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CHAPTER 5 Organizations as Communication Systems
Organizational Communication: A Critical Approach Dennis K. Mumby Sage Publications 2013
How do we know an organization when we meet one? On its surface, this seems like a simple
question to answer. Organizations have names, physical structures, leaders, mission statements,
and so forth. We walk through the front door of a building, crossing a boundary and “entering”
the organization. We could go to an organization’s website and find its mission statement,
organizational chart, and employee directory. We could also make an appointment to meet an
organization representative who might explain to us the goals of the organization and its
commitment to serving the community. Each of these examples represents an attempt to
encounter the organization and get to know what kind of organization it is and what it does. But
all these efforts are doomed to failure because they are necessarily partial and limited in their
approach. One might say they are “reductionist” in the sense that they attempt to understand the
organization by reducing it to one of its features.
In this chapter, we will explore a perspective on organizational communication that rejects this
reductionist approach and instead examines organizations from a systems perspective. In many
respects the systems approach represents a revolutionary change, not only in the study of
organizations but also in the natural and human sciences. The paradigm shift the systems
perspective brought to the study of the world around us significantly changed how we look at
that world and, indeed, what the world looks like.
In the section below we will put the systems perspective in its historical context and discuss its
basic tenets. In the following section we will address the systems perspective as a way to
understand organization life. Finally, we will look at various “riffs” on systems theory, including
the work of Karl Weick and of Niklas Luhmann.
SITUATING THE SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE
The emergence of the systems perspective represents a fundamental shift in the dominant
metaphor for talking about both the natural and the social world (Skyttner, 2005). For more than
two centuries prior to systems theory, the dominant explanatory metaphor had been the
machine—the idea that everything in the universe can be understood in a mechanistic fashion.
Starting in the early 18th century the ambition of the newly emerging sciences was to control,
predict, and conquer nature. Everything in the universe—both natural and human—could be
explained in terms of causal, linear relationships. In this model, humans and animals were seen
as nothing more than elaborate mechanical beings that could be understood through dissection
and examination of their individual parts. The human heart, for example, could be explained as a
hydraulic pump that obeyed mechanical laws. Newtonian physics, with its unchangeable laws,
best embodied this determinist, cause-and-effect model of the world (drop an apple and gravity
will cause it to fall to the ground).
Thus, determinism and reductionism together defined the pursuit of knowledge about both the
human and natural world. Through the scientific method, reality could be reduced to basic,
indivisible elements that provide the building blocks for higher-order explanations of
phenomena: In physics, analysis revolves around the atom; in biology, the cell; in linguistics, the
phoneme (the basic, indivisible unit of sound). This approach examines phenomena in isolation,
controlling for or ignoring the effects of the surrounding environment. The laboratory
experiment, with its careful control of experimental conditions, exemplifies this perspective on
In an organizational context, Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management are the best
realization of this mechanistic, reductionist model. Taylor analyzed work by breaking it down
into its basic, irreducible elements and then redesigning these elements into the “one best way.”
In this sense, his methods were both deterministic and reductionist.
The emergence of the systems perspective challenges all these assumptions about the way the
world works. Early examples of this approach include Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity,
Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Max Planck’s quantum theory. Einstein, for
example, showed how space and time are inseparable; a star millions of light years away is not
only distant in space but in time as well. Moreover, he showed how two events separated in
space that are judged to occur simultaneously by one observer can be seen as happening at
different times by another observer. Without going into further detail (and thus moving beyond
my own limited comprehension!), these theorists shifted science away from studying objects per
se and toward thinking of reality in terms of processes and transformations. As a result, the
determinism and reductionism of the mechanical age became the indeterminacy and
perspectivism of the systems age. Such scientists work with probabilities, not certainties.
Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968), considered one of the founders of what he called general system
theory, describes this shift in the following manner:
We come, then, to a conception which in contrast to reductionism, we may call perspectivism.
We cannot reduce the biological, behavioral, and social levels to the lowest level, that of the
constructs and laws of physics. … The mechanistic world view, taking the play of physical
particles as ultimate reality, found its expression in a civilization which glorifies physical
technology that has led eventually to the catastrophes of our time. Possibly the model of the
world as a great organization can help to reinforce the sense of reverence for the living which we
have almost lost in the last sanguinary decades of human history. (p. 49)
In speaking of the world as a “great organization,” von Bertalanffy references the
interrelatedness and interdependence of all things, human and natural—the central principle of
systems theory. You might note that his statement also holds a strong moralistic tone: The
mechanistic worldview has brought us great technological progress but has also been
catastrophic for the human race, encompassing two world wars and a nuclear arms race. Writing
in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, von Bertalanffy (1968) argues for both the
scientific and moral superiority of systems theory, claiming that it represents “a way out of the
chaos and impending destruction of our present world” (p. 52). The mechanistic worldview has
undermined our sense of humanity and connection to one another; the systems approach restores
and explores that connection, demonstrating that the individual is not “a cog in the social
machine” (p. 53) but an important element of a wider, interconnected community. In some ways
this position is quite similar to the philosophy expressed by the Frankfurt School theorists we
discussed in Chapter 2.
