paying attention to this motivation formula and self-regulated learning components of the students (skills, abilities, etc.), the author concludes that:
“The results, most importantly, provide evidence for the importance of considering both motivational and self-regulated learning components in the classroom in an effort to enhance the academic performance of college students. This model, if implemented properly would result in improved academic performance among college students pursuing degrees in business” (Campbell, 2007, p. 19).
The results prove the significance of motivation in the organizational sphere. The college under research is a representative of educational organization with its own interrelated and interconnected components that influence the students’ performance. Motivational aspect plays an essential role in the systems theory because it influences many components of the organizational systems (Jackson, 2000).
Nevertheless, motivation is an important element not only in academic performance, but in career building, as well. For majority of college students, career is a logic continuation of graduation, as it is related to their interest domain that appeared in high school. Patton and McMahon (2006) dedicated their article to the systems theory in the career development and counseling. Naturally, the role of career development for many people can not be underestimated. The article is guided by career development theory and counseling theory. The career developmental theory has relation to developmental systems theory that deals with developmental processes in life (Griffiths & Gray, 2005). However, Patton and McMahon are interested in organizational aspect of the theories.
Following the systems theory framework, the authors of the article extends the motivational systems theory. If career development is understood as a complex organizational sphere, some key integral parts should be mentioned: people, their experience, knowledge, interests; educational organizations and different institutions that employ these people; counseling (it is a subsystem of career development sphere), etc. The researchers offer their own systems theory framework that embrace both career counseling and career theory:
“Career counseling is a unique discipline built on a foundation of career theory and counseling theory. Traditional career theory has tended to focus on specific discrete concepts relevant to individual career behavior” (Patton and McMahon, 2006, 4).
Proceeding from the systems theory framework, one may see that organizational sphere is an open sphere that is inseparable from other systems. For example, in career and counseling, organizational sphere is connected with social one. The systems theory framework considers experience and environment as the most vital components of career development. The counseling practice shows that counseling is a complex process that takes part in career development. Patton and McMahon underline that “career counseling may best be thought of as a continuum of intervention processes” (Patton and McMahon, 2006, 18). Consequently, counseling practice reflects the interaction of a client and a counselor that influences human functioning and the choice of a job. At the same time, counseling helps to organize and manage human behavior. Moreover, counseling changes world views and ways of human thinking. However, it is necessary to outline the systems theory framework in career development and counseling to understand the value of Patton and McMahon’s research.
The results of the article suggest the logic conclusion of the research. The authors express their opinion in the following way: “the application of systems theory principles to the counseling process and to the world view … can be facilitated through the systems theory framework” (Patton and McMahon, 2006, 42). This way, the systems theory framework seems to be overarching that meet the interests of career development and counseling.
This section of the essay has shown that the systems theory is applicable in such organizational systems as business-management, education and career development. The researchers’ results prove this evidence. Following the analyzed material of books and articles, one may note that organizational systems are complex open systems that have such valuable components as environment, behavior, experience, etc. functioning together.
The Application of Systems Theory in Social Systems: Community and Family Spheres
Social systems are other systems, where the systems theory found its application. They are global and complex systems that are focused on a society in environment. In its turn, society is a subsystem that includes many integral parts (Ragsdell, 2002). This section of the essay is dedicated to the systems theory in the context of such social subsystems as community development and family. However, it is essential to mention the complexity of social systems because social systems include biological organisms, ecosystem, technical and physical systems, functioning together, creating complex relationships and interactions.
Exactly this problem inspired Mesjasz (2010) to write the article about the complex aspect of social systems. According to this article, social systems are complex because they are unpredictable and subjective, and are tightly connected with numerous other systems that have any relation to a human being (Mesjasz, 2010). To see the evidence of this complexity, it is necessary to deepen into community and family spheres.
Community development is a complex activity because there are many elements involved in this problem. The general system theory provides a framework that may describe the factors that have relation to this activity. In the article, Tamas (2000) reveals how this theory may contribute to the problem of community development, and explain such concepts as dynamics of inter-group relationship, influence and power assessment, development activity planning, etc. the researcher notes that:
“Terms such as systems and sub-systems, closed and open systems, system boundaries, the transfer of energy or influence across boundaries, feedback and system balance (or homeostasis) can be used to clarify what sometimes seems to be a bewildering array of information involved in community development work” (Tamas, 2000, p. 1).
