What defines a system? And what not?
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.