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Five Core Theories – Systems Theory – Organisation Development

There are five core theories that provide a solid foundation for the work that OD practitioners do.  Good grounding in theory is essential for every OD practitioner.  The better you understand the theory, the better you will understand the complex and intricate nature of the OD process and OD tool kit.

Systems Theory in Brief

Systems Theory was first introduced by Van Bertalanffy (1950) and was introduced into the organisational setting by Kataz and Khan (1966).  Systems theory is an approach to organisations which likens the enterprise to an organism with interdependent parts, each with its own specific function and interrelated responsibilities.  The system may be the whole organisation, a division, department or team; but whether the whole or a part, it is important for the OD practitioner to understand how the system operates, and the relationship the parts of the organisation have.

The emphasis in OD is that that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and it is possible to acquire new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution. Rather than reducing an organisation to the properties of its parts or elements, systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole.

Key Points

  1. The organisation is an open system, which interacts with the environment and is continually adapting and improving.
  2. The organisation influences and is influenced by the environment in which it operates
  3. If an organisation is to be effective it must pay attention to the external environment, and take steps to adjust itself to accommodate the changes in order to remain relevant
  4. All part of the organisation are interconnected and interdependent; If one part of the system is affected, all parts are.
  5. It is not possible to know everything about the system, but if you look hard enough there are plenty of clues.

Applying Systems Theory in an OD Intervention

  1. Use mixed groups to achieve a rich understanding how the change is seen from different perspectives.
  2. Generate a holistic view of what must be done to give the organisation a secure future
  3. Use diagnostic events to enhance people’s understanding of important independencies and to support them in devising a way forward
  4. Help different sub-systems to work well together in independent areas
  5. Use processess that will increase collaboration across units
  6. Honour the primacy of relationship between different groups
  7. Where possible bring in outside bodies/data to stimulate the organisation to think about the issues
  8. Expose people to the outside world in which the organisation operates
  9. Ensure the organisation stays externally sensitive and not insulated in their perspective.
  10. Help the leadership team understand that they don’t have all the data required to manage change the organisation desires.