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A systems perspective of organizations

management, business, business goals, administration, leading, directing, controlling, planning, staffing

The goal – centered view of organizations assumes that organizations are in the hands of rational actors who have sets of goals that they are consciously pursuing. These goals are assumed to be few enough to manage, well enough identified to be understood, and common enough to be shared throughout the organization. Since goals can be identified, it should be possible to plan optimal management strategies for realizing them. However, many organizations’ goals are not always so clear.

Another view of organizations takes a different approach. Generally labeled the systems view, this approach assumes that organizations of any size are so complex that it is not possible to define a finite number of goals meaningfully. Instead, organizations develop the overall goal of staying alive. Consistent with this approach is another view, which sees organizations as adaptable entities rather than goal seeking entities.

The systems approach differs significantly from the goal oriented view. The systems perspective pays primary attention to the ‘people’ aspects of the organizations, for instance, by encouraging participation in decision making at all levels or by assessing and changing an organization’s work climate or worker’s job satisfaction or employee health. Goal achievement approaches emphasize such programs as management by objectives, cost benefit analysis, military readiness, and the direct realization of other goals. The systems approach, on the other hand, stresses survival and viability. These nations are often extended to include a number of system properties that are seen as immediate causes of survival. Adaptability, maximization of returns, and even integration of subsystems are examples. These properties, like the notion of viability itself, have been difficult to work with.

Viewing organizations as adaptable, viable systems requires the acceptance of some underlying assumptions not taken very seriously in the goals approach:
1.Organizations are not material, substantive entities with objective properties. Organizations are not ‘objects.’ That idea is a trap in which our thing oriented language has caught us. Organizations are sets of interlocked organizing processes that create order;
2.The organization environment is, in part enacted by the organization itself, not just given in a predetermined, independent variable sense. Some of those enactments are random, and some contradict the retained order;
3.Rational, goal directed instrumental behavior plays a relatively unimportant role in organizing. Instead, organizing is treated as an evolutionary process of variation and selective retention. Rationales for behavior are developed retrospectively, after the behavior has been completed and is available for ‘ bracketing’ and sense making;
4.Organizing is primarily an interpersonal process. Realities are socially constructed. Therefore communication and the use of language are important processes;
5.Organizations are creative, problem solving systems, not just performing systems. They have to figure things out not just execute behaviors.

If we accept these assumptions, we would undoubtedly view organizations and organizational effectiveness in a different light than we do if we take the goal oriented view. We might see organizations as behaving and making sense of their past behavior rather than anticipating their future behavior organizations talk in order to discover what they are saying. Goals then are constructed not before but after the fact.

This approach leads to recognition. When organizations adapt to specific situations they lose resources for adapting to other situations down the road. The systems view sees a way out of this dilemma that provides for flexibility organizations should maintain some deviance. Such variation on organizational norms may be healthy because it may promote survivability in a changed environment.

A goal oriented perspective on organizations specifies integration of functions as a crucial organizational component. The systems approach too may see such coordination as essential. But researches are developing new images of organizations seeing them as loosely coupled systems that are fluid coalitions of competing interest, or as sets of weak ties that emphasize the links between each coalition and groups external to the organization. To survive organizations must have independence and interconnectedness, gulfs and bridges. This emphasis on adaptability which sees the benefit to the organization of keeping many options open, also accepts the value of non-integrative systems.

Finally one can argue that taking the view of organizations as goal directed is a confusion of means and ends and completely misses a crucial point about organizational behavior. The pleasure is in the process; organizations keep people busy occasionally entertain them, give them a variety of experiences, keep them off the streets, and allow them to socialize. If they do that then they are effective. If the process absorbs time and energy and provides the pretexts for story telling that is sufficient. From the systems perspective then organizational effectiveness is not so much a matter of a set of outcomes from goal seeking behavior as it is the ability of the organization to remain viable in the face of multiple and conflicting goals. From the goals perspective, however, effectiveness is closely tied to the goals themselves.
Published: 2007-04-14
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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