figure THE PRINCIPLES OF THE SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE
What, then, does it mean to adopt a systems approach to the study of the human and natural
world? Von Bertalanffy (1968) defined general system theory (GST) as “the general science of
wholeness” (p. 37). With this definition, von Bertalanffy argued that as a worldview, GST sees
all systems as having characteristics in common, regardless of their internal structures. Thus,
everything from the structure of biological cells to the social and economic structure of societies
shares common features that explain its functioning. In this sense, von Bertalanffy viewed GST
as a universal perspective that brings together all fields of study by providing them with a
common language and shared set of principles. We can say, then, that with GST von Bertalanffy
attempted to provide a holistic framework that brings together research from various fields to
produce a comprehensive view of human beings, nature, and society. Put simply, the systems
approach represents a shift from the dominance of the “machine” metaphor in understanding
human behavior (including organizations) to the dominance of the “organism” metaphor.
Given this framing, let’s lay out the basic principles of GST. As we discuss them, however, keep
in mind that, like a system itself, all the principles we will discuss should be seen as
interconnected and interdependent, rather than as separate, mutually exclusive elements. In other
words, the definitions are only meaningful in relationship to one another.
Interrelationship and Interdependence of Parts
A system—biological or social—is made up of elements that function, well, systemically. That
is, a change in one part or element of the system can have an effect on the entire system. From a
systems perspective, change is not linear and causal but, rather, affects the entire system.
Similarly, one element of a system depends on many other elements of the system to function
The phenomenon of climate change is an example of this process at work on a global scale. As
humanly created emissions increase and the “greenhouse effect” raises temperatures around the
globe, there is no single, causal effect of this but, rather, multiple effects across the ecological
system: rapid melting of arctic ice; melting of glaciers and mountain snow; destruction of coral
reefs around the world (which are highly sensitive to temperature change); more extreme
weather conditions, including wildfires, heat waves, and strong hurricanes. As an example of the
lack of linearity and predictability in system relationships, a potential effect of climate change on
my home country of the United Kingdom is falling temperatures due to the possibility that
melting polar ice will push the Gulf Stream (a source of the United Kingdom’s temperate
climate) farther south, perhaps even producing another ice age.
Organizationally speaking, collective activity is difficult to imagine without interdependence of
activities, people, and units. In a university setting, for example, students, faculty, administration,
staff, and alumni function in an interdependent manner. Students rely on faculty for classes, on
staff for various services (registration, counseling, food, degree processing, etc.), on alumni to
fund fellowships and help maintain the university’s reputation, and on administration to give the
university direction, shape its mission, and provide a safe and dynamic learning environment.
Faculty need students to teach and to provide their raison d’être, staff to take care of
organizational bureaucracy, and administration to uphold the system of tenure and promotion.
Such interdependence produces “butterfly effects.” For example, a lengthy economic recession
can create indirect effects such as larger class sizes: A recession means higher unemployment,
which reduces a state’s tax base, leading to reduced budget allocations to colleges; thus, fewer
instructors and professors are hired, and class sizes must increase in order for students to
graduate on time.
When von Bertalanffy defines GST as “the general science of wholeness,” he is referring to the
quality of holism. Holism involves the principle that when elements in a system function
interdependently, the result is different from the sum of the parts; in other words, a system is
nonsummative. This quality distinguishes a system from a mere aggregate or collection of
elements. For example, a collection of automobile parts will not function as a car unless it is
assembled in the correct, interdependent manner; an assembled car plus oil and gasoline
functions as a holistic system in a way that the aggregated parts do not.
In human organizational processes, collective interdependent activity functions holistically to
enable decision making and creativity that would not be possible with aggregated individuals
working independently. For example, in the TV industry, shows such as The Daily Show, The
Colbert Report, and 30 Rock employ teams of writers to create scripts; such teams function
holistically in the sense that their creativity emerges from the energy of their dynamic
interactions—a creativity that would not result from each writer working independently.
However, holism can also have a negative effect (note that, previously, I indicated that the whole
is different from, not greater than, the sum of the parts). Psychologist Irving Janis (1983) has
demonstrated this with the phenomenon of “groupthink,” where the holistic quality of groups
leads to poor decision making. Such groups develop highly interdependent members, but in the
decision-making process they eliminate dissenting opinions and consider only information that
supports and confirms the group’s worldview (Janis uses the term mindguard—a kind of
information bodyguard—to describe a group member whose role is to protect the group from
information that might challenge this worldview). Thus, groups with this dynamic function as
relatively closed systems, limiting information input from their surrounding environment. Janis
analyzes policy decisions such as President John F. Kennedy’s decision in 1961 to send a group
of CIA-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba in an effort to overthrow the government of Fidel
Castro. The decision was ill-advised, and the invading force was defeated in 3 days. A more
contemporary example would be President George W. Bush’s decision in 2003 to invade Iraq on
the basis of flimsy evidence about the existence of “weapons of mass destruction.” President
Bush’s decision-making team chose to ignore evidence to the contrary and relied on information
that supported their case for invasion.
