# Concept Paper: Systems Theory

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1 Concept Paper: Systems Theory 1. Definitions A system can be defined as elements in interaction. Systems thinking is a theoretical approach to understanding phenomena. Systems thinking is characterized by: Characteristic Traditional thinking Systems thinking Overall view Reductionistic, focus is on the parts Holistic, focus is on the whole Key processes Analysis Synthesis Type of analysis Deduction Induction Focus of investigation Attributes of objects Interdependence of objects State during investigation Static Dynamic Basic assumption Cause and effect Multiple, probabilistic causality Problem resolution A static solution An adaptive system or modeling Operation of parts Optimal Suboptimal 2. Systems concepts and propositions Systems have generalizeable characteristics. All systems tend to follow basic rules whether they are natural system such as the solar system, biological systems such as the body s immune system, or human systems such as an organization. Systems are nested in a hierarchy, that is, systems consist of subsystems and systems operate within environments Boundaries are the interface between a system and its subsystems or a system and its environment. Friction occurs at the boundaries of a system, e.g., where rubber hits the road, when planes take off and land, between an agency and its client. By examining the boundaries of a system, we can often isolate the friction and its causes. All systems have inputs, processes, and output. By identifying and mapping the cycles of inputs, processes and outputs, we can define a system better and learn a lot about how it behaves. Systems tend to be goal seeking, that is, they move in the direction of goal achievement. Systems without well-defined goals often go in many different directions. The primary goal of a system is survival. All goals will be sacrificed in order for a system to survive. For a system to work properly, it must have control mechanisms that accept information about system outputs, evaluate that information based on some criteria related to the goals of the system, and feed back the evaluated information to be used as additional inputs. Systems have different levels of being open or closed. A closed system receives no inputs from its environment and thus entropy or decay sets in. Thus, varieties of inputs from the environment are necessary to help a system to remain an open system. Systems tend toward a state of non-change called homeostasis or equilibrium. Thus, we should assume that no system would change unless it receives new inputs. Systems that are most amenable to change are those that are failing (survival is threatened) and those that are achieving very well and can take risks without threatening survival. When systems change, they tend to move in the direction of differentiation and elaboration. That is, they tend to grow into larger entities of themselves. Systems working well experience synergy where the total system outputs are greater than the sum of all inputs. In other words, system outputs are greater than subsystem outputs. For synergy to occur, subsystems must not maximize, but sacrifice and cooperate for the good of the overall system, e.g., teamwork. U. of TX at Arlington School of Social Work, Dr. Schoech, 18-Aug-04, Page 1 of 5

2 Key inputs, process, outputs in a human service delivery system Inputs Process Outputs Feedback & control Public opinion and values Representation, lobbying, legislative action Community Level Legislation Opinion polls showing guilt relieved and values adhered to Law and precedent Legal action Court rulings Lawsuits avoided or won Citizens in need Information from other agencies Legislation and laws Funding People and organizational structure Charters, regulations, grant guidelines Clients with problems and practitioners with expertise Treatment plans Theory, technology, professional values and ethics Assessment, eligibility determination Cooperation, coordination Interpretation, policy formulation, rule making Purchasing and contracting Staffing, coordinating, and directing Planning, organizing and reporting Talking, assessing, listening, advising, counseling Coordinating and organizing Application of theory, etc. Policy Level Eligible clients Management Level Practitioner Level Working relationships, joint ventures Policies, rules, and regulations Services paid for Trained and motivated staff Accountable and lawful services Behavior changes, status changes, problems solved Service goals achieved Effective and ethical services Clients waiting to receive services Cooperative agreements, services coordinated Legislative intent fulfilled, satisfied legislators Accounting, audits Performance evaluations Goals achieved Change according to treatment plans Plans reviewed and revised Professional certification and licensing U. of TX at Arlington School of Social Work, Dr. Schoech, 18-Aug-04, Page 2 of 5

