According to a well-known observer of business: "The unhealthiness of our world today is in direct proportion to our inability to see it as a whole" (Senge, 1990: 168). We interact with and within systems - both internally and externally everyday of our lives. Even the most simplest of objects and ideas can be seen and examined within a system. A system is made up of subsystems, which comprises/forms the integrated whole. With this being said, a system, in general, is a set of interacting or interdependent entities forming an integrated whole (Heylighen. & Joslyn, 1992). The aim of this essay is to support and explore the concept of systems, as well as systems in organizations. The term "systems thinking", the role of the corporate communication practitioner, and sub-functions within the corporate communication function are also analyzed.
The Systems Perspective: Systems Theory
Given the definition of systems mentioned above, systems theory is an interdisciplinary theory about the nature of complex systems in nature, society and science, and acts as a framework and structure by which one can investigate and describe any group of objects that work in unity to produce some result. This could be a single organism, any organization, or society. (Heylighen. & Joslyn, 1992). Systems theory views our world in terms of "systems", where each system is a "whole" that is more than the sum of its parts, but also itself a "part" of larger systems (Harris, 2010). As a technical, practical, and general academic area of study it primarily refers to the science of systems that resulted from Bertalanffy's General System Theory (GST) (Heylighen. & Joslyn, 1992). GST applies the properties of living systems, such as input, output, boundaries, homeostasis, and equifinality (there is more than one right way to achieve the same goal). Systems theory originated in biology in the 1920's out of the need to explain the interdependence of organisms in ecosystems (Losardo & Notari-Syverson, 2001).
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From the origins of systems theory in the sciences and biology, the systems approach to organizational communication studies in the 1950's and 60's was enormous. Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn's The Social Psychology of Organizations (1996), an application of systems theory to organizations, argues that "organizations are fundamentally open systems that require a constant flow of information to and from their environment." In the field of organizational communication, systems theory provided a new connection between communicating and organizing (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 98).
Since then, Systems Theory and systems in general have continued to develop and advance. The "systems concept" has indeed widened to incorporate further developments and theories within this domain. Systems theory encourages us to explore how organizational effectiveness and success depends on the coordination of the entire organization (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004:94). A system is active - not because of any particular component or component process, but because of the relationships and interchanges among processes. Within any system there are subsystems, and it is the connections between subsystems that describe and identify the characteristics of any system. Making use of "systems approach" requires one to recognize the openness and complexity of social organizations, as well as the importance of relationships among individuals (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 104). With this and the theory of systems in mind, the complex environment in which organizations exist is an important aspect to consider.
The complex environment in which organizations exist:
According to the systems theory, organizations do not exist as a unit secluded from the rest of the world. Rather, organizations exist in increasingly turbulent, unstable and complex environments which both provide inputs to the organization and receive outputs in the form of products and services (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 99). This environment in which organizations exist is complex due to the unstable and fluctuating atmosphere in which it is found in. The business environment and economy in which an organization is found, is unstable and inevitable to change. However, this is not the only reason as to why organizations exist in complex environments: the elements of a system change as time passes. For example, the "language" of systems thinking and the systems approach is circular rather than linear - it focuses on closed interdependencies (Goodman, 1995). A system is also characterized by continuous change, activity and progress; and is therefore dynamic (AHD: 2000). An organization's environment is also complex due to the fact that its subsystems are interdependent - one part affects many others and is affected by many in a complex way.
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Organizations as systems:
With the previous discussion on defining systems and the origins of Systems theory, it is clear that systems are vital in every day functioning - in any aspect of life, be it, organizations, in the sciences, and in societies. A systems approach can help individuals to better understand overall workings of the organization. It too, can emphasize the importance of relationships and networks of associates and connections in allowing groups and organizations to achieve goals that are greater than those of the individual (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 113). A systems perspective can also reveal important interdependencies, particularly the links between organizational environments that can have an effect on an organization's survival. Regarding organizations; characteristics such as Environment and openness, interdependence, goals, and process and feedback are relevant areas of interest in the study of organizational communication. Both the nature of those components/characteristics in organizations, and the relationships among them are of importance and interest. These characteristics are briefly discussed below, in order to gain a greater understanding of the systems concept, especially when looking at how systems form and shape organizations.
Environment and openness:
As "open systems", organizations must work with their environments to be successful. Tools and strategies such as environmental scanning (the careful monitoring of competitors, suppliers, government legislation, global economics, and consumer preferences) will help organizations predict and plan for, to a certain extent, unforeseen environmental "jerks". Failure to do so will leave organizations in poor circumstances with devastating consequences (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 99). Just as organisms rely on the environment to survive, organizations rely on communication within their environments. Being open and viable also assist in an organization's "reproductive ability" or continuity, and its ability and capacity to change (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 99). Therefore, an open system that interacts productively, effectively and efficiently with its environment, is likely to create structure and function, whereas in a closed system there is little or no interaction with the environment and the organization may draw close to disorder/chaos (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 99).
