Definitions of systems LO28115

From: Fred Nickols (
Date: 03/30/02

Responding to Bob Williams in LO28095 --

>I want to generate some discussion about the notion of a "system" at a
>workshop I'm running next week. I thought it would be a good idea to
>circulate a dozen or so "classic" definitions of "system" and get people
>to compare and contrast them. Somewhat to my surprise I can't find any.
>Indeed I can find few actual definitions. Unfortunately I'm all half a
>world away from my books and references, so very dependent on the 'net.
>So does anyone have a neat list. I want them to be as diverse (and
>hopefully contradictory) as possible. I'd also like the original source -
>the original source is important to the exercise.

Hmm. That's a tall order. Just about 30 years ago, John A. Beckett
attempted a fairly comprehensive listing in his 1971 book, Management
Dynamics: The New Synthesis, part of the old McGraw-Hill series in
management. The first bunch below is from that book (pp. 26-29):

1. "A system is an organized or complex whole..."
         Richard A. Johnson, Fremont Kast, and James E. Rosenzweig
         The Theory and Management of Systems, McGraw-Hill, 1967

2. "A system is aset of units with relationships among them."
         Ludwig von Bertalanffy
         General Systems Yearbook, Vol 1, pp 1-10, Society for General
        Systems Research, 1956

3. "A system is an assemblage or combination of things or parts
        forming a complex whole."
         E. W. Martin, Jr.
         "The Systems Concept," Business Horizons, Spring 1966

4. "A system is a distribution of the members in a dimensional domain."
         Andras Angyal
         Foundations for a Science of Personality, Harvard University
        Press, 1941

5. "A system is an aggregation or assemblage of objects united by some
form of regular interaction or interdependence; a group of diverse units so
combined by nature or art as to form an integral whole, and to function,
operate or move in unision and, often, in obedience to some form of control..."
         Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd Edition

6. "A system is a set of objects together with relationships between
the objects and between their attributes."
         A. D. Hall and R. E. Fagen
         "Definition of System," General Systems Yearbook, Vol 1, p. 18, 1956

7. "A system is: (1) something consisting of a set (finite or
infinite) of entities: (2) among which a set of relations is specified, so
that (3) deductions are possible from some relations to other or from the
relations among the entities to the behavior or the history of the system."
         Anatol Rapoport
         "General Systems Theory," Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences,
Vol 15, p. 452

8. "A system is, roughly speaking, a bundle of relationships."
         Anatol Rapoport
         ibid. p. 453

9. "There are two essential characteristics of systems including --
(1) a set of elements, (2) the relationships between and among the
elements, and (3) the notion of movement in unison in obedience to some
form of control. A system is defined as some on-going process of a set of
elements, each of which are functionally and operationally united in the
achievement of an objective."
         S. L. Optner
         Systems Analysis for Business Management, 2nd Edition, Prentice
Hall, 1968

10. "A system is a configuration of components interconnected for a
purpose according to a plan."
         Mel H. Grosz
         Internal Working Memorandum, Esso Mathematics and Systems, Inc.

11. "A system is a complex of elements or components directly or
indirectly related in a causal network, such that at least some of the
components are related to some others in a more or less stable way at some
         Walter Buckley
         "Society as a Complex Adaptive System," Modern Systems Research
for the Behavioral Scientist, p. 493, Aldine Publishing, 1968

12. "A system is an assembly of procedures, processes, methods,
routines, or techniques united by some form of regulated interaction to
form an organized whole."
         United States American Standards Institute

13. "A system is a continuous, boundary maintaining, variously related
assembly of parts."
         Walter Buckley
         Sociology and Modern Systems Theory, p. 5, Prentice-Hall, 1967

14. "A system is any related set of events and objects; the collective
organization of information these possess, and the means for acquiring,
storing, transforming, transmitting, controlling or otherwise processing
such information, all in relation to, but distinct from, the external
environment in which the behaviors and history of the object system are
         Harold Sackman
         Computers, Systems Science and Evolving Society, p. 5, John Wiley
& Sons, 1967

15. [A system is] "any entity, conceptual or physical, which consists
of interdependent parts."
         Russell Ackoff
         "Systems, Organizations, and Interdisciplinary Research," General
Systems Yearbook, Vol 5, p. 2, 1960

Beckett himself suggested that, "a system can perhaps best be defined by
asserting that 'A system is a collection of interacting systems.' " (see
page 29 of Management Dynamics: The New Synthesis, McGraw-Hill, 1971).

Beckett, of course, was trying to tell us something; namely, that systems
aren't so easily defined. Before presenting the preceding word
definitions, Beckett alluded to the difficulty of developing an
understanding of systems and indicated that he would attack that problem
from many directions. These included the following:

1. Implications of asking the question, "What is a system?"
2. Examples of systems
3. Classes of systems
4. Ecological illustrations of systems
5. Word descriptions (definitions) of systems
6. Pictorial descriptions of systems
7. Matrix descriptions of systems
8. "Decision tree" descriptions of systems
9. Numerical descriptions of systems

As might be expected, Beckett offered up Kenneth Boulding's now classic
framework in examining classes of systems, to wit:

         cybernetic systems
         open systems
         genetic societal level systems
         animal level systems
         human being level systems
         social systems
         transcendental systems

         Ref: "General Systems Theory: the Skeleton of Science,"
Management Science, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 197-208, April 1956

You can tell by the dates of the references, including Beckett's book,
that this is all "old stuff" but it's still good stuff.

Yet another definition comes from J. G. Miller's 1978 opus titled "Living
Systems" (published first by McGraw-Hill and again in 1995 by the
University Press of Colorado):

         "A system is a set of interacting units with relationships among
them." p. 17

There are lots of other definitions as well: Stafford Beer, Peter
Checkland, all the thinking and writing associated with complexity and
self-organizing, adaptive systems. You can probably find as many
definitions as you're of a mind to hunt down.

One of my favorite sources is Daniel Katz and Robert L. Kahn's 1966 book,
The Social Psychology of Organizations, published by John Wiley & Sons.
In it, they drew on F. H. Allport's notion that "A social system is a
structuring of events or happenings rather than of physical parts and it
therefore has no structure apart from its functioning." Katz and Kahn
were pursuing the "open system" view of organizations and, because life in
organizations has been one of my primary interests for many years, I
adopted and adapted what they had to say to arrive at my very own
definition of system as it applies to people and the organizations they
create (and often let get out of control):

         "A system is a patterned cycle of events, marked by the
transformation of inputs into outputs and, through transactions with the
environment, the exchange of these outputs for new inputs, thus completing
and re-initiating the cycle of events that defines the system."

An earlier version of this definition twice appeared in print as follows:

         "Systems are patterned cycles of events, consisting of inputs,
transformations, outputs and transactions for new inputs to continue the
         F. W. Nickols & R. L. Forbes, Jr.
         "Educational Technology and Organization Development," Journal of
Selected Documents in Psychology, 1976.
         "Revisiting a Still Valid Case for Collaboration between
Instructional Technologists and OD Specialists - Part 1: The Basis for
Collaboration," Organization Development Journal, Vol 19, No 4, pp. 20-37,
Winter 2001

Now a question for you: Why are the sources so important to the discussion?


Fred Nickols
"Assistance at A Distance"


Fred Nickols <>

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