Systems Definitions

Attempts to define system are a sine qua non of any consideration of systems theory and its concepts. Of course, definitions abound. Basically they have the same meaning and refer to an almost limitless number of things “from the smallest ‘whole’ to the total universe.” These systems clearly may be conceptual, concrete or abstract, but they are all characterised by particular properties. Immegart and Pilecki speaking of the notion of system define it as “an entity composed of:

(i)                  a number of parts,

(ii)                the relationship of these parts and

(iii)               the attributes of both parts and the relationships.” (AN INTRODUCTION TO SYSTEMS)

They broadly classify systems into theoretical, conceptual, practical and ‘living’ or ‘physical’. Fundamentally it is clear there are two categories that must be identified: physical (or inanimate) and human (or animate) and hence I differ somewhat from the above authors in the meaning of the word physical. A very important point made here by Immegart and Pilecki is that systems are distinguishable from others by a “uniqueness of character”. Hodge defines system: “any entity, conceptual or physical, that consists of independent but interrelated parts.” (THE SYSTEMS APPROACH TO EDUCATION). Banghart quotes a definition of system (in EDUCATIONAL SYSTEMS) as “an integrated assembly of interacting elements designed to carry out co-operatively a predetermined function” – though it is possible to quarrel with the use of the word ‘pre-determined’ – I feel this is not always the case. Perhaps the simplest of definitions is given by Romiszowski in his introductory article to the mentioned book: “a system is an inter-relation of parts.” (THE SYSTEMS APPROACH TO EDUCATION). He then goes on to illustrate a simple system by reference to a bicycle and by extension to its rider though it seems that here a different element is introduced, i.e. the idea of the application of kinetic energy to a system (though in fairness to Hodge, he does say that it is possible to consider the rider as an input to the bicycle system). However, the point I am trying to make is that the bicycle when not being used is still a system (according to all the definitions) but it is an inert or static one; clearly, therefore, when used, the bicycle is an active or progressive system. There is then the idea of active and static systems, which must apply in both respects only to physical systems: the bicycle, a clock (running or stopped), a drainage system, etc. Where people form the components of a system, the latter must be active (or progressive, in some way); mainly, therefore, in education we are concerned with the human and active system. Furthermore, the concept of the simple system seems to be a useful one; it would apply to the basic unit of a larger system and would not have a sub-system of its own (the chain of the bicycle? the individual teacher or student in the school system?). By analogy with the field of syntax, one might conceive of the compound and complex systems in addition to the simple. By compound would be meant a system that while conforming to this accepted definitions, consists of parts in strict sequence, with a logical dependence of the one part upon the other (the illustration of the rider and the bicycle, in its active form, is one; a system of film projection is another). Complex systems would be characterised by a simultaneity of moving parts or active sub-systems, so that while the main process (or activity) is developing so are others, complete but obviously dependent on the main process for their meaning and existence. Such might be an L.E.A. organisation or a school.


When speaking of parts and sub-systems it is patent that some conception of the separateness of things exists. This leads to the idea of boundary. Without a defining of boundary it is impossible to speak at all coherently of the system or these sub-systems. The location of boundary is, therefore, fundamental to the relating of systems to each other. As Elizabeth Richardson says, whether looking at the individual, the group or the institution, we must be concerned with defining boundaries “because it helps us to examine independence and interdependence.” (THE TEACHER, THE SCHOOL AND THE TASK OF MANAGEMENT)


Outside the boundary is the environment of the system, and there will be, at least in the case of ‘open’ systems, an interaction between the two. As Hodge points out, educational systems are open ones. In fact, such systems have to exchange materials with their environments in order to survive; “they exist only if they take in raw materials, convert these into useful products and export the products back into society.”  The task of an institution is the “import – conversion – export process” and in an attempt to define the task, the boundary has to be identified through which “the raw materials are imported at one end and the finished product at the other.” (Elizabeth Richardson). A critical look at their own institution by staff will quite likely lead them to consider “whether the boundaries that separate out the different parts of the institution have been drawn in the right places” – if not, “leaders” are ostensible, lacking real authority to control boundaries. For example, over time, certain leadership roles may have lost meaning. In a percipient section on leadership as a boundary function, Richardson writes of control as involving the exercise of enabling and inhibiting powers, since some activities are to be promoted and others suppressed. An illuminating concept of a double boundary is now developed, within which region the “discrimination powers of leadership can operate, thus regulating the way in which the internal world of the person, the group or the institution is related to its environment and thus to other persons, other groups and other institutions.” This factor of control, takes on an added significance when differentiating between system and environment in cases where the boundary is not clear. Those activities that are beyond the control of management can be classed as system environment.

