Communication is ever changing with the advancement of technology and can be defined in many ways depending on the context of information being conveyed. With different theories and approaches to choose from, Systems Theory seems to be most interesting. The idea that “all things are interconnected, and the notion that no object can be studied in isolation” helps to better understand the phenomena of all systems. (Patton & McMahon, 2014) In this paper, the approach and subsystems will be discussed to create an equation of how systems theory can be better understood and how this theory has evolved over time.
Systems Theory uses both a cross-sectional approach which looks into the communication between two or more systems and a developmental approach, which evaluates changes within a system over time. According to Dainton and Zelley (2015), organizational communication relating to onboarding, development, power, socialization, and maintenance of workplace relationships is vital to the health of the system. The theory suggests that all functions are important and interdependence, created when people interact with each other, plays a vital role in how the organization performs. The system is ever-changing and evolving with advancement in technology and must learn to adapt to changes in order to grow.
General Systems Theory has been around since 1928 and was originally defined by philosopher and theoretical biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. According to Bertalanffy, “the theory embodied an alternative approach to the world, both natural and social” (Marcum, 2014) and was looked at in a more holistic way. Until its discovery, the scientific method was used as more of an investigative approach that did not work well with other approaches or concepts. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bertalanffy presented his General Systems Theory that encompassed a worldview and holistic approach to a more precise way to look at the framework of communication within a system. The theory includes vital features that include organization, orderliness, and regulation. Bertalanffy believed that these elements were a result from the “interaction of an enormous number of highly complicated physic-chemical events”. (Marcum 2014)
One of the major tenets of Systems Theory, according to early views of von Bertalanffy, is that there is a direct correlation between systems and organisms, but according to Katz and Kahn (1966) this theory would be looked at as “handicapping the social sciences” and “ignores the essential difference between socially contrived nature of social systems and physical structure of the machine or the human organism”. An organism’s organs, like the heart and lungs of a human, tend to function in pairs, but cannot operate independently from the body itself. Organizations do not follow the same life cycle patterns as humans and cannot be compared to them in a realistic manner. If an organization did not have systems in place then roles, departments, and other functions might overlap causing conflict. Everything has a purpose and works toward a common goal of the whole entity.
Another tenet is that there are subsystems within the whole system. Everyone brings to the table different talents, ambitions, and contributions to the organization. An individual might, for instance, have experience and expertise in one area, but if that person never has the opportunity to work with another department or project that expands their knowledge, allows for personal development, or grows within that role or position, they will be less likely to integrate skills gained from such activities in other areas of their lives. For instance, a maintenance crew member at a local hospital might gain insight on why they have to fix so many chairs and other furniture if they had the opportunity to participate on the patient safety committee. By doing this, the maintenance expert might have a better understanding of the weight restrictions required to better assist the needs of the clientele served at the hospital. By participating on the committee, that individual would see that data suggests that people are heavier due to diet and a lack of exercise directly impacting both the safety of a patient, the number of times equipment is being sent for repair, and the overall cost of buying new equipment that meets the standards of governing agencies of the hospital system. That same worker would have opportunity to be seen as an expert or knowledgeable individual to other leaders, managers, and different roles, and opening the door for other opportunities in the future.
The different groups and subgroups in a system all work together so that the driver meets a common goal. More is achieved if different parts are working together and creating synergy. It is important to have a balance within the system as a means of reducing conflict and its members with naturally adapt whether to the changes, whether positive or negative, and maintain stability in the organization. All parts of an organization work together to meet a common goal, but it is important to understand that there are various ways that the goals can be met. This could be an internal goal or an external goal creating interaction with the community or a partnership with an outside group for a common cause.
The systems theory is applicable to so many different areas of work and study. Systems theory has been utilized in agriculture, information technology, biological sciences and healthcare, sociology and counseling, public policy, communications, and business. Just within communications and business, the theory has been applied to studies on:
Organizational Communication: Monge, P. R. (1982). Systems theory and research in the study of organizational communication: The correspondence problem. Human Communication Research, 8(3), 245. Doi:10.1111/J.1468-2958.1982.Tb00667.x
Strategic Change: Hendry, J., & Seidl, D. (2003). The structure and significance of strategic episodes: Social systems theory and the routine practices of strategic change. Journal of Management Studies,40(1), 175.
