Systems Theory in OD

Any person living in this generation is abundantly clear of the importance of connectivity. As a society, we are connected through social networking, through cell phones, through video chat, and email. Researchers of systems theory can see these connections as a technological interdependence of elements that already existed. What does this mean? Organizations have always been interdependent.

The definition of a system is a great place to start. “A system is a set of interrelated parts unified by design to achieve some purpose or goal” (Brown, 2011, p. 38).

Although this definition sounds very business-like, it can be applied to any organized systems. Let’s use a family as an example.


A system has five basic qualities (Brown, 2011, p. 38). After each quality I’ll use the example of a young family with kids.

  1. The system is designed to accomplish an objective
    • In the case of this family, the objective is to raise independent, self-reliant, children.
  2. The system has an established arrangement
    • Adults (parent or parents) and young children
    • Note: this example is anchored in American culture. In other cultures the system would also include extended family.
  3. The elements of the arrangement are dependent on each other
    • As young children, this element requires the supervision of adults as well as the operational support (driving, feeding, etc.) that they provide.
    • The adults, committed to the objective stated in quality one, are committed to interacting with the children to create the desired result.
  4. The system thrives on the flow of information, energy, and materials.
    • Systems, and thus families, can be seen as gathering inputs, processing those inputs, and producing results.
    • In the case of this family, input can be the behavior of the children, school and activity schedules, physiological needs, and similar inputs from the parents. All this input needs to be processed into useable and actionable knowledge like schedules, grocery lists, division of responsibilities, etc. Finally, decisions must be made to benefit the whole system, the family.
  5. Overall objectives of the systems are more important than that of individual elements.
    • Keeping the family healthy and functioning is an important objective in order to meet the goal of raising independent, self-reliant, children.
    • In this case it’s important to note that sometimes the adults need to prioritize their needs in order to keep the family healthy and functioning. Still, the overall needs of the family are paramount.


As with any organization, the environment will flow into the open system, requiring change for continued success. Let’s consider what happens to the change the system as the children approach the age of 18. Please note that changes need to be made prior to children reaching this age, but it’s interesting to see how the system changes. The goal is to maintain a high performing system. There are five considerations in pursuit of this goal (Brown, 2011, p. 41).

  1. The business situation (forces in the environment)
    • With grown children, the system becomes looser in structure. Environmental forces have more impact.
  2. The business strategy (goals, values)
    • As with any organization, as the environment changes, so must the vision of the organization.
    • The family’s goal is now to parent children who actively contribute to society and their communities.
  3. The design elements (technology, structure)
    • With a looser structure family members must rely more on cell phones, computers, and less face to face interaction.
  4. Culture
    • The culture of the family has evolved from a focus on operations to a focus on autonomy.
  5. Results
    • Rather than look at the narrower “result” of the children themselves, in order to gauge the success of their goals, the family must rely on common goals and combine results.


Systems theory can be observed in families, colonies of ants, large corporations, and even entrepreneurial ventures. Although the concept is not new, the focus on systems in OD can bring about great change in a company functioning as separate parts.


Works Cited

Brown, D. R. (2011). An Experiential Approach to Organizational Development (8th Edition ed.). New Jersey: Pearson as Prentice Hall.