Common characteristics of open systems

[D. Katz]( and [R. L. Kahn](, _The Social Psychology of Organizations_, chapter 2, Wiley, 1966, pp. 14-29. [[on Google Books](] Snippets of text (from the beginning, maybe the middle, and the end) appear below, to give a sense of the content for the chapter. For more depth, the original source is cited, above. ---

The aims of social science with respect to human organizations are like those of any other science with respect to the events and phenomena of its domain. * The social scientist wishes to understand human organizations, to describe what is essential in their form, aspects, and functions. * He wishes to explain their cycles of growth and decline, to predict their effects and effectiveness. * Perhaps he wishes as well to test and apply such knowledge by introducing purposeful changes into organizations -- by making them, for example, more benign, more responsive to human needs. Such efforts are not solely the prerogative of social science, however; common-sense approaches to understanding and alterng organizations are ancient and perpetual. They tend, on the whole, to rely heavily on two assumptions: * that the location and nature of an organization are given by its name; and that an organization is possessed of built-in goals - because such goals were implanted by its founders, decreed by its present leaders, or * because they emerged mysteriously as the purposes of the organizational system itself. These assumptions scarcely provide an adequate basis for the study of organizations and at times can be misleading and even fallacious. * We propose, however, to make use of the information to which they point. [p. 86, editoral paragraphing added]

The first problem in understanding an organization or a social system is its location and identification. * How do we know that we are dealing with an organization ? What are its boundaries ? * What behavior belongs to the organization and what behavior lies outside it? * Who are the individuals whose actions are to be studied and what segments of their behavior are to be included? [p. 86, editoral paragraphing added] [....]

The second key characteristic of the common-sense approach to understanding an organization is to regard it simply as the epitome of the purposes of its designer, its leaders, or its key members. * The teleology of this approach is again both a help and a hindrance. * Since human purpose is deliberately built into organizations and is specifically recorded in the social compact, the by-laws, or other formal protocol of the undertaking, it would be inefficient not to utilize these sources of information. * In the early development of a group, many processes are generated which have little to do with its rational purpose, but over time there is a cumulative recognition of the devices for ordering group life and a deliberate use of these devices. [p. 87, editoral paragraphing added] [....]

The fallacy here is one of equating the purposes of goals of organizations with the purposes and goals of individual members. [p. 88] [....]

Our theoretical model for the understanding of organizations is that of an energic input-output system in which the energic return from the output reactivates the system. Social organizations are flagrantly open systems in that the input of energies and the conversion of output into further energic input consist of transactions between the organization and its environment. [p. 89] [....]

Before the advent of open-system thinking, social scientists tended to take one of two approaches in dealing with social structures; they tended either * (1) to regard them as closed systems to which the laws of physics applied or * (2) to endow them with some vitalistic concept like entelechy. * In the former case they ignored the environmental forces affecting the organization and in the latter case they fell back upon some magical purposiveness to account for organizational functioning. * Biological theorists, however, have rescued us from this trap by pointing out that the concept of the open system means that we neither have to follow the laws of traditional physics, nor in deserting them do we have to abandon science. The laws of Newtonian physics are correct generalizations but they are limited to closed systems. * They do not apply in the same fashion to open systems which maintain themselves through constant commerce with their environment, i.e. a continuous inflow and outflow of energy through permeable boundaries. [p. 88, editoral paragraphing added] [....]

## Common Characteristics of Open Systems Though the various types of open systems have common characteristics by virtue of being open systems, they differ in other characteristics. If this were not the case, we would be able to obtain all our basic knowledge about social organizations through studying the biological organisms or even through the study of a single cell. The following nine characteristics seem to define all open systems: ### 1\. Importation of energy Open systems import some form of energy from the external environment. [p. 92, editoral paragraphing added] [...]

### 2\. The through-put Open systems transform the energy available to them. [....] ### 3\. The output Open systems export some product into the environment, whether it be the invention of an inquiring mind or a bridge constructed by an engineering firm. [....] ### 4\. Systems as cycles of events The pattern of activities of the energy exchange has a cyclic character. The product exported into the environment furnishes the sources of energy for the repetition of the cycle of activities. The energy reinforcing the cycle of activities can derive from some exchange of the product in the external world or from the activity itself. [p. 95] [....]