Open and Closed Systems

It is axiomatic to speak of all systems having boundaries. A closed system is self-contained and is capable of having a clear boundary placed around it. It has an environment but lacks interaction with it. The open system, on the other hand, “continually gives up matter to the outer world and takes in matter from it, but which maintains itself in this continuous exchange in a steady state…” (BANGHART). Educational institutions are embraced by this definition. For one thing they are generally complex and their boundaries do not appear clear or finite. Despite difficulties of boundary definition, provided feasible and sensible boundaries can be agreed upon, understanding will be enhanced and meaningful activities may be undertaken within the organisation by those working in it.  Immegart and Pilecki observe that the alteration of system boundaries is possible to enhance system development while on the individual level, a person will find it easier to readjust within a system, than to cross the boundary for purposes of entering or leaving it.

A helpful distinction between two kinds of environment is made by the same two authors. Stressing the crucial importance of environment – its power to affect the system, particularly open systems, they write of the proximal environment, or that of which the system is aware and the distal, that of which the system is unaware. This has much implication for educational systems: as open systems they must extend their awareness of environment since forces there have the power to affect the system and its activities. It follows, therefore, that on-going educational institutions will seek continually to enlarge the proximal environment and conversely will endeavour to reduce the distal; “extensive and intensive knowledge of the environment is crucial.” Educational institutions are ultimately judged by their service to the larger environment; the conclusion reached, therefore, is valuable: where systems contribute to and enhance their environment, the environment will reward and enhance the system. A further helpful comment on the concept of environment is made by J. L. Davies in his article “The Refinement of the Conceptual Framework of Output Measurement” where he speaks of the substantive (groups with a special interest in the organisation) and the general environment (public opinion at large). The community, therefore, can provide, expect, criticise and assess and these activities may be shown to be inter-related in a cyclical process.

The concepts of boundary and environment have been considered at some length because I believe they are of crucial importance in any conceptualisation of a situation. Where a system begins and ends is difficult of determination in educational contexts but it must be done if the conceptualisation is to be meaningful. The corollary is that an educational systems environment is also not always clear but the attempt to clarify is one of the purposes of this exercise. The main difficulties in conceptualising an educational situation lie here (closely followed by determination of output!) In the first place, there can be a duality of conception. For example, one may speak of the professional system overall in which one works; then clearly there is the concept of one’s particular work situation. Both I believe are necessary if the full implications of the input – output relationship are to be realised.


Systems Theory – it seems to me, is of value if all it did was to provoke thought about one’s work situation. This, of course, is the basic position but then from here many fruitful approaches, I believe, emanate concerned with the optimising of the potentials of the specific organisation. Immegart and Pilecki succinctly describe the essence of the systems movement as a “mode of thought”, that is “systematic and relational”. Further characteristics of the systems movement are delineated: thought is concerned with events in context and on their evolutionary aspects: consequently structures are seen in their relationships and connections: its approach is essentially practical and operational and at the same time looks to the future; it is realistic for it is concerned with such as costs, gains and alternatives; it is eclectic and, therefore, acts as a unifying force across disciplines; it is “a useful perspective on reality” – an apposite summing-up!

Hodge is somewhat more mundane in his definition: it is an approach “whereby thorough analysis of a system may be undertaken.” Analysis is followed by synthesis of old and new elements, models to predict the effectiveness of the system follow, and finally, simulation, prior to implementation. It is useful here to consider types of system, a subject touched on in the first section. A. J. Romiszowski refers to two basic types: deterministic and probabilistic. In connection with the latter he speaks of their being either simple (i.e. having few elements or inter-relationships) or complex (i.e. having many elements or inter-relationships) – but this is a use of the word I have tried to refine in Section 1.  The terms open and closed as a further classification of systems have already been discussed. In this paper the educational organisation is regarded as open and probabilistic. Open systems consist of the following elements:

  1. a) inputs of energy
  2. b) process components
  3. c) outputs of energy
  4. d) a control mechanism (the comparator).

