Chapter 4: Organizations as Open Systems

Open system theory was intially developed by Ludwig von Bertanlanffy (1956), a biologist, but it was immediately applicable across all disciplines. It defines the concept of a system, where "all systems are characterized by an assemblage or combination of parts whose relations make them interdependent" (Scott p. 77). As one moves from mechanical to organic and social systems, the the interactions between parts in the system become more complex and variable.

The systems approach was quickly applied to the study of organizations, and with it an acknowledgment that the environment surrounding and permeating organizations had important effects on organizational behavior and structure (and vice versa). Various "schools" adopted the open systems perspective starting in the 1950's:

Selected Schools
Contingency Theory -- optimal organizational structures are contingent on the type of environments they exist within.

Systems Design -- use modeling and simulation to examine organizational processes and information flows.

Weick's Theory of Organizing -- organizations exist to reduce uncertainty through information flows, and the organization is enacted through the interpreted meaning of individual actions.

Open system perspectives see organizations both as hierarchical systems and as loosely coupled systems. Open systems tend to have some semblence of clustering and levels -- multiple subsystems that specialize in certain system activities. Interdependencies and connections within a subsystem tend to be tighter than between subsystems. These "stable subassemblies" give a distinct survival advantage to the entire system.

However, most organizations do not function as tightly run cybernetic systems. Often normative structures are only loosely connected to actual behavior, at both the individual and group level. Pfeffer and Salancik note that "The organization is a coalition of groups and interests, each attempting to obtain something from the collectivity by interacting with others, and each with its own preferences and objectives "(Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978 p. 36). This loose coupling can be useful in itself (Weick, 1976) by improving adaptability.

Criticism of Open System
Within open systems thinking there is a strong tendency to think by analogy, which can create misconceptions and errors as well as insights. It tends to be more abstract as well, and often merely relables old ideas with a new vocabulary.