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a. An Introduction to Organisations

An Introduction to Organisations

To carry out communal activities at any scale, we form what I will describe, generically, as “organisations”. These are formal or informal groups of individuals that have their own culture and purpose. They can be religious, political, economic, or have some other function.

All human organisations are self-maintaining systems. As an organisation comes into existence and develops, so too does a hierarchy within it. For the organisation to function efficiently and effectively, its members must specialise. This, in turn, requires the co-ordination of their activities. For example, a typical commercial enterprise comprises a managing director followed by directors, senior managers, middle managers, junior managers, and ordinary employees. A typical religion might be organised with a god at the top, followed by “his representative on earth”, and so on down to the lay population. Such hierarchies exist everywhere in society, albeit with different names for the various strata, and we take this for granted.

However, the type of hierarchy in an organisation depends on the extent to which it relies on leadership or power for control. A person with leadership attributes gains high status by virtue of skills in directing a group of individuals to an agreed common goal. Generally, these skills are recognised by the subordinates, and the leader’s status is held with their consent. On the other hand, a person with power attributes has skills in directing a group of individuals to a goal set by him, her or those above. He or she does not necessarily hold their status with their subordinates’ consent. Individuals in a hierarchy generally hold a combination of both attributes, each manifesting to a greater or lesser degree. Unfortunately, there has been a history of power masquerading as leadership, and the term “leader” is used to describe both those who exercise power and those who exercise genuine leadership. In this series of articles, I will, therefore, use the terms “highest status”, “high status”, “low status”, “lowest status”, “senior” and “junior” when referring to the members of a hierarchy.

Control and adaptation mechanisms in an organisation or sub-organisation depend on the highest status individuals receiving information from those of lower status and issuing instructions to them. The balance of leadership and power attributes can vary from organisation to organisation and from sub-organisation to sub-organisation. It is normally a reflection of the attributes of its highest status members and can become entrenched as a culture.

In the same way as systems, all organisations contain sub-organisations and are part of yet larger ones. A commercial organisation, for example, may comprise departments and teams. It may also belong to a sector, i.e., a group of commercial organisations with similar purpose. Thus, organisations are themselves structured hierarchically. An outline of this hierarchy from the top down is:

  • Earth’s Ecology
  • Global Human Organisation
  • Cultural Alliances of Nations
  • Individual Nations
  • National Elites
  • Sectors (both formal and informal)
  • Named Organisations
  • Departments
  • Teams
  • Individuals

The term “organisation” is used generically to describe any one of these.

Organisations exist to facilitate the co-operation of individuals for a common purpose. Usually, they are a means of satisfying the needs and avoiding the contra-needs of a group of individuals. However, their purpose can also be to satisfy the needs and avoid the contra-needs of one or more other organisations. It is also possible for organisations to come into being with the specific purpose of creating contra-satisfiers for others, or to obstruct their satisfiers. So, in the way that it impacts on others, an organisation can be a satisfier or contra-satisfier of a type described by Max Neef.

All organisations are open systems with inputs, processes, and outputs. They have needs and contra-needs. Their needs are to carry out their function and grow, and their contra-needs are an inability to do so. Satisfiers are the inputs and internal organisation necessary for them to carry out their processes. Contra-satisfiers are anything that prevents this.

Organisations interact with one another to provide inputs and outputs. When one organisation provides the outputs needed by another, it is a satisfier of the latter’s needs. However, it can also act as a contra-satisfier, either deliberately or unintentionally. Organisations will also compete with one another for the inputs or resources required to satisfy their needs. These interactions are not necessarily at the same level in the hierarchy of organisations. For example, an individual interacts with a commercial organisation for payment or other benefits in return for his labour. He also interacts with many organisations for products and services in return for money. In general, individuals and organisations will be attracted to organisations they believe will satisfy their needs. A form of risk-benefit-cost analysis is carried out and equitable reciprocation is expected.

Finally, all organisations come into existence, carry out their function for a time, and then either expire or alter their purpose. As I discuss organisations and hierarchies in more detail, I will follow this order.

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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: https://psychology.fandom.com/wiki/Self-organization

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.

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b. General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory

In this article, I will describe a branch of science known as General Systems Theory. I will do so because it provides an extremely powerful set of tools for understanding human nature and society.