Thus, it seems to be essential to show how these terms may be applied to community development. In a system, integral parts or clusters interact with one another; in this context, one of such clusters is a social community (a large group of people). This integral part has its own subsystem, for example, a household of a family group in a village. This household exists within a larger system of villages. In its turn, this cluster has a boundary–“an imaginary line which determines what is inside and what is outside of a system” (Tamas, 2000, p. 2). For example, the small system of that household has its boundary that separates it from the other households in the same village. The boundary of this village separates it from other villages of the region.
Social community is an open system because all systems that include a human component are considered open systems. The boundaries of the system are open to some extent that allow to exchange information and goods with the outer world (this way, influence and energy pass into and out of the system). Of course, the presence of roads, television, phone, etc. makes the village very open to communication. Moreover, trust and respect between the members of the community contribute to the system openness (Tamas, 2000).
The energy of the community, “which is often in the form of information, is usually the main product of human relationships, and is a necessary element in the functioning of social systems” (Tamas, 2000, p. 3). In contras to physical energy (for example, food that makes people survive), this social energy may lead to community progress or development. Entropy in the systems theory is a destructive force or negative tendency for well-being or harmony of social systems that leads to unpleasant or undesirable results. For example, it is possible to take the example of the mentioned subsystem. If there is a lack of order, love and harmony within a family, household may weaken and even breaks down as a subsystem. Negative entropy is a reverse tendency, characterized by increasing or maintaining harmony, order or love within a family. The same is with the large social systems, such as social community. Entropy leads to social disorder, injustice, oppression, poverty, violence, etc. However, negative entropy may restore order, peace, and foster well-being within community (Tamas, 2000).
As the integral parts of the social systems may change, community has its own dynamics. Sometimes, steady conditions are changed for some purpose. For example, some countries were engaged in wars, but later, they decided to collaborate and work for a common purpose (mutually beneficial trade, cultural interchange, etc.). The researcher underlines that beneficial change and dynamic balance of the social system lie in the base of community development work. One should pay attention to the boundary management, as well. For example, a sleeping baby in the house makes the family to be quiet, and maintain the steady condition of silence. However, a group of noisy children that enter the house may change this condition. Not to let a child awaken, the family (parents, a sister, etc.) reorganize the balance, and accommodate this new energy in a healthy way. At the same time, a boundary may be closed if the family asks the children to play outside (Tamas, 2000).
A social system exists in the context of some internal and external environments that influence its energy and dynamic balance. In terms of a village, internal environment is its population and geographical area, or a constant struggle of different family groups. The external environment is a forest fire on the edge of this village, or technological revolution that improves its well-being (Tamas, 2000).
The researcher’s article proves that the systems theory may contribute to the community developmental work. The systems approach may organize people in such a way that community improves its well-being. Tamas points out the following steps of community developmental work:
- Assessing the community;
- Selecting development goals;
- Planning a strategy to reach those goals;
- Carrying out activities to achieve goals, and;
- Evaluating progress and including the results of evaluation in subsequent activities (Tamas, 2000, p. 7).
Nevertheless, there is other evidence of effectiveness of the systems theory. System thinking approach may improve the face of a modern society, and solve its problems. For example, one of the articles in this field deals with the role of systems thinking in solving complex social problems. In the article, the author underlines that “unemployment is one of those situation for which the marginal status of the unemployed is extremely difficult to change” (Richardson & Milgley, 2007, p. 173). Nevertheless, the systems approach may improve the situation with marginalized population (mainly, young people). The unemployed themselves, who know the situation from the inside, and the representatives of social community, who professionally deals with social problems, may find a way-out. The systems approach gives them an opportunity to examine the problem from different perspectives, and deeply analyze the situation, taking into account all the components of the community sphere: political and economic situation in a country, social environment, human factor (personal reasons, aims, interests, etc), social organizations, and others.
In the modern world, people coexist and interact with technology. At the same time, social community can not exist without control and command paradigm. In this context, the socio-technical systems theory may be applied. The UK’s military experience reveals the essence of an effective command and control socio-technical system. Some researchers dedicated their article to this problem. In the article, one may see the following information:
“Traditional military command and control is increasingly challenged by a host of modern problems, namely, environmental complexity, dynamism, new technology and competition that is able to exploit the weaknesses of an organizational paradigm that has been dominant since the industrial revolution. The conceptual response to these challenges is a new type of command and control organization called Network Enabled Capability (NEC)” (Walker et al., 2008, p. 479).
