General System Theory

In the past, there was a school of management thought called Administration Science, made up Operations Research and Decision Sciences. Operations Research gave managers quantitative information about the resources (or parts) of an organization, then the managers used decision science to make decisions based on those parts/resources. ("If we have three tons of steel, we should make some cars.") System theory rose an an alternative to this.

General System Theory says that there are properties common to all systems, regardless of specifics in a particular subject matter (biology, chemistry, sociology, etc.). It is a comprehensive notion of a system ("The Meaning of General System Theory" by Ludwig von Bertallanffy). Others (such as Fremont E. Kast and James E. Rosenzweig) refute this idea, saying there are different types of systems, not one general system, that different phenomena need to be discussed in different ways.

There are two types of systems: closed and open. Closed systems will gradually decay if left alone. Open systems are affected by outside environments. It's hard to tell the boundary of a system; you need wisdom to do it, lest you exclude data based on personal preferences and prejudices. But for the purpose of analysis (and design) you have to treat open systems as closed.

It's important to remember that however broad system theory seems to be, it remains in the context of resource usage; individuals and groups (except as resources) play little part in systems thinking. It's a distinct type of thinking about organizations, rooted in materials. However, systems thinking and chaos theory are growing in importance to Design.

But although system theory has significance, Dick Buchanan says it is a stretch of imagination to see how some of it applies to the problems designers face. It takes us out of the things we experience day-to-day and gives a high-level view of the situation--sometimes too high-level. It can be too big; it's often more helpful to find and understand the pathways through the system on a human scale because you can easier design for those. Go to the human experience and let design thinking restructure the system as a whole.

Originally posted on Sunday, February 20, 2005

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