The aim of General Systems Theory is to provide an overarching theory of organisation which can be applied to any field of study. It aims to identify broadly applicable concepts rather than those which apply only to one field. It can, therefore, apply in the fields of mathematics, engineering, chemistry, biology, the social sciences, ecology, etc. One of the principal founders of General Systems Theory was the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901 – 1972), although there have been many other contributors. To date, its principal application has been in the popular fields of business, the environment, and psychology, but it is equally applicable to human nature and society.

A system comprises a collection of inter-related components, with a clearly defined boundary, which work together to achieve common objectives. Within this boundary lies the system, and outside lies its environment. Systems are described as being either open or closed. In the case of a closed system, nothing can enter it from, or leave it to, the environment. It is a hypothetical concept, therefore. In reality, all systems are open systems comprising inputs, processes and outputs to the environment. In a closed system, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics applies, entropy will steadily increase, and the system will fall into disorder. However, in an open system, it is possible to resist decay, or even to reverse it and increase order.

In summary, an open system comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. In the case of an individual human being, our inputs are satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, our processes comprise our needs, contra-needs and decision-making, and our outputs are our behaviour.

The basis of General Systems Theory is causality. Everything we regard as being a cause or effect comprises components, which can also be regarded as causes and effects. Ultimately, causality has its foundation in particle physics, therefore. Furthermore, every cause or effect is a component of yet greater causes and effects, up to the scale of the universe in its entirety. Similarly, General Systems Theory regards everything from the smallest particle to the entire universe as a system. Thus, every system comprises components which are also systems, and every system is a component of yet greater systems. A system, a cause, and an effect are all one and the same thing, therefore.

In causality, events of one type cause events of another type by passing matter, energy or information to them. These are the equivalent of the inputs and outputs of a system. As Einstein explained, matter is organised energy. Information is also conveyed in the way that matter or energy are organised. So, causality is the transfer of energy, in an organised or disorganised form, from one system to another. This transfer can be regarded as an output from the cause, and an input to the effect. Causes and effects form chains or loops, and so create recurring, and thus, recognisable patterns of energy flow. It is such recognisable patterns that enable us to understand and predict the world in which we live, and which are of interest to General Systems Theory.

Causes can, of course, be necessary or sufficient. For a system or system component to carry out its function, several inputs from the environment or other components may be necessary. Only together may they be sufficient for the system to function. Furthermore, inhibitors also have a part to play in preventing effects on processes. Thus, the relationships between a system and its environment, and the relationships between the components of a system can be complex and chaotic.

A feature of systems is that they often display emergent properties. These are characteristics that the component parts of a system do not have, but which, by virtue of these parts acting together, the system does have. In other words, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. This concept dates to at least the time of Aristotle. The classic example is consciousness. A human being experiences consciousness, but his or her component cells do not. Similarly, systems also display vanishing properties. These are properties that a system does not have, but which its component parts do. For example, individual human beings may be compassionate but an organisation comprising such people may not. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be related to the way that energy is organized and flows in a system. They are recognizable patterns of energy flow.

Continuum changes of state occur when a variable characteristic of something alters. For example, when a child puts on weight or grows in height. System complexity is one such variable characteristic. Changes in a variable characteristic can be imperceptible in the short term but aggregate over time until we can perceive them. For example, in the longer term, a person can change his or her state from that of being a child to that of being an adult, but the changes which occur in a week are imperceptible. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be continuum changes of state which occur as the complexity of systems grow. They can be identified by comparing things that are similar, but either more or less complex than one another, e.g., a chimpanzee and a human being.

We tend to think of systems as falling into categories which are organised hierarchically, e.g., the popular categories:  animal, vegetable, and mineral. The best way of categorising the levels in a hierarchy of systems is via emergent properties. This is because with new properties, new rules also emerge. One emergent property of particular importance is self-maintenance. This appears in life, beginning with replicative molecules and moving up through viruses, bacteria, and multi-cellular organisms, to ourselves. This self-maintenance property is the same as life’s struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of entropy.

Self-maintaining systems are characterised by two types of feedback loop. One is internal and the other external. The internal feedback loop is known in systems theory as the command feedback loop. It gathers information from within the system and modifies its operation. The external feedback loops are particularly relevant to human society. They comprise the system interacting with its environment, through its outputs, to create circumstances conducive to the supply of its necessary inputs. The goal of both is, of course, to ensure the continued survival of the system in changing circumstances.

Individual human beings, organisations, and societies can be regarded as systems. So too can the natural environment in which we live, for example, the weather and natural ecosystems. However, their behaviour can be chaotic rather than deterministic. We can predict them to a limited extent, but the probability of any prediction proving correct diminishes as distance into the future increases.