Public Relations: Roach, T. J. (2016). Systems theory and public relations. Rock Products, 119(5), 51.
Marketing: Ruekert, R. W., & Walker Jr., O. C. (1987). Marketing's interaction with other functional units: A conceptual framework and empirical evidence. Journal Of Marketing, 51(1), 1.
Systems theory looks at communication as a repeated interaction between groups. (Dainton & Zelley, 2015, p. 156) This theory focuses on interrelationships between the subsystem and the suprasystem (larger governing system). This theory embraces the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”( Dainton & Zelley, 2015, p.156) and that the group will accomplish more together. The theory encompasses the idea that all members are dependent on each other to achieve goals on both a micro and macro level. It is also thought that the members of the whole group and subgroups adapt to change and will hold each other accountable impeding the opportunity for conflict. There are always ways to improve processes, cut costs, improve morale, improve efficiency, and ways to engage employees, resulting the consistent need for change. Without change and evaluation, there would be no growth over time.
I.) I think this is a good theory and is used in organizational leadership. Mapping an organization and understanding roles within each category is important. If an organization wants to grow within the next 5 years and expand its programs then the different parts of the organization will have to make the small changes in order to move to a larger goal. By understanding how an organization works, communicates, its history, goals, what worked in the past, what didn’t work, and relationships, one can better understand what changes will need to occur, so that the company can meet its goals and see growth in the next 5 years.
II.) This theory is not cut and dry as it can be very in depth and complex depending on the size of the organization. I feel is a practical approach to learning how to solve dilemmas within organizations. I think this theory works well when breaking down the roles and responsibilities within and organization. This theory can be applied to a micro level as well. In counseling, it is helpful to know the behaviors within a family unit and how the family unit communicates, functions with its ingroup and outgroup, and helps to look into behaviors and the social aspect of communication. Once again, this theory is looking for patterns in communication and behavior so that the system structure can improve its performance or meet a common goal.
III.) This theory is not very simplistic because it requires different roles and functions to work together. No one part of an organization can do everything. If that was the case then your organizational leadership department could be your financial advisors. They might be problem solvers, but they may not be able to add.
IV.) I think there are different ways to view this theory, but I like how it acknowledges that there are different approaches to change. Though it is helpful to follow a system and know how each part works for the better of the whole, I think it is always good to look through a different lens and see how a different theory or approach might impact the changes the leaders want to see. I think it also allows for creativity and advancements through cultural change. There is always something to be learned.
V.) I think that acuity is important to determine if the goals get met. Though I have seen organizations who have adopted a consistent framework for innovation, I have seen others fail after not changing with the times or turn to panic mode when there is a bigger problem that cannot be fixed. That is why it is so important for all participants in the organization feel empowered through change and has a voice. Thus improving morale and employee involvement.
This theory would be practical in any organization big or small. I have seen this in all sizes of organizations and feel it evolves over time. For instance, a company might do well over a period of 20 years, but if the company does not evaluate the system as a whole, practices, goals, culture including values, assumptions, identification and make sure that everyone is working toward the common goal, there might leave room for conflict. While there is no such thing as a perfect organization, there is always ways to evaluate where the organization is going and improve on its communication. A group can achieve more with the right people and drive.
Dainton, M. & Zelley, E. (2015). Applying communication theory for professional life:
A practical introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing.
Gunaratne, S. A. (2008). Understanding systems theory: Transition from equilibrium to entropy.
Asian Journal of Communication, 18(3), 175-192. doi:10.1080/01292980802207033
Miranda, F. (2014). Systems theory: Perspectives, applications and developments. Hauppauge,
New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Nordenstreng, K., & Christians, C. G. (2014). Communication theories in a multicultural
world. New York: Peter Lang AG.
Patton, W., & McMahon, M. (2014). Career development and systems theory: Connecting
theory and practice. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
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