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The Systems Theories Lens in Organizations

Updated on April 22, 2013

“Using an organic metaphor to describe formal organizations with the same principles and concepts used to describe biological organisms, [this] theory … uses assumptions and concepts from the systems paradigm to study living beings and their interrelationships at multiple levels” (Bowen, 2007).

In an organism, all systems and pieces are working together towards a common goal. In the case of public school systems, this goal would be related to the education of young children that they may become an effective and successful member of society in the future.

However, in some schools, the metaphor of an organism is a reach when trying to describe the environment and the relationships within. As many schools strive to be more like this metaphor, and all districts would like this for their schools, this is more of an ideal than a common occurrence.

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Cycle of Production

In elementary schools across the country the cycle of production begins with a child enrolling into the school at any grade level.

That child is taken through the grade levels, possibly pausing at one or another for an extra year depending on his or her performance and grades, and educated in the required subject areas in best as possible way the current teachers can provide.

When either promoted to the next grade level, or temporarily held back for one reason or another, documentation is passed on with the student to assist future instructors in the child’s education.

The cycle of production essentially ends when a child completes the fifth grade and moves on to another school in the district.


Those Left Behind

“Schools in America exist to prepare children and youth to participate as citizens in a democratic society and to develop specialized abilities to function successfully as workers in the economy” (Bowen, 2007).

Although this may be the cycle of production, there is nothing that can be said about the quality of that education and whether the child will be able to take any knowledge with him or her to the next grade level or to the next school when they have left.

So much more goes into educating a single child than a simple cycle could explain. Many children have left the grounds of elementary schools across the country without the knowledge or skills necessary to be successful afterwards.

Input and Output

As a school, like every other in the district, and in the country, they bring in “input” from a variety of areas.

“Systems such as schools use four kinds of inputs or resources from the environment: human resources, financial resources, physical resources, and information resources” (Lunenburg, 2010).

Some examples of these resources include staff and each of their specific abilities, funding from the district, school supplies, learning materials and equipment, textbooks, current knowledge of all entering the building, required curricula, and data learned from past years.

“In social systems, outputs are the attainment of goals or objectives of the school district and are represented by the products, results, outcomes, or accomplishments of the system” (Lunenburg, 2010).

Ideally the outputs we should be seeing are high grades in every subject, happy teachers, a supportive community, high levels of parent participation, low behavior problems, community service on the part of the students and teachers, projects that make the local newspaper, and a low turnover rate amongst staff members.



“Principals set the tone for development of learning cultures in schools by accepting challenges to their authority; seeking involvement from students, parents, and community stakeholders; and encouraging new ideas from teachers and school staff” (Bowen, 2007).

Feedback should be one of the keys to running a successful organization. Feedback, whether positive or negative, allows the one in charge to essentially measure the temperature of the school environment and make the necessary changes to improve the culture and the atmosphere of the school and its effect on the community.

“Feedback … enables the system to correct for its own malfunctioning or for changes in the environment, and thus to maintain a steady state or homeostasis” (Katz & Kahn, n.d.). Without this critical piece it is almost impossible to reverse the entropy of the system.

In schools across the country, many actions have been taken to attempt improvement in this area including the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), Data Teams, etc.

Examples of Feedback Programs

The NCLB Act was created in an effort to make sure that every child received the education they were due and graduated from school to become a functioning part of society. Part of this Act was the enactment of standardized tests across the grade levels.

Though, the majority of public schools, took this as getting the necessary grade on the standardized tests and just getting the kids through. PLCs were supposed to be places where teachers from every grade level could gather within the school and collaborate.

Data Teams were supposed to be collaborative meetings within grade levels to compare scores of all students in all classrooms within that grade to determine where particular kids struggled, exchange teaching ideas, and to strengthen all teachers in the areas where they lacked.


Employee Motivation

It seems like someone brilliant saw life in the machine and considered the effect of the completely structured environment on one of organization’s biggest struggles; being that of employee motivation.

“Employees are people with complex needs that must be satisfied if they are going to lead fulfilling and healthy lives and to perform effectively in the workplace” (Morgan, 2006, pg. 34).

To think, being forced to consider others as numbers and act like a machine, all the while being considered a number yourself, is not motivating.

It is easy to consider our own organizational environment, what we are gaining from it, how we are contributing to it, and how we are making a difference in the greater environment outside the school.

By considering schools are organisms, we are also taking into account how each of our needs are being met as well as those of the organization, how we are acting as a living being to support the actions, goals and needs of all others in the organizations, and how we are growing and learning, changing to meet the demands of the future together.

The Organism Metaphor

The metaphor of an organism brings to light the human beings within the “machine,” allowing each one to be nurtured and inspired for the good of the organization.

In the mechanistic approach, encouraging efficiency and motivating individuals to do their best work was “reduced to a problem of ‘paying the right rate for the job’” (Morgan, 2006, pg. 35), when even more basic needs were not being met.

Although the organism theory brings about an “emphasis placed on understanding relations between organizations and their environments” (Morgan, 2006, pg. 35), taking responsibility for how the environment of an organization (social, physical, and emotional aspects) may be affecting its employees and ultimately its products, there is a danger, like in the theory of organizations as a ‘machine,’ of the organism metaphor becoming an ideology.


It is easy to focus on finding a new way of seeing organizations so to better understand them, but it is even easier to fall into the trap of assuming, that as the organization is like a living breathing organism, it ought to be run like an organism.

However, there are many aspects of an organization that are not like an organism and should not be. Morgan’s (2006) text mentions many examples, like the organism theory’s assumption of ‘function unity,’ and the organism’s dependence on the external world for natural selection and sustainment.


Morgan, G. (2006). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

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    • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Van Ness 

      7 years ago from Fountain, CO

      Thank you! For my current Doctorate class we are looking at one specific organization of choice under about eight different lens in an effort to "see it from different perspectives" and therefore solve a problem chosen at this particular organization.

      I figured that I am putting so much work into my schoolwork throughout every week that I should take advantage of it and publish it here. :)

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      7 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      You are exploring an interesting topic here. I suggest you look at the work of Gregory Bateson - one of the first people to look at human social systems as both organism and organization. He defined the fundamental difference between living and non-living systems.


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