Tag Archives: systems

Organisations and the concept of systems

The comments on Chris’ last post refer to a dominant view of organisations and an alternative view presented by the notion of organisations as complex responsive processes. Questions arise as to whether one replaces the other or whether one can have both. In thinking about this we need to consider what the differences are. Mainstream thinking about organisations assumes that they either are or could most usefully be thought of as if they were systems.
I think there are a number of reasons for claiming that it is not helpful to think of organisations as systems – the claim is not that all forms of systems thinking everywhere are useless, as developed below but that it is not helpful to think of an organisation as organisation in terms of a system. The reasons are:

1 To think in terms of system is to think in terms of formative causality which cannot encompass novelty or creativity – a system unfolds the pattern already enfolded in its design, unless it is a system consists of diverse agents which give it the capacity to evolve. Most writing on organisations does not consider the last named and the practical difficulty is that the evolving system model of an evolving reality takes on a life of its own which will rapidly diverge from the evolving reality.
2 A system is a whole separated by a boundary from an environment and consisting of parts interacting to form the whole and themselves. A part is a part only in so far as it is necessary for constituting the whole. This means that if you think of a human being as a part of a system you are excluding from your theory of human agency all that is truly human such as the capacity for some degree of choice and spontaneity.
3 The conceptual act of separating a system from an environment or a context is an act of creating an inside of the system and an outside of the system. This immediately implies an observer. Indeed this is a central concept in all the serious systems thinking I have ever come across. The position of the observer as being outside the system was really recognised by Bateson as problematic and second order system thinking attempted to widen the boundary to incorporate the observer. However, as Bateson recognised, this led to infinite regress. Systems thinkers who recognise the problem of infinite regress use the ‘in practice it does not matter’ rhetoric to dismiss the point.
4 There is a strong tendency to reify a system and talk about ‘it’ having a direction, plans and so on. This is an abstraction from the ongoing experience of interacting people who are the organisation. It is striking how absent ordinary human beings are from discussions of the organisation as a system.
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