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Systems theory and cybernetics

systems, systems theory, cybernetics, models, computers, information technology, communication systems

In 1948, Norbert Weiner published his book on cybernetics which encouraged an analytical approach to the activities of management.
Before the publication of this famous book, many activities in an organization were treated in an essentially descriptive manner. Cybernetics can be traced back to Plato. In his famous book The Republic, he used the Greek term Kybernetike (the art of steermanship; a Pilot or governor) as an analogy to illustrate piloting the ‘ship of state’. Cybernetics is now a branch of applied mathematics used in the study and design of control mechanisms.

Norbert Weiner’s definition of cybernetics is ‘The science of communication and control in the animal and in the machine.’ The models used in cybernetics have a number of similarities to the models used in system-collections of parts that are dynamically combined and interrelated into a purposive whole. The interrelationships occurring through a communications network are self-regulating and adaptive to environmental changes in the system.

The essence of cybernetic control is the series of interrelated steps to reach a stage of homeostatis (stable condition) by means of adjustments made through feeding back into the controlling system information obtained from its interaction with outside environments. Feedback involves passing information form one point in a system back to an earlier point with a view to modifying behavior. Cybernetic control is dependant upon the adequacy of feeding back reliable information to a point where action can be taken.

Systems can be divided into two categories;

1. Deterministic, where the behavior can be completely predicted like we know what will happen when we touch the keys of a computer keyboard;
2. Probabilistic, where behavior can only be estimated within degrees of likelihood like the unpredictable result of tossing a coin; it may be a head or a tail.

In a very probabilistic system, we do not know how the machine works, because of its complexity. All we can do is to treat it like a ‘black box’. We cannot see inside the system, or box, and can only make intelligent guesses by manipulating the flows into and out of the box and learning about its behavior by trial and error. We could, for example, start a sales promotion campaign, but we cannot accurately predict its effect, because the situation is of the probabilistic type.
A system is called open-loop when information is fed out from a process so that necessary evaluations and adjustments can be made externally. If the loop is closed, a person is not needed to complete the control circuit: it is self-correcting.

A system may be said to consist of the following elements which are called sub-systems:
* a sensing system or mechanism, to find out the situation and what is going on;
* an information coding system, to ensure that data are in usable from;
* a physical processing system, requiring two-way communication and feed-back of results;
* a regulating and control system, based upon actual output and measurement of deviations;
* an information storage and retrieval system;
* a goal-getting or policy- making system

It is inherent in the system that there should be adequate delegation of authority to sub-systems and that effective two-way communication systems are operating (both upwards and downwards)
Published: 2007-04-10
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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