Organizations as Organisms

TUI University Paul A. Krasulski Module 2 Case Assignment: Organizations as Organisms MGT 501: Management and Organizational Behavior Dr. Peter Haried 7 February 2011 Abstract This paper will compare the military unit (for discussion purposes, the US Military) and the symphony orchestra noting both similarities and differences and the degree to which applying systems thinking helps one understand both.

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This paper will structure its comparison as follows: parts one and two, the most important system problems of both the military and the symphony, and how each deals with them; part three, the similarities and differences between the two, vis-a-vis their functions as living systems; and finally, concluding with a short critique of the effectiveness of using a systems approach when attempting to understand unfamiliar organizations, such as the virtual university.

Systems and Systems Thinking What is a system? What is “systems thinking”? McNamara (2006) defines a system as “…an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. Systems range from simple to complex, open to closed; and they greatly influence how we understand and change organizations. Wade (2005) states that systems thinking focuses on the arrangement and relations of (the) parts and pieces (of a system)… … (to the) whole.

Pidwirny (2006) tells us that systems are structured, defined by their parts and processes; that they tend to function in the same way; that functionality of the system depends largely upon the relationships of parts and processes within the structure (read: the ability of parts and process to work well together); and, lastly, that they have a driving force (a stated goal or common purpose, as outlined above). It is this basic focus on systems theory and how it relates to organizations that will drive our discussion.

Part 1: System Problems of the Military Unit The United States military, as a living system, has objects (parts, pieces, and elements); well-defined attributes, including clearly defined internal roles and relationships; and, an operating environment in which it must maneuver, to which, it must react. Some of the key components of the “military system” include command and control structures (hierarchies); complex subsystems, in the form of Divisions, Battalions, Squadrons, Fleet, etc…; and communication and feedback mechanisms, in the form of ongoing training.

The most important system problems faced by the US Military are integration, implementation and adaptation. Integration is a method of assimilating new elements (i. e. : people, processes and product) into the system. Challenges here include inputs that conflict with standing military doctrine, as well as outputs that must be removed because they lack ability to be readily implemented into the fighting force (e. g. : soldiers who fail initial entry training, or a product that is inferior for combat action, etc…).

Implementation, or the application of combat power, includes maximizing combat readiness and effectiveness, through ongoing training and sustainment of military and civilian elements; and effective communication across the various sub-systems that comprise the whole working unit. Challenges here include (but are never limited to) loss of transparency among hierarchies; weak command and control structures; and/or poor communication and feedback, resulting in ambiguity or atrophy among sub-systems.

Adaptation is essentially reading one’s environment and making the choice to react. Challenges here include ignorance of environmental influences and/or failure to incorporate new methodology; resulting in systemic obsolescence. Additionally, there is the challenge in an open system of those elements who behave as if the system was closed; as if no actions exist outside of their own boundaries, that their outputs have no effect upon the larger system.

They don’t see themselves as a component in a real system; only as an element in a non-system. (This was identified in Module 1 as the “silo mentality”. ) These are most often the elements that fail to integrate or adapt properly; causing systemic slowdown or even breakdown. Elements such as these that do not take in information or react dynamically to their environment are likely to vanish. Military solutions to systemic problems

Fedorov (2001) concludes that the “the military unit… … ensures routine activities…(through) the required contingent of military personnel and an appropriate mix of military occupational specialties to perform a wide range of technical tasks;…an appropriate logistical base and weapon system; an efficient command and control staff; (utilization of) …field manuals, regulations, and combat training and instruction programs that organize personnel’s daily routine activities, public relations, and cultural and spiritual activities…… into an effective organization. Fedorov (2001) compares the military organization to a complex socio-economic system, with operational effectiveness achieved through the various internal and interdependent components that make up the whole. In essence, Fedorov (2001) is making the case that the military unit, a complex living system, is in good position to deal with its routine system problems. For instance, although integration, implementation and adaptation are the military’s greatest challenges, these are also the military’s greatest strengths; as it has established both real and abstract systems that quickly reduce the time necessary to manage each.