3 Analyzing the UTA SSW as a system (Hypothetical) Environmental Influences People needing education SSW managers Support staff other instructors Alumni CSWE UTA managers Taxpayers Legislature Inputs Processes Outputs Students Teaching, advising, mentoring Educated students Lab equipment Equipment used SSW management SSW goals met Instructor expertise and interests Research and publication Knowledge discovered, careers furthered SSW structure SSW operated Courses delivered Computers, printers, copier, paper Typing, printing and copying Papers/outlines typed, printed and copied Funds Salaries paid Financially secure instructors Buildings Building maintained & functional Building used UTA Management SSW operated UTA priorities met Community needs Community service, field liaison Agencies helped Accreditation requirements Self study process, program accreditation Accredited programs Criteria Course evaluations SSW goals achieved Published research Merit raise criteria Student grades ACP exam scores Satisfied agencies Alumni satisfied and supportive Accreditation standards, NASW code Reputation of school in community Feedback loop Analysis Applying systems theory mandates that we ask questions such as: What does mapping repeated cycles of input-process-output for each entity associated with the system tell us about how the system functions? Do outputs focused on client impacts (quality) as well as things done (quantity). For example, are outputs defined as the number of therapy sessions the client receives (quantity) or as the change in client behavior (quality) as a result of x number of therapy sessions? Are system boundaries well defined and are boundary-spanning activities satisfactory to relieve the friction caused at system interfaces. Do measurable criteria exist for all feedback loops so the feedback can be evaluated? Are system goals and objectives congruent and defined well enough to help identify important inputs and guide the criteria for evaluating feedback? Do well-defined feedback loops exist for all major internal and environmental inputs and are these feedback loops capable of producing timely, specific, and measurable feedback? That is, do the important environmental influences have ways to get good feedback from the system and vice versa? U. of TX at Arlington School of Social Work, Dr. Schoech, 18-Aug-04, Page 3 of 5

4 Results of the Analysis 1. Examination of the goals revealed that: a) Goals of SSW are not precise enough to guide practice and to act as good outcome based evaluation criteria b) Goals are not well agreed upon by the SSW, faculty, alumni, students, etc. c) System has goal of teaching, knowledge development, and service which may be in conflict with each other and other administrative goals such as name recognition, size, diversity, etc. 2. Examination of inputs-process-outputs-feedback reveals a) Measures of student performance (grades) are not good feedback measures; graduates knowledge and proficiency as a social worker are not measured b) Synergy occurs infrequently; few measures of synergy exist for faculty review, team teaching is not rewarded c) Control by administrators is limited due to academic freedom and tenure d) Instructor feedback to UTA administration is weak e) CSWE criteria for a quality program is not very precise and occurs very infrequently f) Criteria for evaluating research quality does not exist. The number of publications may not correlate with the quality of the publication content. 3. Examination of the system and its environment reveals a) Interface between the SSW and the taxpayer is weak; taxpayers give conflicting messages regarding research and teaching. They desire research, but want professors in the classroom teaching core courses. b) Interface between SSW and Alumni is weak; alumni input is not sought aggressively c) Interface between SSW and agencies is weak; agency satisfaction with SSW and graduates is not measured well d) Etc.. Resulting Strengths and Needs Ways to span the boundary between SSW and community (need) Some basic structures exist, e.g., course evaluations, alumni association, strategic plan, etc (strength) Resources not always tied to productivity (need) Etc. Resulting Intervention Options Activate a strong community advisory committee to strengthen ties with the community Build on the strength of knowledge development to interface with the community Strengthen the alumni s input into the SSW Obtain more agreement on goals and objectives for all stakeholders involved. Etc. U. of TX at Arlington School of Social Work, Dr. Schoech, 18-Aug-04, Page 4 of 5

5 New Systems Thinking There have been some recent refinements or enhancements to systems thinking, stemming from the electronic information revolution, especially the Internet. Some of these more recent system priciples are: Stupid Networks: David Isenberg in his classic telephony paper, "The Rise of the Stupid Network," advanced the principle that under conditions of uncertainty, a network should not be optimized for any set of uses presumed to be definitive. Instead, the network should be as simple as possible, with advanced functionality and intelligence moved out to its edges. An example of this the the Howard Dean 2004 presidential campaign. One of the strengths of the Dean campaign is its use of the Internet which helps it become an organized network rather than a traditional army style campaign guided form the top. It is a stupid network in that hundreds of independent groups were organized with very little direction and control from headquarters. Stupid network let things happen without control from the top yet intelligence filters to the top. So, stupid networks grow rapidly and smartly without the required centralized planning. Leadership is not about a person, but an abiance, e.g., a leader is like a park or a garden. If it's comfortable and cool, people will be attracted and come to stay and build. Other modifications to systems theory are due to the extensive use of information technology. According to Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine, Sep 97, p. 140+, IT results in the following impacts. Innovation is more importation than optimization To discover the unknown, we must abandon the successful known Things more plentiful are more valuable (e.g., a few fax machine are almost useless) Wealth follows things that are free (shareware) In the stock market, abandon a product/occupation/industry when it is best Seek sustainable disequilibrium to keep things in "churn" It is more important to do the right job than to do the job right Seeking opportunities is more important than solving problems U. of TX at Arlington School of Social Work, Dr. Schoech, 18-Aug-04, Page 5 of 5

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