What is General Systems Theory?

Even if General Systems Theory (TGS) It can be traced back to the origins of science and philosophy, only in the second half of the 20th century did it acquire shades of a formal science thanks to the valuable theoretical contributions of the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffi (1901-1972). By searching busily for a scientific explanation of the phenomenon of life, Bertalanffi discovered and formalized something that Aristotle and Heraclitus had already intuited; and that Hegel took as the essence of his Phenomenology of the Spirit: Everything has to do with everything.

It was the 1950s, and Julian Huxley (Aldous’s brother) had already developed his concepts on modern evolutionary synthesis and Francis Crick and James Watson were advancing their work on the helical structure of DNA. Why Ludwig von Bertalanffi’s ambitious research program sought to answer the central question of biology: what is life?. Due to its globalized and “open” nature, Bertalanffi was unable to answer this crucial question, but approached its resolution with ideas that radically transformed our vision of the world: the whole is more than the sum of its parts; the whole determines the nature of the parts; the parts cannot be understood if they are considered isolated from the whole; the parts are dynamically interrelated or interdependent. General Systems Theory contains the paradox of being one of the most exciting areas of modern science, and also one of the most misunderstood. This is the theme that we develop today in our Concepts of Economics

Bertalanffi could not answer the question that intrigued him and that remained unanswered in all biology books and manuals. But his research marked a qualitative leap in the understanding and development of systems theory, understanding by system as a set of elements that works as a whole. For example, each organ in the human body affects its overall functioning; and the digestive system is quite different from the nervous system or the endocrine system, but there is no part that has an isolated effect at all. None of these subsystems is totally independent. Neither the circulatory system nor the lymphatic system can function in isolation, because then they do not form a living being.

The whole and its parts


Bertalanffi’s achievements had the great merit of targeting the whole and its parts. To understand the functioning of a body it is necessary to understand the functioning of its parts, and their role in overall performance. Just as the digestive system and the endocrine system are crucial to the health of the human body, so engineering or political science is crucial to understanding society. This element was the one that removed Bertalanffi from the biological axes, and transferred him to the field of organizations. Bertalanffi demonstrated that organizations are not static entities and that multiple interrelationships and interconnections allow them to feed back and grow in a process that constitutes their existence. In the learning and feedback continuum that improves inputs and outputs and refines the process, Bertalanffi unraveled the life of organizations. Many authors continued with this line of work and Peter Senge in his idea of ​​continuous learning is one of his most renowned disciples.

That is why it was in the organizational field where Bertalanffi’s theories achieved their greatest successes. The systemic approach allowed understanding an organization as a set of interacting and interdependent subsystems that are related to form a unitary and complex whole. Each system, subsystem and subsystem develops a chain of events that starts with an input and ends with an output. What happens between the input and the output constitutes the essence of the subsystem and is known as process or black box. inner circle of the graph.

The inputs are the revenue of the system and can be material resources, human resources or information. They constitute the starting force of each subsystem since they supply the operational needs. An input can be the output or the result of another subsystem above. In this case there is a direct link. For example: forest → sawmill → lumber yard → factory → final product. Note that the treatment of each of the stages requires different organizational plans and that all the final products that surround us (a table or a chair) are the result of a chain of events articulated by human action.

The process is what transforms an input into an outputAs such it can be a machine, an individual, a program, a task. The transformation must take into account how the transformation is carried out. When the result fully responds to the design of the program, we have what is known as a white box; in other cases, it is not known in detail how the process is carried out since it is too complex. In this case we have what is known as a “black box”.

The outputs of the systems are the results of processing the inputs. These can take the forms of products, services or information, and be the input of another subsystem. For example: wheat → mill → flour → bakery → bread. Flour is the end product of the mill, but it is the raw material (input) of the bakery. In systems theory, it is very normal for the output of one system to be the input of another, which will process it to turn it into another output, in a continuous cycle (outer circle of the graph). Hence, for Bertalanffi, systems theory has a strong link with the laws of thermodynamics.

Synergy and homeostasis

The great merit of The general theory of systems it is to provide a logic to the conceptual schemes known under the name of mechanical analytic approaches. If TGS is still a young theory in application and dissemination, it is because the processes induced by rationalism are deterministic and perfect, blind to the environment. For Cartesian rationalism there are no concepts such as synergy (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) or homeostasis (level of response and adaptation to change). In economics, development models speak of globalization, but do not take into account the effects of globalization since they do not consider the laws of thermodynamics, or the effects of global warming and resource depletion.

The characteristic of Bertalanffi’s systemic approach is that it involves open systems, input input processors that produce results and that in this process undergo changes and transform themselves. It is a continuous process that promotes feed-back or feedback, for continuous improvement. Hence its success in the face of the organizational vision and the maximization of its subsystems. As they are open systems, they are permeable to changes and learning that is induced in practical action.

It was precisely the notion of an open system that prevented Bertalanffi from getting close to unraveling the phenomenon of life. And it is that living beings are closed systems, which have within themselves the ability to generate life. So the answer to what is life? had to wait until 1971 when Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela developed the notion of autopoiesis, that is, the ability of the living organism to reproduce itself. Bertalanffi gave no answer to “what is life?” but he unraveled the great mystery of the life of organizations with his General systems theory.

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