For example, integration of a new soldier to combat readiness is now ten weeks from start to finish, and is highly effective. Although Initial Entry Training is, in itself, managed as an object in a closed system (with trainees literally cut off from the rest of the world); there is little doubt of its positive effect upon the whole of the military once a new member “graduates” and is assigned to a unit within the larger system. The transition from integration to implementation is seamless; and the new member is an immediate individual contributor to the success of the overall system.

Challenge embraced and solved through successfully interacting components in a living system. Part 2: System Problems of the Orchestra The symphony orchestra, too, is a living system; specifically, a complex, open system with numerous components that must interact dynamically with one another and their environment. In fact, Roelofs (2009) points out that success as an organization depends upon how well its characteristics and behavior align with its environment.

It is utter dependency upon performance (pun intended) in its environment that poses one of the greater system problems for the symphony orchestra; but environment is more than just the audience listening at a concert. Roelofs (2011) describes some of the other challenges facing the orchestra today: an aging audience base; reductions in arts education in schools; shifts in listening habits from live to recorded music; more choice, and thus a higher valuation, on personal time expenditure; intense competition from a wide variety of entertainment forms and leisure-time services; and the explosion of Internet technology.

These problems are monumental in that they signal a turbulent, uncertain environment in which the orchestra must exist. Which one is the most important? Which one gets tackled first? What can this open system do to combat external influences from the environment to which it so desperately clings? Symphonic solutions to systemic problems To begin with, the symphony needs to pay very close attention to its environment. Adaptability to one’s environment depends very largely upon the organization’s capacity to recognize changes in its environment in the first place.

Older organizations that are somewhat stagnant may struggle with this. Younger organizations, possibly more flexible and tuned-in to what is happening around them, may open up boundaries in otherwise traditional sub-systems; decentralize power among components, doing away with entrenched members; strengthen communication and transparency across boundaries; and, perhaps, require members of normally far-removed sub-systems to begin to interact more than they are accustomed to doing.

In this manner, the organization is interacting dynamically, and influencing its environment, not just waiting idly by for the environment to conform to its expectations, which in this case it will not. This is not, however, a guarantee of success. For example, members of sub-systems accustomed to diminished roles may refuse such changes; or, members with traditionally centralized powers may be loathe to trust other component members to manage effectively. What of the more vertical system that has both older and younger members managing processes according to some type of rank experience among components?

Will the older members be willing to embrace the ideas of younger members? Will they trust that the organization is changing for the better? What if they mistakenly read turbulence in their environment as a result of trying to alter the system? Will they revert to a more closed system mentality? What if members refuse to change stylistically; playing what they “like” vs. what the environment is telling them to play? What if the symphony has superior musical capability, but no skill to communicate this to its environment?

Will it fail to draw the resources to it – namely newer patrons – that it requires to survive? Similar to the military unit that fails to adapt, the overall system may become obsolete and vanish altogether. Part 3: Military and the Orchestra: similarities Bullets and batons aside for a moment; how are these systems alike? How are they different? What is it about the military systems approach that may align well with the symphony orchestra? Are there glaring differences? If so, what are they?

Probably the most striking similarity between the two is the fact that integration, implementation and adaptation hold critical importance to basic system survival. Both organizations are required to address integration, on-boarding newer members and identifying how they will function in the larger system, albeit in different ways. The military must ensure that incoming people, processes and product meet or exceed the requirements of standing doctrine, with aspects of the new member’s abilities exhaustively explored against system requirements.

The symphony on the other hand is likely more concerned with just how proficient you actually are on your instrument for when their real “bullets” start flying. Regarding implementation, the military’s implementation methods are “a bit” more strenuous than the symphony (again, no pushups for the violins…! ); but no less critical to system survival. Implementation is key for both: winning in combat is the goal of implementing military force; while “winning” over patrons is the goal of implementing a new musical program to the public.

Both involve complex coordination of elements in order to perpetuate the system. Lastly, adaptation demands that both living systems learn from their environment. In the case of the symphony, environment is existence. Kelly (1995) concludes that “…it’s generally much easier to kill an organization than to change it. When you are in a location, in a physical plant, in a set of people, and in a common history; it constrains your… …ability to evolve. ” Both systems are open and must rely on the ability to adapt, to partner with its own operating environment, or risk becoming obsolete.