### 5\. Negative entropy To survive, open systems must move to arrest the entropic process they must acquire negative entropy. * The entropic process is a universal law of nature in which all forms of organization move toward disorganization or death. * Complex physical systems move toward simple random distribution of their elements and biological organisms also run down and perish. The open system, however, by importing more energy from its environment than it expends, can store energy and can acquire negative entropy. * There is then a general trend in an open system to maximize its ratio of imported to expended energy, to survive and even during periods of crisis to live on borrowed time. * Prisoners in concentration camps on a starvation diet will carefully conserve any form of energy expenditure to make the limited food intake go as far as possible (Cohen, 1954). Social organizations will seek to improve their survival position and to acquire in their reserves a comfortable margin of operation. [p. 94-95, editoral paragraphing added]

The entropic process asserts itself in all biological systems as well as in closed physical systems. * The energy replenishment of the biological organism is not of a qualitative character which can maintain indefinitely the complex organizational structure of living tissue. * Social systems, however, are not anchored in the same physical constancies as biological organisms and so are capable of almost indefinite arresting of the entropic process. Nevertheless the number of organizations which go out of existence every year is large. [p. 95, editoral paragraphing added]

### 6\. Information input, negative feedback, and the coding process The inputs into living systems consist not only of energic materials which become transformed or altered in the work that gets done. Inputs are also informative in character and furnish signals to the structure about the environment and about its own functioning in relation to the environment. Just as we recognize the distinction between cues and drives in individual psychology, so must we take account of information and energic inputs for all living systems. [p. 95] [....]

### 7\. The steady state and dynamic homeostasis The importation of energy to arrest entropy operates to maintain some constancy in energy exchange, so that open systems which survive are characterized by a steady state. A steady state is not motionless or a true equilibrium. There is a continuous inflow of energy from the external environment and a continuous export of the products of the system, but the character of the system, the ratio of the energy exchanges and the relations between parts, remains the same. [p. 96] [....]

The homeostatic principle does not apply literally to the functioning of all complex living systems, in that in counteracting entropy they move toward growth and expansion. This apparent contradiction can be resolved, however, if we recognize the complexity of the subsystems and their interaction in anticipating changes necessary for the maintenance of an overall steady state. [p. 96] [....]

### 8\. Differentiation Open systems move in the direction of differentiation and elaboration. Diffuse global patterns are replaced by more specialized functions. The sense organs and the nervous system evolved as highly differentiated structures from the primitive nervous tissues. The growth of the personality proceeds from primitive, crude organizations of mental functions to hierarchically structured and well-differentiated systems of beliefs and feelings. Social organizations move toward the multiplication and elaboration of roles with greater specialization of function. In the United States today medical specialists now outnumber the general practitioners. One type of differentiated growth in systems is what von Bertalanfiy (1956) terms progressive mechanization. It finds expression in the way in which a system achieves a steady state. The early method is a process which involves an interaction of various dynamic forces, whereas the later development entails the use of a regulatory feedback mechanism. [p. 99] [...]

### 9. Equifinality Open systems are further characterized by the principle of equifinality, a principle suggested by von BertalanfTy in 1940. According to this principle, a system can reach the same final state from differing initial conditions and by a variety of paths. The well-known biological experiments on the sea urchin show that a normal creature of that species can develop from a complete ovum, from each half of a divided ovum, or from the fusion product of two whole ova. As open systems move toward regulatory mechanisms to control their operations, the amount of equifinality may be reduced. [p. 99]

### Some Consequences of Viewing Organizations as Open Systems [....] At this point, however, we should call attention to some of the misconceptions which arise both in theory and practice when social organizations are regarded as closed rather than open systems. The major misconception is the failure to recognize fully that the organization is continually dependent upon inputs from the environment and that the inflow of materials and human energy is not a constant. [p. 100] [....]

One error which stems from this kind of misconception is the failure to recognize the equifinality of the open system, namely that there are more ways than one of producing a given outcome. * In a closed physical system the same initial conditions must lead to the same final result. * In open systems this is not true even at the biological level. It is much less true at the social level. [....] The general principle, which characterizes all open systems, is that there does not have to be a single method for achieving an objective. [p. 101, editoral paragraphing added]

A second error lies in the notion that irregularities in the functioning of a system due to environmental influences are error variances and should be treated accordingly. [....] [p. 101] Thinking of the organization as a closed system, moreover, results in a failure to develop the intelligence or feedback function of obtaining adequate information about the changes in environmental forces. [....] Emery and Trist (1960) have pointed out how current theorizing on organizations still reflects the older closed system conceptions. [p. 102] [....]

### Summary The open-system approach to organizations is contrasted with common-sense approaches, which tend to accept popular names and stereotypes as basic organizational properties and to identify the purpose of an organization in terms of the goals of its founders and leaders. [p. 102] [....]

Traditional organizational theories have tended to view the human organization as a closed system. This tendency has led to a disregard of differing organizational environments and the nature of organizational dependency on environment. It has led also to an overconcentration on principles of internal organizational functioning, with consequent failure to develop and understand the processes of feedback which are essential to survival. [p 103]