Organizations as Systems (of Systems of Systems)

Organization as a System
It helps to think of organizations are systems. Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts that are highly integrated in order to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs which are processed to produce certain outputs, that together, accomplish the overall goal desired by the organization. There is ongoing feedback among these various parts to ensure they remain aligned to accomplish the overall goal of the organization. There are several classes of systems, ranging from very simple frameworks all the way to social systems, which are the most complex. Organizations are, of course, social systems.

Systems have inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes. To explain, inputs to the system include resources such as raw materials, money, technologies and people. These inputs go through a process where they’re aligned, moved along and carefully coordinated, ultimately to achieve the goals set for the system. Outputs are tangible results produced by processes in the system, such as products or services for consumers. Another kind of result is outcomes, or benefits for consumers, e.g., jobs for workers, enhanced quality of life for customers, etc. Systems can be the entire organization, or its departments, groups, processes, etc.

Feedback comes from, e.g., employees who carry out processes in the organization, customers/clients using the products and services, etc. Feedback also comes from the larger environment of the organization, e.g., influences from government, society, economics, and technologies.

Each organization has numerous subsystems, as well. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts, and includes various inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. Common examples of subsystems are departments, programs, projects, teams, processes to produce products or services, etc. Organizations are made up of people — who are also systems of systems of systems — and on it goes. Subsystems are organized in an hierarchy needed to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system.

The organizational system is defined by, e.g., its legal documents (articles of incorporation, by laws, roles of officers, etc.), mission, goals and strategies, policies and procedures, operating manuals, eta. The organization is depicted by its organizational charts, job descriptions, marketing materials, eta. The organizational system is also maintained or controlled by policies and procedures, budgets, information management systems, quality management systems, performance review systems, eta.

Standard Planning Process is Similar to Working Backwards Through the System
Remember how systems have input, processes, outputs and outcomes? One of the common ways that people manage systems is to work backwards from what they want the system to produce. This process is essentially the same as the overall, standard, basic planning process. This process typically includes:
a) Establishing overall goals (it’s best if goals are defined in measurable terms, so they usually are in terms of outputs) (the overall impacts of goals are outcomes, a term increasingly used in nonprofits)
b) Associating smaller goals or objectives (or outputs?) along the way to each goal
c) Designing strategies/methods (or processes) to meet the goals and objectives
d) Identifying what resources (or inputs) are needed, including who will implement the methods and by when.