Open Systems Theory

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.

In mechanical systems the parts are highly constrained. In social systems, the connections are loosely coupled. Also important is the flow of materials, energy, and information across system boundaries separating the system from its environment. Simpler systems transmit primarily energy, while higher order systems transmit information.

Open systems like organizations are "multi-cephalous : many heads are present to receive information, make decisions, direct action" (Scott p. 92). Individual and subgroups form and leave coalitions. Boundaries are amorphous, permeable, and ever changing. But the system must exchage resources with the environment to survive.

Boulding developed a classification system to describe the degree of complexity in systems (Boulding, 1956 p. 200-207):

1. Frameworks -- systems comprising static structures (crystals,animal anatomy)
2. Clockworks -- simple dynamic systems with pre-determined motions (clocks, solar system)
3. Cybernetic Systems -- capable of self-regulation with an externally prescribed target (thermostat)
4. Open systems -- self-maintenance through exchange of resources with environment (cell)
5. Blueprint-growth systems -- reproduce through sees or eggs
6. Internal-image systems -- systems have detailed awareness of environment (animals)
7. Symbol-processing systems -- self-consciousness and language (humans)
8. Social systems -- actors at level 7 who share common order and culture
9. Transcendental systems -- "absolutes and inescapable unknowables"

Each higher system incorporates the lower systems below it. For example, viewing organizations as cybernetic systems we can see the importance of policy setting and control centers that develop the regulation programs that guide organizational decision making.

Double-loop learning (made popular by Chris Argyris) involves two loops - one that sets the organizational goals and monitors progress toward them through internal feedback, and another that changes the organizational goals based on external feedback. This allows the organization to adapt to environmental changes. Cybernetic systems result in behavior that is goal-directed, not merely goal oriented.

Open systems also engage in two main sets of system processes. Morphostasis processes in organizations tend to preserve the systems given form through socialization and control activities. Morphogenesis processes elaborate or change the system, often by becoming more complex or differentiated.

Katz and Kahn (p. 23 - 30) note 10 characteristics of open systems:
1. Importation of energy from the environment (resources, people, etc.)
2. Throughput (transform resources avialable to them).
3. Output (export some resources to the environment).
4. Systems as cycles of events
5. Negative entropy (through input of energy/resources)
6. Information input, negative feedback, and a coding process. (to maintain steady state).
7. The steady state and dynamic homeostasis (and a tendency toward growth to ensure survival).
8. Differentiation and specialization.
9 Integration and coordination
10. Equifinality (many paths to same end).