i. A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 3)

A Systems Model of Human Organisation (Part 3)

This post is the final part of the article posted over the last two weeks. Due to its length, I have split the article down into three posts, but if you would like to read it in one sitting a copy can be downloaded here


The components of an organisation have designated functions and act together to achieve its overall purpose. Organisations which have evolved frequently contain redundant components which compete with one another. Although this competition leads to inefficiencies, redundancy does make an organisation more resilient. Furthermore, competition, if positive, can reveal which component is best suited to a role. Because we aim for efficiency, an organisation which has been designed rarely contains redundancies. It is also the case that subsequent design often eliminates them, but there is of course, a downside.

This also applies to the command component. In some cases, there is redundancy of potential command, i.e., alternative command components that can step in when necessary. In other cases, there is none. In a democracy for example, there is considerable redundancy of potential command in the form of political parties and much competition between them. However, this allows the selection of a command style suited to the circumstances, or the replacement of an ineffective one. In an authoritarian state or other organisation, there is often little redundancy of potential command. This makes the organisation less adaptable to changing circumstances.

Top-down & Bottom-up Representation

The command component of an organisation may comprise individuals selected by:

  • the individual who ultimately leads that organisation; or by
  • the command component of a parent or grandparent organisation.

This is top-down representation. Alternatively, it may comprise individuals selected by those in a subordinate position, i.e., bottom-up representation. There are advantages and disadvantages in both methods. The former permits greater focus on the objectives of the relevant parent organisation, but this focus can be redirected in the personal interest of the leadership. The latter allows greater flexibility in selecting the appropriate command style for the prevailing circumstances but can result in a focus on the personal objectives of subordinates. Ideally, therefore, those who populate command components should be selected by negotiation between the two interests.

Decision Making Style

The decision-making style of a command component can vary on a scale from consultative to authoritarian. The consultative approach yields the best decisions, albeit more slowly and with greater effort. However, consultative leaders can become authoritarian for two main reasons.

  • Out of efficiency. It is quicker and easier to issue instructions than to consult and negotiate.
  • To resist replacement. Leaders have their own personal goals, as well as the goals of the organisation in mind. They may rely on status to achieve the former which can conflict with the latter. In resisting replacement, they may provide misinformation to sub-ordinates, select supportive subordinates, and engage in negative competition with potential rivals. In the case of government, a new human right may be a way of preventing top-down misinformation.

Finally, a style of command can become established in the culture of an organisation, whether a business or a nation. Once established, there is a tendency for the organisation to revert to it after a change in command, i.e., command style can be subject to homeostasis.

Use of the Model

This model can be used to understand human interactions in specific circumstances. Owing to complexity, it is not able to predict those interactions, however. It can also be used to identify behavioural changes which might lead to social improvements, such as the prevention of conflict and the alleviation of poverty.

d. Principles of Self-Maintaining Systems

Principles of Self-Maintaining Systems

Some systems, known as self-maintaining systems, are thought to have both maintenance sub-systems and adaptive mechanisms. The maintenance sub-system sustains the relationship between the other sub-systems and holds the entire system together. The adaptive mechanisms promote changes to inputs, outputs, and processes, to keep the system in equilibrium with its environment. Living things, for example, are self-maintaining, but not exclusively so. People also create self-maintaining machines, computer programmes, etc.

Self-maintenance and adaptation are carried out through a process of feedback. Information on inputs, processes and outputs are passed to the controlling sub-system. The latter then processes this information, and issues commands, again in the form of information, to subsystems engaged in accepting inputs, in processing them, and in delivering outputs. For control to be successful important aspects of the latter must appear as a white box to the former, i.e., must be known by it. This existence of controlling and subordinate systems is known as requisite hierarchy.

Another principle, requisite variety, applies to the operation of controlling sub-systems. This principle was discovered by W. Ross Ashby and is also known as the First Law of Cybernetics. It holds that the degree of control of a system is proportional to the amount of information available. Variety refers to the number of states of a system. If a controlling sub-system can recognise all possible states, then it has full knowledge of the systems behaviour and can therefore issue appropriate instructions. If it does not have knowledge of all possible states, uncertainty arises. Ashby believed that “When the variety or complexity of the environment exceeds the capacity of a system (natural or artificial) the environment will dominate and ultimately destroy that system.”

Such systems are known as self-maintaining systems because they perform these operations autonomously and without any assistance from their environment. However, they can use a large part of their inputs in self-maintenance as opposed to producing outputs. The boundaries of systems which are not self-maintaining are defined by the observer. However, self-maintaining systems define their own boundaries. In a living system, such as a bacterial cell or a multicellular organism, this property is known as autopoiesis.

Systems with higher levels of organisation can display purposive behaviour or agency. That is, they have choices available to them, and produce an end result after a period of time. Systems with purposive behaviour can “extract” inputs from other systems in their environment, or can “exchange” them for their own outputs. Without adaptation, a system can become unsustainable. It may, for example extract inputs at a rate greater than its environment can produce them, or it may produce outputs at a rate greater than its environment can process them.

The internal organisation of a system can increase in complexity without being guided or managed by an outside source. This is known as self-organisation and relies on four main ingredients. They are: positive and negative feedback; a balance between the exploitation of existing opportunities and the exploration of new ones; and multiple interactions. The latter are not merely one-way causal inputs, but also, two-way output/input relationships with other systems in the environment. More information on self-organisation can be found here:

The reliability of a system can be increased through redundancy. That is, the duplication of critical components. One important redundancy is known as redundancy of potential command. This principle was first identified by the American neurophysiologist, Warren McCulloch, in the 1950s. When studying the transmission of signals between the brain and the nervous system, it was found that two identical signals from the same source were being delivered by a primary channel and an auxiliary channel. From this, McCulloch developed the principle that knowledge, i.e., correct information, constitutes authority. This will be explored further in my next post.

To these principles, I would add the two variational principles described in my earlier article on decision making and behaviour. That is, pressing needs and the efficient use of resources. A self-maintaining system may have several functions but limited resources. So, it is necessary to prioritise its processes and attend to the most pressing needs first. It must also employ its resources as efficiently as possible to maximise the benefits of its processes and outputs.  Together, these variational principles help to maintain the system and contribute to the likelihood of its continued existence.