Seeing the Full Kaleidoscope

For more than 40 years, experts in organizational behavior have increasingly advocated the use of an open systems theory for viewing organizations. While most managers are adept at recognizing all the actors inside and outside the structure of their organization, many fail to see the complexity in the interactions among these actors. This is not to say that most managers view the interactions of their organizations as simple bilateral interactions between a number of separated pairs; however, many have yet to realize the vastness and complexity of the network within which their organization operates. While perhaps not as symmetrical as a kaleidoscope, the complexities of these networks can leave one just as awestruck. So, what are some of the characteristics of open systems theory, and what could you be missing in your view of your organization?

Open systems theory accounts for the influences of the external environment on an organization, as well as, the organization’s influences on the external environment. Actions and changes in one encourage or require actions and changes in the other. The two cannot operate independently of each other. In a world that has grown increasingly flatter and complex, with global corporate ties strengthened by the internet and other technologies, the depth, breadth, and complexity of an organization’s external environment has surely grown as well. With this growth comes the demand for managers to understand the actual and needed interactions between their organizations and that external environment.

In today’s world, the only constant is change, and a changing environment forces change inside the organization. Environmental changes and pressures that are viewed as threats by those in the organization are likely to force organizations into survival mode. Ideally, an organization in survival mode will reconsider its norms and practices in an effort to adapt. If the term “survival mode” evokes for you a mental picture of wildlife, then perhaps this will help with your understanding. Imagine the chameleon that changes skin color with its surroundings or the snake who, during hibernation, adapts the rate of its bodily functions to the cold weather. The external environment forced change in these two animals.

However, we cannot think of an organization as being influenced by a separate external environment, because the two are so interrelated. They are not two distinct components, especially when an external environment contains many different actors with different ties/relationships within the organization. Moreover, we cannot focus on the value that any one actor or component of the network can provide. Only when we truly understand the relationships of these interwoven pieces – to understanding the actions and reactions within the network of pieces – do we truly harness the power of all the elements.

By understanding the relationships among the elements, we begin to better recognize the patterns in their interactions. By understanding the patterns, we can begin to predict activity. However, in order to predict activity with complete accuracy, all elements in this interconnected network would have to maintain their current state. Yet, this theory recognizes nature’s push away from equilibrium, inducing a certain turning of the kaleidoscope. So, while the ability to totally predict your organization’s activity is nearly impossible, understanding the nature of the relationships within the network allows one to manipulate other elements in a calculated manner to hopefully balance the effects produced by unprompted changes elsewhere in the network.

While open systems theory is nothing new, many of us still fail to identify all the components and patterns within the structure of our organization’s network. By opening our minds to the complexity of this theory, we can better understand the scope of the structure of our network. While an understanding of the structure is important, the more critical factor is an understanding of the relationships. This allows us to better recognize and manipulate patterns and processes, making us better managers in both the proactive and reactive modes. After all, the full view of a kaleidoscope is much more beautiful, appreciated and valuable than the narrow, uncomplicated view.

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