Employees working interdependently in teams can be more creative and better problems solvers
than employees working individually.
Input, Transformation (Throughput), and Output of Energy
All open systems, both biological and social, exchange information and energy with their
environments. This information and energy is taken into the system, transformed through various
system processes, and put out as something different. For example, the human body takes in
food, liquid, and oxygen, and through various biological processes transforms these into heat,
action, and waste products. An organization takes in money, people, information, and raw
materials, and through various organizational processes transforms these into products for
consumption or services to a community.
For example, a university system has numerous inputs, including state and private funds
(including research grants), materials for building infrastructure, employees (faculty, part-time
instructors, staff—clerical, custodial, food service, and administrators), and students (graduate
and undergraduate). These various inputs interact in multiple ways and, in the process, are
transformed into outputs that are quite different from the initial inputs. Raw materials are
transformed into classroom and lab spaces where professors and students interact, ultimately (we
hope!) creating more knowledgeable and experienced citizens and skilled employees; faculty
interact with one another and use university resources (libraries, databases, grants, etc.) to
produce original knowledge that in turn becomes a new system input, perhaps being taught in
college classrooms worldwide or even winning a Nobel prize (an event that transforms a
university’s reputation); graduate students interact with faculty and utilize university resources,
ultimately earning the title “Dr.” and becoming inputs into other university systems.
One of the founders of systems theory, Kenneth Boulding (1985), states that “a system is
anything that is not chaos.” In this sense, an open system exhibits negative entropy. What does
this mean? According to Isaac Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, entropy is a universal
condition by which all forms of organization naturally move toward disintegration and
randomness. Entropy, then, is a measure of the relative degree of disorder that exists within a
system at a given moment in time; the more disorder, the more entropy exists. Open systems
have the ability to counter entropy, or disorder, and are thus “negentropic.” However, over time
all systems, regardless of their degree of openness, move toward entropy and die; systems can
arrest entropy, but they cannot eliminate it. Thus, biological systems grow and develop over time
and then degrade, sometimes over decades or centuries. Organizations and societies thrive and
grow but eventually deteriorate and succumb to entropy.
By virtue of their lack of interaction and information exchange with their environments, closed
systems are, by definition, entropic and cannot resist disorganization and disintegration
(McMillan & Northorn, 1995). Examples of such closed social systems are cults, which close
themselves off from the rest of society in order to prevent contamination from unbelievers;
societies ruled by autocratic governments (North Korea, the former Soviet Union); and secret
societies, such as the Freemasons.
It’s important to point out, however, that open and closed are relative terms; no system is ever
completely open or closed. A completely open system would have no structure or boundaries and
would lack distinctiveness from its environment; as such, it would cease to exist as a distinct
system. In this sense, openness is always selective on the part of organizations—a process we
will examine more closely below. Similarly, a completely closed system is unthinkable; even a
cult needs to communicate with its environment to recruit new members.
Equilibrium, Homeostasis, and Feedback
Systems that are open and negentropic maintain equilibrium through a process of homeostasis.
All systems maintain a degree of permeability with their environments, thus allowing
information and energy to flow back and forth across the system’s boundaries. Because of this
permeability, organizations are able to receive information that provides intelligence about their
own functioning in relation to their environments (which include other organizations). Such
feedback enables system performance to be monitored and corrected if necessary. In this sense,
open systems are able to adapt effectively to changes in environmental conditions, thus
The simplest (and most oft-cited) example of a system that maintains homeostasis (or “steady
state”) through feedback is a thermostat. A thermostat operates according to what is called
“negative feedback”—that is, feedback that corrects a deviation from the norm and is therefore
error activated. Thus, a thermostat detects variations in room temperature and sends signals to
the heating and cooling system to adjust its performance; if the heating unit heats a room beyond
the preset temperature (e.g., 70 degrees), an error signal will be sent to the heating system to turn
it off. Anyone who has had class in a room where the thermostat is broken and the heating unit
continuously blows hot air (thus creating a system lacking in equilibrium) will appreciate the
The system of feedback and regulation is obviously much more complex for social systems such
as organizations, which receive information from multiple environmental sources and must make
constant adjustments to maintain homeostasis. Indeed, a complex organizational system operates
according to two kinds of feedback: negative (or deviation-counteracting) feedback and positive
(or deviation-amplifying) feedback. For example, an automobile company must assess feedback
from a variety of environmental sources, including parts suppliers, the economy (what is the
price of raw materials, including oil?), customer tastes, and so forth. Currently …
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