This quality, another essential of a system, refers both to the wholeness of the system and its environment, and to the interrelationships of individuals within the system. In systems theory, the interdependent relationships between people not only give an organization its nature and character, but are established and maintained through communication. In an interdependent system, no part of the system can stand alone, but rather depends on the other parts in order to do its job effectively. A breakdown in communication anywhere in the system runs the risk of negatively impacting the whole (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 101-102).
Organizations work towards their goals and aims. Different organizations will have different and varying goals depending on their domain, focus and functions. Both individuals and organizations direct their activities toward goal accomplishment. From an open-systems perspective, goals are negotiated among interdependent sections in the organization and are influenced greatly by its environment (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 102). Goals may vary in the subsystems within an organization - for example, the marketing department may have a slightly different goal to the finance department - but each department has the "united" goal of a productive, profitable and sustainable organization/business.
Processes and Feedback:
A system is not only an interdependent set of components/parts; it is also an interdependent set of processes that interact and cooperate over time (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 103). Processes within organizations manufacture products and/or services. With this being said, "Feedback loops" can be formed between the organization and its clients. For example, if a customer is unhappy with the product, he/she may report this to management/head office. This will then give the business room for change in order to satisfy the customers' needs and wants. These loops connect communication and action. Feedback can also be messages to others who then respond to those messages in some way. The response closes the loop, providing communicators with information about how their messages were received (Eisenberg & Goodall, 2004: 103). Feedback thus manages systems of communication by regulating the flow and understanding of messages. There are three main types of feedback, namely; Negative, Corrective, and Deviation-reducing.
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Along with these characteristics, there are many variables and system components as well. These will be described using examples from a relevant organization, Mug n Bean.
Elements of a system:
Mug n Bean is a restaurant chain with various franchises situated around the country. This organization is a relevant example to the systems approach. Within any System, there are many variables: there are interdependent parts, one part which affects many others and are affected by many in a complex way. These interdependent parts may be the different departments found in the organization - for example, the marketing department, the finance department etc. it can also be the various individuals who form part of the system - the chiefs, waitresses, the franchisee, the customers etc - all of which affect each other and their functioning - one cannot work without the input from the other.
A system contains subsystems within the larger system - this could be the different franchises situated in various areas - all of which contribute and function with and under the main system (the head office).
Systems generally require inputs, engage in some process and produce outputs. Regarding Mug n Bean, the inputs may be the raw materials (food); the process describes the various ways in which to prepare the food; the output describes the final dish served to the customer. The input-process-output mechanism is cyclical and self-sustaining. It is ongoing, repetitive and uses feedback to adjust itself. For example, if a client was unhappy with their food, feedback allows the chief to improve/change it in order to satisfy the customer, and improve "customer and brand loyalty". Systems produce both positive and negative results - satisfied and unsatisfied customers, impressive, unimpressive dishes etc. Systems produce both intended and unintended consequences. These consequences may be short-term, long term, or both.
The system of Mug n Bean franchise is hierarchically ordered. The Franchisee owns the Franchise; the Manager manages the staff and maintains order, the chiefs prepare the food, the staff waiter and serve the customers.
A system also has permeable boundaries, allowing for interaction inside and outside the system. Thus there is an input-output process throughout, which allows for exchange and feedback (which may be negative, corrective, or deviation-reducing).
The role of the Corporate Communication Practitioner:
The role of the corporate communication practitioner is to help the CEO administer the holistic view throughout the company; to keep executives focused on strategy in case they get sidetracked and diverted into irrelevant or "unprofitable" activity (Cornelissen, 2009). The corporate communicator forms part of the CEO's communication "machinery" to guide employees, customers, shareholders, regulators, and others into an appropriate and suitable view of the company and its mission. Corporate communicators also serve as the primary contact for some audiences, such as reporters, and editors who broadcast and relay the company's intents, successes and failures. (Cornelissen, 2009). The corporate communication practitioner plays a vital role in any organization's system. Not only is the practitioner forming part of the system, but he/she plays a vital role in the system's components of holism, interdependency, strategic thinking and planning, as well as the integration of the system's components and properties. Not only does the corporate communication practitioner help in achieving its goals and mission but also placing the company into perspective, to regulate staff and keep the organization focused- moving towards success.
Sub-Functions within the Corporate Communication Function:
Within the function of the Corporate Communication function, various sub-functions exist as well. These sub-functions include investor relations, public relations, internal and external communications, crisis communication, and stakeholder relations. (Argenti, unknown). Each of these sub-functions are placed within the corporate communication area, and each serves a justified and essential function within any organization and its system.