However, it is necessary to deepen into the socio-technical theory to understand the effectiveness of NEC. The socio-technical theory is based on two main principles. One is that the presence of technical and social element leads to successful or unsuccessful system performance. These elements create complex and unpredictable relationships. Although technology behavior differs from that of society, there is evident interdependence between these elements in today’s world. The second principle is the corollary of the first one: optimization of either technical or social element leads to unexpected and dangerous system’s performance. Thus the nature of the socio-technical theory lies in “joint optimization” (Walker et al., 2008, p. 480).
Socio-technical social systems became a logic continuation of Victorian age progress, technological revolution that gave rise to rational and industrial thinking. This type of thinking supposes efficiency, predictability, quantification (quantifiable tasks that strive to excellence), and control. For example, the NATO command and control model presents patterns of distribution and tight control of information among people that interact with it. The evolution of military command and control, through numerous challenges and real problems, resulted in irrational model that was embodied in NEC. In the environment of increased complexity, NEC is guided by “the strategy of simple organizations and simple jobs” that allow to reduce internal coordination and control needs. The techno-organizational vision of NEC, untraditional one from the military point of view, is expressed in flexible adaptation to a changing environment through force reconfiguration, effective mission planning methods, and developed information environment that may defeat the enemy. In contrast to NATO, NEC not only disseminates information, but shares awareness within the organization, as well (Walker et al., 2008).
The socio-technical theory offers rationalistic principles for social organizations that are based on sociological and technological interaction, simplification and specialization of meaningful tasks, supervision and management. In this context, the essence of job characteristics lies in task identity, autonomy, skill variety, task significance and feedback. NEC is an open system that exchanges with other systems for its benefit. Besides adaptability, dynamism and self-synchronization, NEC provides equifinality, when initial conditions influence a final state. This way, NEC elaborated successful organizational behavior (Walker et al., 2008).
The article shows that the socio-technical systems theory optimizes people, technology and organizations in an effective way. Such concepts as agility, peer-to-peer interaction, self-synchronization and effects-based operations give NEC an opportunity to overcome military socio-technical complexities. Logically, the socio-technical systems theory improves military command and control paradigm. Also, it is extremely vital to underline that socio-technical approach is human-centered that allow to serve for the well-being of modern social systems.
The appearance of the general systems theory led to the family systems theory that suggests that individuals should be understood only as a part of their family, but not in isolation from it. Family is an integral part of social systems. According to general systems theory, it is an organization. The family systems theory is applicable to all complicated interacting social systems: business, human service organization, sport, etc. Matheny and Zimmerman (2001) dedicated their article to the analysis of the family systems theory in organizational consultation. In the article, one may see the following evidence:
“As social systems, both organizations and families are governed by hierarchy, roles, rules, subsystems-coalitions, homeostasis, and development or growth. In the family, parents are the governing body just as a business owner, manager, or team leader oversees an organization” (Matheny & Zimmermann, 2001, p. 421).
Both systems have their goals, but different organizations have their own peculiarities. The researchers are focused on the three organizations, where the family systems theory can be applied: business, human service, sport. Analyzing the first of the mentioned organization, the authors of the article note that such social organizations as families and businesses have many things in common. The researchers mention Dr. Bowen as an author of the family systems theory. According to his theory, in such complex system as family, each person (member of the family) should perform a certain role; at the same time, everyone follows certain rules within the family. Family members cause each other’s behavior, and maintain balance within the boundaries of the family. However, change in roles and behaviors of the family members may disturb this balance, and lead to family dysfunction with dangerous consequences (parental conflict, impairment of a child, emotional distance, etc.) (Matheny & Zimmermann, 2001).
