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22 September 2014

Is the Systems Approach Dead?

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

After accumulating over 45 years’ experience working both as an employee and a manager in very different companies of all sizes –both national and international–, and in a range of different fields –from production and services through to education–, I have come to the realization that the systems approach is totally absent from managers’ minds.

What’s more, I’ve spent 20 years teaching courses on business, administration and organizational improvement at the undergraduate and post-graduate level, and I’ve observed that students start out on the program without the slightest notion of these concepts.

The obvious conclusion is that the systems approach is dead and buried and has given way to other models that offer a better explanation of life in organizations. However, there is no evidence to suggest this is so. Rather than dead, it was never really given a chance to take root. Its seeds were never sown or nurtured, and it is thus nowhere to be found in the mindset of organizational leaders and throughout all the other organizational echelons. It still needs to be cultivated.

“So what?”, the reader might ask, before going on to point out that the world –mainly the world of organizations– has gone on turning despite the lack of these concepts. However this is not as trivial as it may seem. We have relegated our awareness that organizations are living social organisms, and as such, that they receive a series of elements from the environment that nourish them and allow them to do what they have to do. In return, organizations must deliver a series of products and services as required.

Leaders who are deprived of this notion of organizations as living systems open to interaction with their environment tend to design erroneous strategies that hamper progress, and –in the worst cases– lead to failure. Nowadays, we are all aware of the influence of globalization and the scope and immediacy of communications, and yet managers often behave as though the world is limited to what lies within their field of vision.

Today, to be able to interact, the organizations’ own external environment –over which they have no control– is clamoring for and sometimes demanding conditions and characteristics that were of no concern 20 years ago. Particular emphasis is given to the importance of acting in a spirit of Social Responsibility, of being sustainable, buying and selling at fair prices –in sum, projecting an ethical organizational life towards the organization’s exterior.

The impact of the powerful forces of globalization on communications means that an organization’s actions are broadcast all over the world. Bad news flies, and negative thinking spreads much faster among consumers and public opinion than good actions and good service. The image of good service and good quality is conveyed from mouth to mouth, and has a fairly long-lasting effect.

But what does the “General Systems Theory” refer to? It means that the only meaningful way to view organizations is as a social system. These concepts are not new –they have been around for nearly a century– but they have yet to take root in the world of organizations.

If we’re looking for definitions, it is worth quoting the following: a system is “an organized, unitary whole composed of two or more interdependent parts, components, or subsystems and delineated by identifiable boundaries from its environmental suprasystem” (Kast & Rosenzweig, 1988).

Here we should point out for a start that organizations, viewed from the systems approach, are interdependent with their environmental suprasystem. This external environment not only involves competitors, providers, and macroeconomic, global and national factors, but also ecological and climate-related aspects.

What an organization does or does not do not only has repercussions inside it, but also impacts other organizations in its immediate and distant environment. It’s like throwing a stone into a pond and seeing the ripples spread out from the center. What we do affects others, and what others do or decide invariably affects us.

In this article I have attempted to show that most leaders lack the administrative concepts that allow them to move towards improving their organizations, regardless of whether these are business or nonprofit. I have set out to highlight the fact that the “General Systems theory” is a global approach which can help us understand all kinds of systems, including organizational ones.

Fernando Menéndez González

Universidad Iberoamericana (UIA)


Kast, F., & Rosenzweig, J. (1988). Organization and Management: A Systems and Contingency Approach. (2nd ed.). (M. A. Malfavón, Trad.) México: McGraw Hill.


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