Properties of Systems

In addition, all systems, open and closed, possess certain well-known properties, some of which were mentioned earlier in the paper; others of particular significance are the factors known as variables and parameters and the possession of sub-systems. Ideally, the open system is self regulating; this state is achieved by the above mentioned comparator (or error signal generator as Hodge calls it), which provides the vital function of feeding back information and/or energy from its output to its input. This relay of information, termed feedback may be positive (i.e. supportive to the status quo) or negative (i.e. challenging); it may also be either internal (coming from the system’s processes themselves) or external (coming from the system’s environment). It may be formal (from devised channels) or informal (not conforming to prescribed arrangements). An open system operating as above would be an adaptive one, that is, adjusting to changes in the environment – in the terminology it would possess equilibrium and homeostasis. The obverse of this condition is known as entropy and here an interesting point is made by Hodge where he states (following others) that the entropy of physical systems tends to increase over time while with behavioural (or human) systems the more complex the system becomes, the less random is the distribution of energy.


Four approaches to the concept of systems are listed by Immegart:

  1. Theories of the whole.
  2. Process theories.
  3. Theories of system properties.
  4. Output theories.

Process theory is concerned with “focus on the processing of inputs through sub-systems into system output”; theories of system properties are derived from “the recurring properties and states evinced in the life-space of a wide variety of systems”; output theories focus on the “products of system action relative to their impact on the system and/or its environment.”

Of these four approaches, process theory is the one of most central concern to this paper. The input – output relationship is the essence of systems theories and process theory is the term applied to this particular concept. Inputs to a system are processed, altered or modified by passage through sub-systems; what has been acted on by the system is now an output and the effect of this onsubsequent input is seen in terms of feedback.


The terms “operands” (the processed) and “operators” (the processors) comprise inputs; output can be “productive” (tangible or substantive), and “affective” (intangible, the feelings or reactions of people.) The processing system may in fact be a number or combination of several sub-systems so that each processing sub-system becomes and input-output system in its own right – that is, one system output becomes system input for a new sub-system. Feedback, an output phenomenon, in both its external and internal form then affects future system action. The concept of feedback is discussed illuminatingly by Buckley when speaking of open systems, whose:


  1. i)characteristic features depend on certain internal parameters or criterion variables remaining within certain limits.
  2. ii)organisation has developed a selective sensitivity, or mapped relationship, to environmental things.

iii)        sensory apparatus is able to distinguish any deviations of the systems’ internal states from goal-states defined in terms of the criterion variables.

  1. iv)such that feedback of this ‘mismatch’ information into the system’s behaviour-directing centres reduces (in the case of negative feedback) or increases (positive feedback) the deviation of the system from its goal-states or criterion limits.


Feedback – controlled systems are referred to as goal-directed and not merely goal-oriented, claims Buckley, since it is the deviations from the goal state itself that direct the behaviour of the system, rather than some predetermined internal mechanism that aims blindly. For effective self-direction a socio-cultural system must receive a full flow of three kinds of information:

  1. i) from the world outside.
  2. ii) from the past, with a wide range of recall.

iii)                  about itself and its own parts.

These types of information are used by three kinds of feedback:

1)      goal-seeking – feedback of new external data into the system…whose operational channels remain unchanged;

2)      learning – feedback of new external data for the changing of these operating channels themselves, i.e. a change in the structure of the system;

3)      consciousness, or self-awareness, feedback of new internal data via secondary messages about changes in the state of the system itself.

Higher-order feedback nets facilitate four higher orders of purposes:

1)      seeking of immediate satisfaction,

2)      self-preservation,

3)      preservation of the group,

4)      preservation of a process of goal-seeking beyond any one group.

Theories of system properties contend all open systems exhibit identical properties, whereby systems can be analysed. These properties can be assessed in a number of ways relative to a particular type of system.

Finally output theories or output analysis is concerned with the following:


  1. i)productivity (attainment of organisational goals);
  2. ii)organisational health (dynamic interaction of the organisation and its environment);

iii)        integration potential (meshing the needs of individuals and groups within the organisation to organisational goals).

