A Journey Along theWay
Welcome to a journey in the realm of systems. The journey is
still unfolding as this web site continues to evolve over time.
Yet, even with the endless changes, there continues to be a connection,
in one fashion or another, with systems. And, I continue to find
that the lens which provides a systems perspective is the most
revealing of understanding found to date.
The real intent here is not to study systems as a discipline,
though more an intent to study lots of things and employ a systems
perspective to foster understanding. Agreed, this requires some
understanding of systems. As such, information is provided to
enable one to develop a level of understanding sufficient to delve
into the rest of what resides at this web site.
Every attempt will be made to avoid the major failing of "system
science." In the words of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, "The
student in 'system science' receives a technical training which
makes systems theory -- originally intended to overcome current
overspecialization -- into another of the hundreds of academic
Enjoy the journey!
The word system probably has more varied meanings than any
other word in use today. The definition I have become comfortable
with I owe to the late Austrian Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
A system is an entity which maintains its existence
through the mutual interaction of its parts.
The key emphasis here is "mutual interaction,"
in that something is occurring between the parts, over time, which
maintains the system. A system is different than a heap or a collection,
This definition of a system implies something beyond cause
and effect. Rather than simply A affects B, there is an implication
that B also affects A. Examples of systems are particle, atom,
molecule, cell, organ, person, community, state, nation, world,
solar system, galaxy, and universe, in increasing levels of complexity.
In truth there is only one system, "the Universe," and
all other systems are really just sub-systems of this larger system.
The relevant question has to do with where one chooses to draw
Associated with the idea of system is a principle called emergence.
From the mutual interaction of the parts of a system there arise
characteristics which can not be found as characteristic of any
of the individual parts.
Stumbling across this as I did was most enlightening. It was
probably in high school that I was first acquainted with the idea
of synergy; the idea that the whole was greater than the sum of
its parts. And, for all the examples ever used, emergence never
really hit me until I ran into the right example. The right example
just happened to be water! Amazing it took so long since there's
so much of it around.
One could study hydrogen and oxygen in isolation from each
other forever and never discover the characteristic of wetness.
Wetness is an emergent characteristic of the mutual interaction
of hydrogen and oxygen when combined to produce the molecular
form called water. One has to study the system to get a true understanding
of wetness. Studying the parts will not provide an appropriate
A systems view is somewhat in contradiction to the concept
of analysis, which is breaking things down into smaller pieces
to simplify the study. Analysis brings with it the risk of potentially
loosing the most relevant characteristics of the system, and possibly
developing a less than complete understanding. Yes, analysis is
an important technique, and at the same time another method of
study is also warranted, something I have seen called anasynthis.
Anasynthis being the study of the whole, and the parts, in the
hopes of developing an appropriate level of understanding.
Classes of Systems
There are multiple ways of characterizing systems. Of those
I have come to understand to date, several of the most useful
are as follows.
Isolated, Open and Closed Systems
Systems may be characterized as either closed or open. A closed
system is one that does not need to interact with its environment
to maintain its existence. Examples are atoms and molecules. Mechanical
systems are closed systems. Open systems are organic and must
interact with their environment in order to maintain their existence.
People are open systems in that they must interact with their
environment in order to take in food, water, and obtain shelter.
People provide waste products to the environment in return.
The examples of the furnace, filling the water glass, adjusting
the shower tap are all open systems as there are elements outside
the system which are considered to have an effect yet are not
An open system may interact with its environment in a growth
or balancing fashion. Often the time of influence of the open
system on the environment or the environment on the system may
be of such lengthy duration or of such minimal nature as to limit
its need to be considered. In 1927 Ludwig von Bertalanffy first
proposed that the human organism should be treated as an open
Any system taken in a large enough context can be considered
a closed system. It is often more appropriate to consider a system
as a subsystem of some larger system with which it must interact
in some way. Taking the larger system into account is unnecessary
for understanding the operation of the subsystem. All systems
are both subsystems of larger systems and composed of subsystems
at the same time.
Economist Kenneth Boulding, one of the founders of The Society
for General Systems Theory, in his book, "The World as a
Total System," defined 5 generalized classes of systems which
encompasses all other systems. These provide a means of understanding
some general characteristics of systems. These systems are arranged
in what is considered an evolutionary hierarchy.
This is a system in which a positive influence from one element
to another provides a negative influence in return to the first
I get positive things from you and provide you a negative
return in response. Essentially I subsist on you.
In this type of system the elements are essentially dependent
on each other from the perspective that the quantity of one element
determines the quantity of the other element. The Foxes/Rabbits
example is a prey/predator system. Even though the fox may be
detrimental to the continuation of an individual rabbit, the
fox is instrumental in maintaining the health of the overall
I will feed upon you even though my existence is dependent
upon your existence.
A threat system is one in which one element doesn't do something
if the other element doesn't do something else. The U.S./Soviet
Arms Race was a specific example. This particular example lead
to escalation since each side said to the other, "If you
start a war I will destroy you." Yet to continue to validate
the threat each side had to continue building arms. It has been
said this is a fine example of two countries racing headlong
to where neither of them wanted to be.
If you don't do something I don't want you to do then I won't
do something you don't want me to do. This may also be formed
as, if you do something I want you to do, then I won't do something
you don't want me to.
The capitalist economy is a very good example of an exchange
system. Elements of the system provide goods and services to
other elements in exchange for money or other goods and services.
If you do something I want you to do, then I will do something
you want me to do. This may also be stated as, if I do something
you want me to do then I expect you will do something I want
you to do.
Our buy now pay later economy has a tendency to change an
exchange system into a threat system. Initially we purchase something
and in exchange we provide a promise, a promise to pay more later.
Once we have received what we wanted the system changes and the
bank says if you pay your bills then I won't take the stuff away
from you, which is essentially a threat systems.
Employer/Employee systems are often transformed from and exchange
systems to a threat system. The employee is hired under an exchange
premise. I will pay you (what you want) if you do this work (what
I want). Once the employee is hired the situation changes and
becomes, if you do what I want I won't fire you.
Examples of an integrative system are charitable organizations
or business endeavors where individuals ban together to accomplish
some common desired objective or goal.
Where you and I do something together because of what we both
want to accomplish.
The greatest leverage is found in integrative systems, where
all the individuals are motivated by what they are endeavoring
to create. This will be addressed in more detail when we get
into building shared vision and team learning.
During discussions on the Learning Organization list sometime
in late 1995 Michael McMaster proposed another category beyond
the Integrative System. Michael proposed what he called the Generative
System, which might be represented by a situation where two people
come together to create something neither of them had any idea
of when they began.
At one time I happened across another definition of a systems
hierarchy which seemed to make a lot of sense, yet at present
I can't recall the reference from whence it came.
Protection System - act when events occur (reactive)
Regulating System - single loop - continuously measure
or sample control variables and compare with pre-set desired values
and adjust accordingly to regulate control variables (responsive)
Optimizing System - double loop - regulates selected
variables in accordance with desired values and also ascertains
what the desired values should be to satisfy pre-determined goals
Adaptive System - multi-loop/structural - system changes
its internal structure in order to optimize its behavior in spite
of continuous changes in the environment... (evolutionary)
Introduction to Systems
theWay of Systems
Copyright © 2004-2005 Gene Bellinger