Following the family systems theory, for business, it is possible to apply the following principles: power and hierarchy, boundaries and subsystems, coalitions and alignments. Moreover, they can be used in business consultation, family business, etc. Family business is a unique type of organization with its own areas of conflict. However, to make family business to work successfully, it is necessary to maintain positive self-concept for both employees and family members, keep healthy interpersonal relationships, and establish boundaries. Human services organization is a suitable social organization for the application of the family systems theory. Schools, counseling agencies, hospitals and other organizations take advantage from this theory. For example, in hospitals, the theory is practiced through a family therapist who performs the functions of a doctor and organizational consultant. Sport systems also create favorable conditions for the theory application. For example, a university sports team has its own hierarchy, structure and other elements. Consultations in the sports world may use the family systems theory framework that provides essential interventions for sportsmen (Matheny & Zimmermann, 2001).
Gill’s article is interested in the interpretation of the dramatic American film about complicated family relationships through the family systems theory. However, before the discussion of the film through the theory, it is necessary to briefly overview the film. The film “Mildred Pierce” was released in 1945, and was based on Cain’s novel of the same name. The plot evolves around the dead body of Mildred Pierce’s second husband Monte Beragon. Mildred is suspected of the murder; she admits murdering during questioning. The whole film is based on her flashbacks that demonstrate complex family relationships (Gill, 2010).
One may see housewife Mildred’s unhappy life with Bert who lost his job; she is going to divorce with him. After the divorce, she remains with two daughters: 16-years old Veda Pierce, a pianist, and 10-years old Kay, a tomboy. Veda’s character is snobbish, spoiled and demanded. To provide Veda with a well-deserved life, she finds a job of a waitress in a local restaurant. However, Veda feels ashamed of her mother’s low job. Nevertheless, after Kay dies of pneumonia, Mildred is absorbed with the job to keep her mind off the grief. Gradually, in South California, there appears her restaurant chain. At the same time, the mother continues to indulge Veda who criticizes Mildred for her low social status. Mildred has to contract a marriage of convenience in order to please her daughter. Although Beragon is a rich man, she does not love her. However, Monte leads a playboy’s life, and is fully maintained by his wife. Unfortunately, Mildred loses her business owing to Monte and greedy Veda’s joint machinations. In the end of the film, one may see that it was Veda who committed a crime, and shot her accomplice (Gill, 2010). Thus, the film “Mildred Pierce” is about a mother who is ready to martyr her darling daughter.
Gill’s (2010) article examines Mildred and Veda’s relationship through the family systems theory. As one may see, the mother and the daughter perform their roles that predetermine certain behaviors within the family. However, the internal (Veda’s character, Kay’s death, unhappy marriage, etc.) and external environments (the job of a waitress, Monte Beragon, etc.) ruin the family harmony. For the caring, loving and devoted mother Mildred, her family system is truly valuable and essential. One may think that she works arduously for the well-being of her ungrateful daughter, who does not love back (Gill, 2010).
For Marxist critics, this film demonstrates the effect of capitalism on motherhood. One may see in the film, that traditional mother’s domestic space is replaced by the commercial world that absorbs people with financial needs. Mildred “equates maternity with housework”, involves her residence in the restaurant business that makes her emotionally distanced from her daughter (Gill, 2010, p. 83). The film reveals how emotional world can be replaced with materialistic one that leads to the destruction of the family. For feminist critics, Mildred repositions her role in a family, reasserting her patriarchal authority in the family. The mother has nothing to do but combine womanhood with motherhood. In the article, the author notes that:
“the film constructs the modern woman as facing a series of limited options. At the one extreme, she can become like a man and express an autonomous self… at the other she can throw herself into femininity and her own identity in the family to the point of living her life through others and circumscribing their own expression of autonomy” (Gill, 2010, p. 83).
However, according to the family systems theory, it is vital to understand the conditions of all the members of the family to understand the family system. Veda is a child of an incomplete family, where her mother performs the function of a family head who earns money to maintain the family. For this reason, Veda feels that the mother is over-involved in her life. Consequently, this factor, accompanied with the egoistic nature of her character, leads to the murder (Gill, 2010). The drama is obvious, as the family relationships are complicated by the conditions and circumstances of its members. Moreover, the boundaries of the family system are blurred (penetration of the commercial world into the family system).
The family systems theory finds its application in Yi’s (2009) article about families affected by childhood cancer. The theory may give some recommendations for such families, and make their family systems survivorship for children with cancer. The family systems theory offers the Circumplex Model that is focused on family cohesion, flexibility and communication. However, parental positive adaptation to such children serves the base for this model to be successfully implied within the family system. Besides, the article underlines the importance of social and cultural environment of the families for this model (Yi, 2009).
