C-36. System(s)

Much of the way we have come to understand the Nature of Things is via its particulars – i.e., the things of nature — singly and in the aggregate, as entities with behavioral properties, in relationships with each other. Then when we look at particular relationships as entities we also ascribe attributes to them. Focus of attention objectifies anything – with considerable naming help from communication. And we have cognition’s inside-outside relation (X) available to flip-flop the relationship of object and attribute, converting the attribute to a concept of which the relationship qua object is an instance – and enabling logical operations of induction and deduction to proceed.

So what happens when we want to look at, or look for, an aggregate of relationships? We can do the same kind of thing. We develop a classificatory system, such as by gathering a variety of different kinds of communicatory relationships (e.g., interpersonal, intrapersonal, international, business, animal, cell) under Communication as sort of a super concept. (An increasingly abstract concept to grasp [C-32]. Or, as Hayakawa would say, an economic asset is a long way from Bessie, the cow. But if you regard summary as the chief function of theory, this may suit well enough. But you pay a price in looser meanings.)

This super concept usage, however, only establishes a border condition, here of instances within instances: a hierarchy, an ordering. In current usages, when we “think systems,” we want to know more about what is going on inside that border – happenings that involve before-after relations. Think organization and interdependencies, for example. So that we do not now just see message transactions linearly (i.e., in one direction) but as people in dual, interacting roles as senders and receivers (the latter terms a persisting vestige of linearity but maintaining message flow and authorship as conditions of consequence).

So now we have established functional conditions to go with the border condition. Contingencies furnish another, wherein one functional relationship depends on another (perhaps different) functional relationship. Contingencies characterize and constitute another kind of system thinking – and introduce an element of complexity relative to a simpler causal model. Consider, for example, a relay system, wherein the behavior of one person depends on the behavior of another.

Such systems of relationships of relationships can be found in great number and variety, and they have altered the way we think about change (not just the differences and similarities characteristic of classificatory systems). Not altered enough, perhaps, because when changes are described they are still too often interpreted as circumstantial changes (II) — even if previously composed.

What about system as a concept to describe the relationship(s) of relationships when we are concerned with compositional change (II), with putting/bringing things together before the fact, to fashion an ordering productive of some needed product or service, to solve a problem?

Then we want to talk about operating systems (App. IX), if only to make it clear that we are not just thinking circumstantially – whether about composed changes observed or about changes we would like to bring about. We are thinking about ourselves as change agents and about “all that it takes” (II: ATIT): the behavioral relationships involved in composing (not just in combining or connecting), where imagining and configuring needs will look to the molecular components of cognitive relatings and relations that go into producing relationships (App. III).

We may profit here by making a distinction between operating systems and control systems. Operating systems focus on step component relationships and relationships among steps. Choreographing and orchestration show art to be far ahead in appreciating that step units (atomic and molecular) are consequential. (Every little minding and moving unit – not just movement – has a meaning [i.e., consequentiality] all its own – to lean heavily on an old song line.)

We need to contrast this systemic concern for behavioral conditions as focal units with the more commonplace systemic focus on bodies as entities with behavior appended (as noted above). The latter we shall designate as control system thinking. A principal relationship emphasis in control systems is on connectivity among the gapped entities (VI). Such systemic structuring evinces connectivity – or, in the case of alienation, it brings connectivity to some but not to everyone.

Some entities within a composed control system’s structure are designated control entities. These control entities are assigned – or may assume or may be ascribed – behavioral responsibilities and/or capabilities within the control system. “Power structure” may or may not be more than ascribed, more or less than metaphoric. But it shouts control. Connectivity sometimes imposes a stability, which for one’s control needs allows difference making to proceed, or, for another’s control needs poses a stifling of initiative (aka the oft maligned status quo).

The conceptual distinction being made here is far from satisfactory. But the need to improve our operating systems in order to solve our problems requires a strong assertion of the point that systems thinking needs to respect the relationships within and between step conditions as well as those for bodies (III: the Double Crystal). We need the theoretical context of the Nature of Things to anchor this conceptual distinction (C-22).

(We could use the notation of B-system and S-system here, as we did with B-CMY and S-CMY with respect to communities [C-10].That would have the virtue of emphasizing the B x S interdependency and their other dynamic features [XI]. But here we want to establish the independence, conceptually, of what too easily become confounded as but one “system problem.” Consider: “We need a system!” — the urgent cry for organization, but which lacks an understanding of all that is needed, as illustrated by compositional change’s “all that it takes” viewed as a checklist).

