Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Systems theory

Kenneth Boulding (1956) generated a hierarchy of systems to support the General Systems Theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). (Bertalanffy developed the GST from 1937 onwards.) Each level in the nine-level hierarchy includes the functionalities and attributes of all the lower levels.

The lowest level in the hierarchy is static, containing only labels and lists. The second level is comparable to clockwork, simple motions and machines, balances and counter-balances. The third level is cybernetic, self-controlling with feedback and information transmission. The fourth level is open, living, self-maintaining and self-reproducing. The fifth level is genetic, where labor is divided between differentiated, mutually dependent components that grow according to blueprints (e.g. DNA). The sixth level is animal, featuring self-awareness, mobility, specialized receptors and nervous systems. The seventh level is human, with self-consciousness and a sense of passing time. The eight level is social organization, with meanings and value systems. The ninth level is transcendental, metaphysical.

It's important to note that current natural science has not gone much beyond level four. Organizations are level eight. This means that there is a four-level gap between on one hand the organizations we wish to study, and on the other the scientific tools we have at our disposal.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy. General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. George Braziller, New York, 1968.
Kenneth Boulding. General Systems Theory. The Skeleton of Science. Management Science, 2, 3, pp.197-208, April, 1956.

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