All mentioned above gives an opportunity to make some general conclusions about the problem of the present essay. According to the systems theory, a system is a complex of interacting elements and relationships between them. Such relationships include both certain structure and function. A system is referred to the organization of these elements with their own subsystems. The system elements are changeable and interdependent. The systems theory was founded by the prominent Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s of the XX century.
His general systems theory supposes the existence of open and closed systems. Exactly open systems are in the scope of the interest of this essay. According to Bertalanffy, open systems exist in the condition of flexible balance. The functioning of such systems is provided by the functioning of its flexible elements. All the elements of the system are maintained by the energy that inflows and outflows from the system. Thus, the interrelation and interaction between internal and external environments are evident. The systems theory found its application in various spheres: technology, biology, social sciences, etc. However, interdisciplinary areas proved to be the most successful.
The systems theory gives an opportunity to analyze phenomena within a certain system through its element that can not be understood in isolation from the other elements of the same system. It is necessary not to forget that each system is an organization with its own subsystems and integral parts that cause certain behaviors and relationships. The theory is guided by the systems thinking or a holistic approach that allow to evaluate separate elements within the context of complex organization or system.
The present essay is focused on the application of the systems theory in social and organizational systems, rooted in Bogdanov and Parsons’ views. There are numerous organizational systems in the modern world, but the essay describes the systems theory in the spheres of business-management, and those organizational spheres that deals with academic performance and career development. In terms of the social systems, the essay reveals the systems approach to the community and family. The results of the researchers, who dedicated their books and articles to the application of the systems theory in various systems, give an opportunity to make some conclusions on the basis of the analysis made to meet the aim of the essay.
The open system of business-management can be easily understood with the help of systems approach that allow managers to achieve the set aims that meet the company’s interests, solve complex business-management problems, contribute to the successful functioning of the organization, and do managerial work in an appropriate way. The business-management sphere is full of business organizations with their own boundaries (for example, different department of the organization have their aims that meet the business interests of the whole organization), environment (internal and external environment: human, technological and material resources and their relationships), inputs (finance or raw materials), outputs (goods and services), processes (decision-making, problem-solving, managerial work, strategy elaboration, etc.) and peculiarities. Management support systems, decision support systems, and knowledge management systems are only one of the valuable subsystems of the business-management sphere that may reveal organizational secrets that lead to business success.
Education and career are other organizational spheres that open a suitable area for the systems theory application. With the help of the systems thinking, the researchers have seen some evident regularities and peculiarities. For example, academic performance of college students depends on their biological structure (gender, race, age, etc.), motivation, skills, and responsive environment. Moreover, counseling plays an essential role for the formation of professional interests and overall career development. Thus, the organizational systems of these spheres explain such complex processes as academic performance and professional career.
Social systems are open complex systems that present complex relationships among human society. Social community is one of the social systems with complex organization and structural element. The systems theory and systems approach show that community development is impossible without certain roles, behaviors, and energy. In addition, modern technology contributes to the effectiveness of community functioning (computers, other technique). The elaboration of social strategies, command and control systems seem to be highly vital to solve social problems and facilitate community development.
Family is an integral part of society with its own systems relation. Family members should perform their roles and functions, causing corresponding behaviors of other people within the family and creating a certain atmosphere that maintain a family. However, family balance and harmony may be destroyed that may lead to undesirable consequences. In this context, the systems approach helps to realize the importance of each components of such valuable social unit as a family.
Taking everything in consideration, one thing is obvious. The systems theory and systems thinking reveal the genuine complex nature of social and organizational systems. One should remember that these systems consist of interacted and interrelated elements that should be examined only within the context of a system. Also, systems thinking contributes to problem-solving activities, decision-making processes, development, intended to increase both organizational and social success. The next section, Application, will successfully synthesize all research findings and will connect theory to practice, showing how efficient the systems theory is in addressing the organizational problems in various domains of its functioning.
Anderson, V., & Johnson, L. (1997). Systems Thinking Basics: From Concepts to Causal Loops. Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications.
Bertalanfy, L. (1968). General systems theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: Braziller.
Campbell, M. M. (2007). Motivational systems theory and the academic performance of college students. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, Vol. 4, No. 7, pp. 11-24.