A theoretical distinction can offer some help here, based on the interdependence of structure and function (XI). We can establish (or interpret) systems as either structure =>function or function =>structure in design. The architecture of what we are calling here control systems differs from that of operating systems in this crucial way. Looked at after the fact, particulars of the two kinds of systems may not appear all that different (as in the overused “is as does” convention). But these architectures and their particulars can and do differ in their consequentiality.

For community building (App. II; C-10) what this distinction between control and operating systems is talking about becomes crucial, in that functional needs may not be well served. (Note the many Utopian failures.) Essentially, community is first of all behavioral, a capability to be developed, especially for collective problem solving (0).

Consider two different kinds of organizations: The first comprises those who, sharing some values but diverse interests, band together. They establish an administrative center (e.g., authority, treasury) and comprise interest groups more or less connected. As noted above (re control groups), functions are assigned, assumed and/or ascribed.

The second kind of organization comprises those who share an interest in solving a problem (e.g., “task force,” revolutionary force) – not uncommonly for different reasons. They adopt (typically) a way of problem solving – more or less adapted to collective endeavor. It may, for example, be some form of “define the problem” then “evaluate available solutions and then decide.” An operating system – but a crude sort of procedure given the need for, and possibilities of, cognitive engagement, as via imagination and innovation.

If we examine current operating systems, especially for kinds of problem-solving organizations, one of the first things we notice is that they are plagued with control system fragments. Organization per se – i.e., this or that structural feature – may take priority. Interdisciplinary participation may degenerate into multidisciplinary tangents. And competing interests (aka partisanship), as for preferred solutions, may subvert their functioning.

What we should take note of is that for needed problem-solving, organizations rarely have a sound behavioral foundation. They are not all that well prepared to follow the developmental path of function => structure. They will cast about for structures and control entities (roles and “responsible” people to fill them) that might work. They may “cream the crop” of available talent for competitive advantage. But there is no developmental infrastructure for the needed collective capability.

Consider, for example, constitutional government. The U.S. constitution had to be quickly amended via the Bill of Rights to redress an imbalance between individual (persons and states) and community (the new nation). The question and problem of whether it should be a “living” document, subject to change, persists. Is “judicial activism,” for example, all that bad if it brings out needed function => structure concerns? Is strict constitutional interpretation too much of a structure => function approach, and too much a control system approach to what needs to be a more effective operating system?

Dynamic imbalance is a serious problem for organizations, evident in emphases on control systems over operating systems, in structure => function over function => structure, but also in such matters as efficiency over effectiveness, evolution over development (re progress), community over individual and ADAPT and ADOPT over ADEPT. (More on these ratios in App. IV, App. V, App. IX and App. X and in C- 37.)

We are often “in the process,” so to speak, of problem solving, and have to develop capability as we can. (EHAC can help there [App. IX].) But, to optimize our operating system capability, we need to make more of function => structure. And for that we must establish the independence of steps relative to bodies (III), and come to fully understand that steps also have a structure.

Think relationships? Yes, the relationships among body relationships, but also among step relationships, and between body relationships and step relationships (XI). And think relating. For the compositional changes that problem solving entails. Try to think of the “behavioral” in behavioral entity as being more than, and not just, an adjective. (See App. VII re what language usage has wrought.)

In thinking (and talking) about what “system” is talking about, dealing with system as a concept seems too limited an effort. The Society for General Systems Research, seeking to better establish its identity, many years ago looked into the possibility of defining the term. Over 200 definitional were found in the literature even then. None of them touched on and elucidated a telling fact from the Society’s own membership: Half were devoted to discovering evidence of system in nature – i.e., oneness; the other half were devoted to making their respective organizations as systems work better – i.e., as one.

(Among academic organizations, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication may be unique in having been reorganized midway through its existence in function => structure terms. This was not done to solve any particular problem. But it did calm a vexing “practitioners-versus-researchers” partisan clamoring. Every interest group is required to demonstrate yearly activity in the organization’s three major functional areas: teaching, research, and professional freedom and responsibility.)

(c) 2011 R. F. Carter