Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

What defines a system? And what not?

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on December 21, 2009

Well, after some posts about systems thinking and complex adaptive systems, the discussions where fruitful, but many of us are still disagree quite strongly about certain statements I or others have made in these posts and discussions. One of the disagreements is whether an organization is a system or not, or if you can look at an organization like it is a system. For me, it’s not 100% clear what a system is. Neither is it clear for me whether an organization is a system or not. What helps me, is to look at an organization as if it were a system, like for example Carter MacNamara does.

Some of us, myself included, thinks that it would help if we can agree on an operational definition of a system first. It would help in the dialogue, in discussing some topics that are strongly related to systems. It helps if the discussion would not be distracted by defining what a system is or is not. In this post I will try to accomplish to define a system. While this can seem as a useless try, because it seems so obvious to many, I think it can help. To start as blank as possible, let’s have a look what our friend Wikipedia says about systems:

A system is a set of interacting or interdependent entities forming an integrated whole. The concept of an ‘integrated whole’ can also be stated in terms of a system embodying a set of relationships which are differentiated from relationships of the set to other elements, and from relationships between an element of the set and elements not a part of the relational regime.

Quite abstract definition. But hold on, the definition of a system is further characterized by the following common characteristics:

  • Systems have structure, defined by parts and their composition;
  • Systems have behavior, which involves inputs, processing and outputs of material, energy or information;
  • Systems have interconnectivity: the various parts of a system have functional as well as structural relationships between each other.

Let’s try to zoom in on some parts of this definition. Structure and interconnectivity is a rather common characteristic of many concepts. I think we can skip these here. The problematic characteristic is behavior. Apparently it involves input, processing and output, like a black box. What kind of behavior do we mean? Just systematic? Is it standard, predictable behavior? Or is complex and unpredictable allowed as well? Does the behavior show patterns or not? Are these causalities or not? Can a system always be optimized and made more efficient? Is there always a negative feedback loop in a system to control its behavior? Is there a desired state? All questions that are difficult to answer, but can be relevant when trying to zoom in on the behavior of a system. Another question is, which behavior makes it impossible to be a system? When can’t we speak of a system?

When thinking about systems and organizations, you immediately come across the differences between the two. People like to compare the two, because many people like to think that organizations can be controlled. However, unlike most natural systems, organizations are started and end in failure many times. Many times they fail because it can’t be controlled. It is more complex.

This comparison is clearly a problem we can not easily solve. It is quite philosophic, and it depends on what your worldview is how you look at it. However, a workable definition we can agree upon would be nice for the dialogue, so we can make the next steps. Unfortunately, if we look at systems like systems philosophy, it gets even more difficult.

According to systems philosophy, there are no “systems” in nature. The universe, the world and nature have no ability to describe themselves. That which is, is. With respect to nature, conceptual systems are merely models that humans create in an attempt to understand the environment in which they live. The system model is used because it more accurately describes the observations.

According to the above definition, there are no natural systems, only models. More on systems philosophy:

Systems are further expressed by listing the elements relationships, wholes, and rules associated with that system. Again, this is an arbitrary exercise true of all models humans create.

If it was difficult to define what a system is or is not, it sort of becomes impossible by now by using the word arbitrary. No wonder we cannot come to an agreement, and no wonder the discussion was taken over so often by the systems discussion. Can we say that everybody’s arguments are arbitrary? Does it all depend on the philosophical worldview (organic, mechanistic and process) you have that all compete with each other?

I started this post with two questions, but now I have many more questions instead of answering the first two. Not a problem at all, however, I hoped to come to a workable definition that would help structure the dialogue. Perhaps too much to ask for in a single try. I hope that you can add your view on the definition of a system, that will contribute to the understanding of systems thinking, complex adaptive systems and other concepts alike. Not to mention open and closed systems, or stochastic and deterministic systems.

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  1. […] Dit blogartikel was vermeld op Twitter door Bas Reus, complexitys blog. complexitys blog heeft gezegd: RT @bottomup: What defines a system? And what not? http://wp.me/pzezV-8k Pls help me out @johnt @sourcePOV @Chr.. http://bit.ly/7sfQNG […]

  2. Jurgen Appelo said, on December 22, 2009 at 00:33

    I don’t see the point of the discussion. It’s just a matter of terminology.
    You don’t get to find out whether an organisation is a system or not.
    You _choose_ whether you call it a system or not.
    ‘system’ is just a descriptive word for an object, nothing more. Like ‘red’ is just a descriptive word for a color.