Chun, M., Sohn, K., Arling, P., & Granados, N. F. (2008). Systems Theory and Knowledge Management Systems: The Case of Pratt-Whitney Rocketdyne. Proceedings of the 41st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, pp. 1-10.
Clark, T. D., Jones, M. C., & Armstrong, C. P. (2007). The Dynamic Structure of Management Support Systems: Theory Development, Research Focus, and Direction. MIS Quarterly Vol. 31 No. 3, pp. 579-615.
Conte, G., Perdon, A. M., & Wyman, B. (1991). New trends in systems theory: proceedings of the Università di Genova-the Ohio State University joint conference, July 9-11, 1990 (Vol. 7). Genova, Italy: Birkhäuser.
Djaferis, T. E., Schick, I. C. (2000). System theory: modeling, analysis, and control. Springer.
Flood, R. L., & Romm, N. R. A. (1996). Critical systems thinking: current research and practice. New York, NY: Springer.
Ford, D. H. (1992). Developmental systems theory: An integrative approach. Beverly Hill, CA: Sage Publications.
Gill, C. M. (2010). Martyring Veda: Mildred Pierce and Family Systems Theory. Style, Vol. 44, No’s. 1 & 2, pp. 81-98.
Griffiths, P. E., Gray, R. D. (2005). Discussion: Three ways to misunderstand developmental systems theory. Biology and Philosophy, no. 20, pp. 417-425. Doi: 10.1007/s10539-004-0758-1
Jackson, M. C. (2000). Systems Approaches to Management. New York, NY: Springer.
Jackson, M. C. (2003). Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Klir, G. J. (2001). Facets of systems science (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.
Laszlo, E. (1972). The systems view of the world: A holistic vision for our time. New York: Braziller, 1972.
Lin, Y. (1999). General systems theory: a mathematical approach. New York, NY: Springer.
Maracine, V., & Delcea, C. (2009). How we can diagnose the firms’ diseases using Grey systems theory. Economic Computation and Economic Cybernetics Studies and Research, No. 43(3), pp. 39-55.
Matheny, A. C., & Zimmerman, T. S. (2001). The Application of Family Systems Theory to Organizational Consultation: A Content Analysis. The American Journal of Family Therapy, No. 29, pp. 421–433.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Mesjasz, C. (2010). Complexity of Social Systems. Acta Physica Polonica A, Vol. 117, No. 4., pp. 706-715.
Mossman, J. (2007). Modern World System Theory. Norderstedt Germany: GRIN Verlag.
Oshry, B. (2007). Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Parsons, T. (1971). The system of modern societies. Englewood, Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Passmore, W. A. (1988). Designing effective organizations: The sociotechnical systems perspective. New York: Wiley.
Patton, W., & McMahon, M. (2006). The Systems Theory Framework of Career Development and Counseling: Connecting Theory and Practices. International Journal of the Advancement of Counseling 28(2): pp. 153-166.
Ragsdell, J., West, D., & Wilby, J. (2002). Systems theory and practice in the knowledge age. New York, NY: Springer.
Richardson, K. A., & Midgley, G. (2007). Systems theory and complexity: Part 4, The evolution of systems thinking, E:CO, Vol. 9, No’s 1-2, pp. 163-180.
Schneider, M. E. (2001). Systems Theory of Motivational Development. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (New York, NY: Elsevier Science Ltd.), pp. 10120-10125.
Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.
Skyttner, L. (2005). General systems theory: problems, perspectives, practice (2nd ed.). Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific.
Sousa-Poza, A., & Kovacic, S. (2008). Research Agenda for Complex Situations. Engineering Management Journal, Vol. 20 No. 4, pp. 32-39.
Stavenga, G.J. (2006). Ultimate Questions of Science and the Theory of Systems Relations. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 37: 111–137.
Tamas, A. (2000). System Theory in Community Development. Retrieved March 27, 2011, from http://www.tamas.com/samples/source-docs/System_Theory_in_CD.pdf
Walker, G. H., Stanton, N. A., Salmon, P. M., & Jenkins, D. P. (2008). A review of sociotechnical systems theory: a classic concept for new command and control paradigms. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, Vol. 9, No. 6, pp. 479–499.
Yi, J. (2009). Cultural Influences on the Survivorship of Families Affected by Childhood Cancer: A Case for Using Family Systems Theories. Families, Systems, and Health, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 228-236.
Time is precious
don’t waste it!