Understanding organizations as systems

I genuinely appreciate the ongoing, vital work of the many individual disciplines that grapple with understanding and improving organizations: Organization Design, Organizational Psychology, Management Engineering, Process Improvement, Quality Engineering, Quality Management, Quality Improvement, Change Management, Project Planning, Project Management, and countless others.

Nonetheless, just reading through that list can bring to mind the parable of “The Blind Men and the Elephant”; each discipline does an excellent job, but on a part, not on the whole.

With ever increasing complexity in everything that we face and attempt as human beings, most problems arise in the gaps, overlaps, and interfaces between the conceptual silos that we have erected. In place of what systems scientists call a reductionist approach, we need a more holistic, integrated, systemic approach that captures the essential interrelatedness of these varied perspectives — especially for organizations.

Essentially, organizations are man-made, sociotechnical systems of people, process, and technology. As such, we should design, implement, and operate them with great care and intentionality — as systems. This is important if we are to maximize the desired emergent characteristics and behaviors and to minimize the undesired ones. (”Emergent” refers to that which is evident only when the components are interoperating as a system, not within the individual components.)

Some might claim that science and engineering cannot deal with human beings as they would with hydraulic fluid or electrical current: people are highly complex, adaptive, variant, even chaotic. However, people are not random: psychology, sociology, economics, game theory, and many other disciplines endeavor to characterize and to bound human behavior. Furthermore, the “certainty” of most science and engineering rests upon abstractions and assumptions that are invalid at deeper levels.

The foundations of General Systems Theory were laid by a biologist as he drew inferences from natural science and from social sciences. This theory initially sought to provide new models for human organizations, and it recognized applicability to cybernetics long before the complexity of technology mandated systemic treatment. The inclusion of people as elements of “the system” (not merely as “stakeholders” or “interfaces” of it) is not only permissible but essential. Organizations are systems, and we disregard that reality at our own risk.

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