    Does it make sense discussing whether #FF4621 is red or orange?
    It doesn’t. When you think it’s red, it’s red.

    To me an organization is a system.

    If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, I call it a duck.

  3. Chris Rodgers said, on December 22, 2009 at 22:48

    Hi Jurgen,

    I would suggest that Bas’s question is important because the way in which we frame issues and events is fateful. In determining how things (in this case, organizations) are viewed, the chosen frame will channel our perceptions and actions down particular paths (and foreclose others). That is, if we “call it a duck”, we’ll treat it as a duck – and this might or might not be useful. In particular, we’ll tend to ignore, or even fail to see, any ‘un-duck-like’ characteristics that ‘it’ might have.

    Most significantly, perhaps, framing not only explains action, it determines action. By channelling people’s perceptions, interpretations and evaluations in particular ways, framing gives meaning to everyday events, experiences and outcomes that otherwise would be absent. It directs the ways in which people act; and it determines how the outcomes of those actions will be evaluated. As Fairhurst and Sarr also point out (The Art of Framing, 1996): “Frames exert their power not only through what they highlight but also through what they leave out.”

    So I believe that Bas’s question is a wholly valid and useful one – and one which, if you’ll pardon the pun, I don’t think we should duck! If we view an organization as a system, this brings with it certain assumptions about its underlying dynamics. And these assumptions will tend to shape – for better or worse – the ways in which we participate in it (whether as managers, consultants or whatever). Understanding what we mean when we apply the label “system” to organizations – and exploring the implications that flow from it – therefore seems to me to be a reasonable (maybe even essential) step along the way to more insightful practice.

    Cheers, Chris

  4. itspim said, on December 27, 2009 at 12:51

    I’m not into organization science or a related field whatsoever, but as a humble student I might be gifted by a lack of appropriate knowledge😉

    Let’s adopt the view of banking: there are banks, and there are “system-banks”. We can agree on all banks being organizations without discussion (can’t we?) – they are groups of people working together who share a common goal (making money or making up; that’s up to you). In case of the system-banks (pardon my french, a translation that suffices but is awful nonetheless), they are part of the system surrounding us – that is, links that cause crashes if one of the links snaps.

    In this example, systems can only be groups of organizations. To sectors, these are actors in the field (companies). To companies, these are their BU’s or departments. In that sense, disruptive events (e.g. bankruptcies or cutdowns) cause the system to shake.

    A system to me will therefore be a defining network
    – from society as a whole (a lot of organizations working together) to a family with children (their family being the system). Such systems always define, or try to define, behavior (from larger actors to individuals). As long as they define a structure all together, they are a system. It depends on your viewpoint – to children, their families define their behavior. If a link in the family snaps their worlds are upside down. To a sector, competitors define their behavior. If big players fall down their world is upside down. It is a matter of perspective (large ducks, small ducks, groups of ducks) on which scale or field you want to identify systems.

    To me, these are the kinds of problems that only suffer from strict definition.

    To science though, this matters. I’ve informed two organization scientists, let’s hope they join in on the argument.

  5. Bas Reus said, on December 28, 2009 at 11:08

    Thanks for the comments.

    Jurgen, I can understand your point of view. You can question the usefulness of this discussion. But as Chris mentions, I think it’s useful because we have to understand the context where the discussion takes place.

    Chris, I agree when you say when we call it a duck, we might treat it as a duck, even when we see any un-duck-like characteristics. It reminds me of the book ‘The Black Swan’ from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but a colleague was so kind to explain the meaning of it very good. Many events occur that are almost unthinkable at the time of impact, such as 9/11, WW 1, the global crises, etc. It’s on my reading list definitely.

    Pim, I cannot speak for all of us, but like you I’m not an expert in organization science as well. This quest is helping me to learn more and more about it. Discussions like these are very fruitful and gives insights from various perspectives and viewpoints from various people. So thanks for adding this to the discussion!

    You have an interesting point of view of defining a system as a network. An event in the system has influence on the surrounding network. Indeed, this is a matter of definition. I look forward to the organization scientists you informed, we probably can learn a whole lot from them.

    Cheers,
    Bas

  6. Chris Rodgers said, on December 31, 2009 at 20:49

    Hi Bas,

    I’ve had a go at setting out what I see as the characteristics of systems on my Informal Coalitions blog (at http://bit.ly/4DRz8u). I would have used a trackback to your post but couldn’t see a trackback facility.

    Cheers,

    Chris

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