Types of Systems

Human, natural, and more

[ Return to the previous page ]

Systems thinking has become a popular conceptual tool in our more complex world. Since it's appearance in the 1950's, system dynamics have become a core concept in fields as diverse as evolution, cosmology, economics, and organizational development.

In the field of organizational development, the application of systems thinking is made especially difficult by the variety of systems that can co-exist simultaneously in the same organizational theater. It is useful to have a taxonomy of all the system types so you can pick out the ones operative in a given setting. The first cut is the most critical: some systems are organic while others are purposive. A hillside ecology emerges out of a variety of species occupying the same space. An organization, in contrast, is designed from the outset to achieve a certain outcome; that is, it has a purpose. This distinction is the source of most Complexities. Beyond that distinction, there are other system types worth defining. Read the chart sideways; each column to the right shows more distinctions in the basic category shown on the left:

Purposive, directed systems Mechanical Products (autos, stereo, etc.) Static arrangements of physical objects. The system only grows or evolves due to some outside action. Systems can be optimized against predetermined success criteria.
Physical plant; buildings
InterNet / IntraNets
Freeways, railways, roads
Corporate Ad hoc, goal-oriented groups Entities consciously created in pursuit of a specific purpose (raising a barn, manufacturing furniture, designing software, etc.)
Organic, emergent systems Physical Sun, plants, universe; tectonic plates Collections of natural objects in dynamic action.
Biological Rats, cats, mice, banana slugs, eagles, puppies, daisies, goldfish, brontosaurus, the Amish, California Redwoods, etc. Bodies of living creatures; high degrees of integration and homeostatis; evolve slowly over time.
Social Two-person groups Sets of actors exchanging symbolic comunication, creating meanings, constraining or rewarding actions, and creating stories and myths.
Communities, tribes
Ecological Biological ecologies "Life and Death" theaters, where individual actors react to the environment and compete against each other for the chance to thrive.
Forums within ecological systems evolve mostly through self-organization and through natural selection (and apparently the former is by far the strongest).
People competing for jobs
Teams competing for resources
Companies competing for customers

Note that all of the highlighted cells represent systems that could be operating within an organization. At any given time, one system might be the dominant one. For example, moving from one building to two buildings can create a variety of dynamics just from the spatial location or separation of groups. At other times, the competition of teams for resources can be the most powerful dynamic.