Military and the Orchestra: differences Taking a systems approach, one is able to point out three distinct differences between the two. First, there is the significance of the system’s impact to its respective environment: the US Military is, ultimately, far more important to its operating environment than is the symphony orchestra. There is little doubt that both have complex working relationships, interdependencies and significant effects on their respective environments; however, no one is killed if the orchestra conductor suddenly decides to skip the second movement in Mozart’s 40th.

By comparison, if the parachute riggers – traditionally lower echelon members – decide to skip the proper rigging of Charlie Company’s chutes, it is almost a certainty that someone is going to get hurt. Second, there is the difference in organization of Command and Control structures: the military has very rigid command structures, with clearly defined regulations that govern behaviors within its components.

While some orchestras may have strong, centralized power, it’s not likely to see them exert command in the same manner on the system as would the military: in other words, the Tubas won’t be “smoking” the Flutes (read: making them do pushups) for missing a note. Third, there is the difference in communication and feedback methods: the orchestra has very loose methods of communication when compared to the military’s very tight control over communication.

The military employs security clearances; mission-sensitive and/or classified data and very rigid punishments for disobeying orders within that system. The same simply cannot be said about the symphony orchestra. In addition, there is the difference in overall complexity and depth of systems. The US Military is a far more complex organization. Fedorov (2001) states that the military has a wide range of technical tasks that allows for large amounts of military force to be brought into action within a short time span.

This has to be coordinated not only across military channels, but among civilian and/or governmental elements as well. Here we see a major difference between the two as the military, the whole military, is now a functioning component in a national defense system. One could argue that the symphony, itself a complete system, acts in concert (again, pun intended) with local organizations to form the larger entertainment industry, but the scope and complexity are just not the same.

The symphony may indeed have the technical ability and systemic relationships in place to produce outputs on short notice across a wide area, like a city, per se; but this is just not the same as operating in open systems like combat theatres that encompass multiple cities, regions, countries or even continents. Part 4: University: more like military or symphony? It is difficult to distinguish the university, in general, as a living system, as closer to military or closer to symphony in nature; aspects of both are present.

Like the military, universities can be comprised of complex, hierarchical layers, with numerous individual elements; a command and control structure aligned by rank experience; a very frustrating and complicated system of interdependent units (“departments”), with linear roles and responsibilities; a dependence upon collaborative efforts of these interdependent units to provide outputs; a shared vision and/or set of stated goals; and an ability to maneuver in and react to its environment. Perhaps the university is more symphony-like, in that it shares a greater dependence upon its environment, than does the military?

The university must attract students for much the same reason that the symphony must attract patrons; output attracts input, and the life cycle is able to continue. For discussion purposes, we’ll simply conclude that the university retains aspects of both the military and symphony systems. Conclusion: using the systems approach The concept of an organization as a living system provides a very helpful and accurate analogy with which to explain new or unfamiliar organizations. It’s really quite simple to envision an open, active system once you have an idea of what the various components are and their roles within the system.

Let’s look for an example. One probably shouldn’t tackle something like the military to begin with; but describing something like TUIU might be a good start for an introduction to living systems. The approach of distance learning is still largely the same as that of traditional classroom learning; although the member who is new and being introduced to the system may be intimidated at first by the lack of boundaries that the traditional classroom experience might otherwise have provided. To this student, their concept of the organization of the school may only be limited to what is visible on their computer screen.

They may have no idea how to envision the various components that comprise the virtual learning experience – never mind that they may be thousands of miles away as well. Ironically, it is the absence of frustrating, often archaic components of the traditional university system that make TUIU a much more simplistic, living system to understand. And perhaps that is its greatest system strength! At any rate, critical components are still very much there: admissions, financial aid, academic advisors, instructors and assistants; all working in an interdependent loop that reacts with its environment, primarily, students.

