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
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:
Contingency Theory -- optimal
organizational structures are contingent on the type of environments they
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
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