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
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
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
7. Symbol-processing systems -- self-consciousness and language (humans)
8. Social systems -- actors at level 7 who share common order and
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
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).