The traditionally siloed elements have been removed, like the book store (thank goodness! ); or the entrenched member that may not be able to function in this type of learning system. Once in the system, however, it’s really quite easy to understand how it functions. Again, it is the absence of boundaries here that really facilitates the system’s success. One need not get into an esoteric discussion on aspects of the system; it isn’t necessary. One simply explains that there is a small contingent of components that will handle your experience and that’s pretty much that.

Perhaps the ability to break things down into very simplistic terms is finally the greatest strength of the systems approach? References McNamara, Carter MBA, PhD (2006) Systems Thinking. Free Management Library. Authenticity Consulting LLC. http://managementhelp. org/systems/systems. htm. Website material adapted from Adapted from the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development: Collaborative and Systems Approach to Performance Change and Learning Wade, Mike (2005) General Systems Theory. York University, CA. Quotation derived from section: Concise description of theory. ttp://www. istheory. yorku. ca/generalsystemstheory. htm Pidwirny, M. (2006). “Definitions of Systems and Models”. Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition. Http://www. physicalgeography. net/fundamentals/4b. html (Author not cited) (7 September 2010) System Theory. University of Twente. Reference material from http://www. utwente. nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20clusters/Communication%20Processes/System_Theory. doc/ Goodman, Michael / Kemeny, Jennifer / Roberts, Charlotte (2010? ) The Language of Systems Thinking: “Links” and “Loops”.

Society for Organizational Learning. Cambridge, MA http://www. solonline. org/pra/tool/loops. html Flower, J. (1995) The Structure Of Organized Change: A conversation with Kevin Kelly. The Healthcare Forum Journal, vol. 38, no. 1, January/February 1995. Retrieved May 18, 2009, from http://www. well. com/user/bbear/kellyart. html Walonick, David S. Ph. D. (1993) General Systems Theory. Reference material utilized from http://www. survey-software-solutions. com/walonick/systems-theory. htm Roelofs, L. (N. D. ) Organizational Change: Open System Concepts. Symphony Orchestra Institute.

Retrieved May 18, 2009, from http://www. soi. org/reading/change/concepts. shtml Roelofs, L. (N. D. ) Organizational Change: Open System Applied. Symphony Orchestra Institute. Retrieved February 5, 2011, from http://www. soi. org/reading/change/concepts. shtml Lawrence, P. , and J. Lorsch. (1967). Organization and Environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Fedorov, G. S. (2001) The Military Unit as Part of the Armed Forces’ Economic System . Military Thought . July. Retrieved May 18, 2010, from http://dlib. eastview. com/browse/doc/400163 Also available here.

Quotation adapted from page 2. Bianca, Audra (2011) What is the Best Organizational Structure for Strategy Implementation? Reference material on organizational structure taken from eHow Business ; Finance website: http://www. ehow. com/way_5304532_organizational-structure-strategy-implementation. html Publish date not specified for this excerpt. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. McNamara, Carter MBA, PhD (2006) Systems Thinking. Free Management Library. Authenticity Consulting LLC. http://managementhelp. org/systems/systems. htm.

Website material adapted from Adapted from the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development: Collaborative and Systems Approach to Performance Change and Learning [ 2 ]. Wade, Mike (2005) General Systems Theory. York University, CA. Quotation derived from section: Concise description of theory. http://www. istheory. yorku. ca/generalsystemstheory. htm [ 3 ]. (Author not cited) (7 September 2010) System Theory. University of Twente. Quotation from “Core Assumptions and Statements” [ 4 ]. Fedorov, G. S. (2001) The Military Unit as Part of the Armed Forces’ Economic System.

Military Thought July. Retrieved May 18, 2010. Quotation derived from page 2. [ 5 ]. Roelofs, L. (N. D. ) Organizational Change: Open System Applied. Symphony Orchestra Institute. Retrieved February 5, 2011, from http://www. soi. org/reading/change/concepts. shtml [ 6 ]. Flower, J. (1995) The Structure Of Organized Change: A conversation with Kevin Kelly. The Healthcare Forum Journal, vol. 38, no. 1, January/February 1995. Retrieved May 18, 2009, from http://www. well. com/user/bbear/kellyart. html. Quotation derived from “The Limits of Adaptability”.

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