A General Systems Approach

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General systems theory is at the same time several decades old and yet to many people a new way of thinking.  Ludwig Bertalanffy published his book General Systems Theory in 1968.  J. G. Miller wrote “The Nature of Living Systems” in 1975.  I wrote “A Systems Approach to Mental Health Service Delivery” in 1975.  Yet I continue to  make invited presentations to colleagues who have come upon this approach and want more information and consultation. Systems theory offers a strategy for the behavioral sciences at the individual and at the organizational level.  Thus, I will provide a basic review. In doing so I will speak of — elements, interrelationships, flow, open, closed, feedback, morphostatic, morphogenic, goals, input, output, boundary and dynamic. In later columns I will expand on general systems applications to individuals, couples, families, organizations and communities.

Systems theory and application must not be confused with the public tendency to use the word “system” for any collection of people, activities, services, programs, facilities or entities.   Fortunately “chaos theory” an outgrowth of general systems theory is useful in making sense out of chaos. Our national space program is an example of what can be done with the application of a systems approach. There are examples of programs around the country which have used this approach to develop human services. Most of us are aware that there will never be enough money to fund ideal programs and services. The traditional approach of cause and effect, of simply pouring more money into services is very limited and even myopic. A general systems approach is one way to maximize available resources. Moreover with the ability to put a great deal of complex information into computers we can create formats which are much more useful than hard copy such as this document. Unfortunately, most social programs and their funding are based on hard copy planning documents with a very short shelf life.

Systems theory offers a way of seeing all parts of a whole relating and interacting in a purposeful manner. A system is defined as a set of elements or parts or units that have definable interrelationships; a change in one element causes a flow of matter, energy, and/or information into one or more of the other elements; this flow may cause change in all the elements of the system.  It is possible to consider the interaction between mechanical, physical, social or personal elements, and to focus upon relationships that may exist between parts of the system.

There are both open and closed systems.  A closed system operates with fixed relationships, requiring little or no outside intervention and tends to lose its essential organization if it is disturbed.  A clock is a simple mechanical example.

An open system interacts with its environment as an essential part of its own survival.  There are gradations between totally closed mechanical systems and totally open systems.  These gradations depend upon the amount of feedback the system can receive.  Feedback is the capability of a system to use information about the impact or changes that result from its own past and present behavior.  Morphostatic systems, while they receive feedback, maintain their given form or organization.  Morphogenic systems change or alter their structure as they receive feedback.  However, an open system is not necessarily morphogenic, because its  ability to obtain information from the environment does not necessarily mean that the system can change its form.  A heating system, for instance, controlled by a thermostat, is an open morphostatic system that uses information to maintain a given temperature, but the system itself does not change its structure.  On the other hand, a social system, such as a school or a hospital or a person, is an open morphogenic system that can use information both from its environment and from within itself to evolve into new forms.

The goals of the system are its reasons for existence.  Continuous interaction between a morphogenic system and its environment is needed to accomplish the system’s goals.  Input is that which enters from outside the system and may be time, money, effort, supplies, nourishment, people, or information, depending on the system and its goals.  The output of the system is the results from its use of the input toward the accomplishment of its goals.  Goals must be clarified as they come from within for individuals and from leaders of organizations.  They include definition, purpose and measurement specific to time.  Goals must not be confused with the methods devised to achieve goals.

The system boundary may be defined by areas, services, targets, values, beliefs and/or definitions.  The boundary is arbitrary and exists only to help us understand the system.  Everything outside the boundary constitutes the environment.  We may not safely assume that all existing programs or structures are systems by our definition.  To do so implies that a common purpose and interrelationship exist between the component parts — an assumption that is not only unwarranted but that has led us to our present predicament of disarticulation in many human services.

A rational system arranges its elements and components in a purposeful, orderly way.  The interrelationships of the elements and components are illustrated by the flow of information, people and resources among them.  The dynamics of the system can be observed by looking at the changes that take place within it over a period.  Changes are continual, as one element or component alters and affects others through the internal linkages.  The system will be a moving, changing configuration, which at the same time maintains its basic, total identity.

We can go further and say that the operation of a system will be related to the environment in such a way that any change in the environment will affect the system – thus the need for monitoring and adapting. Further, although the environment may be influenced by the behavior of the system, the system cannot directly manipulate the environment.

Thus we can define boundary of the human being as the skin. The elements then are the various subsystems as in respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and genitourinary and so on. All subsystems are in interaction with each other, the goal being, the preservation of life. We can just as well define the boundary as human life with values and beliefs, in which case the skin becomes one of the subsystems and we identify other subsystems such as feelings, thoughts and actions. While the former definition may be useful in technical applications in medicine, the latter application is more productive in understanding and providing for human beings in broader fashion.

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