A cautionary note is sounded by Immegart and Pilecki with reference to open systems in the educational context: just because a system, such as a school, is characterised as open does not mean the system is or will remain “maximally functional dynamic or contributing”: conscious effort on the part of the system to maximise both its existence and its relationship to its environment is needed. It follows that the administrator must view himself personally as an open system; more important is not the being well-trained, able, etc., but rather being “vital, relevant and functionally contributing”. (BUCKLEY)


As an integral element of conceptualisation is the location of sub-systems this topic concludes this section. Basically all systems have sub-systems and all systems have supra-systems; the boundaries, it is acknowledged, tend to be arbitrary but the importance of the concept is that system action is the result of the functional interplay of sub-systems; in addition sub-systems are a useful point of focus for attending to system malfunctions. Sub-systems, therefore, must be related to each other and to the total system, in real and productive ways. Speaking of schools, it follows that as they are not independent, they are and need to be functionally relevant to other sub-systems of the community and nation; “to yield maximal results, schools need to contribute as sub-systems to each of their supra-systems.” (BUCKLEY)


Fundamentally, general systems theory is the basis for studying phenomena from many kinds of systems. From this confluence of ideas comes perhaps our best hope of a common language. This theory considers educational institutions as sub-systems operating within an environment and tries to apply the systems approach to problems wherever they are, seeking by the potentiality of the common language to investigate all ramifications from all possible angles. Systems thinking is concerned with “fixing objectives, selecting appropriate means of achieving them, devising action programmes, assessing their impact and revising the process in the light of experience.” As Birley says, educators are in need of such a tool for their basic function of educating (and of planning education). Systems thought provides a coherent context in order to focus on values. (BIRLEY, D: PLANNING AND EDUCATION)

System Regulation and Maintenance

Knowledge of systems theory gives the administrator an insight into the importance of involving the community (being receptive to external forces) in order to regulate and maintain itself in a desired “steady state”. The achievement of homeostasis is tied in with the concepts of information and communication because it is through these (their transmission and processing) that system threats or imbalances are acted on. Related to this is the importance of gaining purposive and evaluative feedback about the system; constant attention should be given to the need for this and formal feedback channels should be developed. Negative, or critical feedback, rather than positive or re-enforcing, is seen to be necessary for open system survival. One particular type of feedback, proportional, where the quantity of evaluative information is controlled proportionate to system needs would, to the administrator, be the most satisfactory type. In schools, internal feedback is needed between administration and teachers as well as external feedback between the school (or other institution) and the community, including the L.E.A. Balance between positive and negative feedback from relevant sources is also needed. Overload must be avoided.

System Dynamics and Change

Systems thought leads the educationalist to a realisation of the importance of choosing to grow (or degenerate) – and hence achieving a steady state in the face of entropic tendencies and external pressures. He must maximise the school’s (or college’s) relationship with its environment to obtain the resources for change and for dynamic evolution.

System Decline

System impingements that contribute to system decline are of two general kinds. Internal threats (system decay) cause the deterioration of the component of a system, while external threats (system disturbances) move a system from one state to another. The administrator in such cases must be able to deal precisely with what is affecting the system’s life state – stress must be recognised and avoided. If a system must devote all its efforts to prevention of decline and breakdown, “little will be left for system adaptation and growth.” (BIRLEY)

Some first principles of the relevance of systems for administrators follow.

Administration is a system in and of itself. Practically, the administrative system “replenishes itself by selecting new or replacement members (input) and orients the new administrators to the system (via system processes); the new members of the administrative staff then affect the administrative system per se as well as the larger organisation context of which it is a part.”

The administrative system is actually a sub-system of a larger organisation system and is a supra-system to sub-administrative systems. Practically, “administration does not exist in isolation; rather it is functionally related and necessarily contributory to a larger context (system)” – the L.E.A. (BIRLEY)

The administrative system, being an open system, draws on its environment (e.g. for replacement members) and its outputs affect the environment. Therefore, the administrative system is a performance system functionally related to larger contexts (the total organisation and the environment).

Practically, “it is in essence an exchange system that processes wanted goods and services.”

Administrative systems must be concerned with more than the processing of work as the sole outcomes of system activity. There are other categories of system outcomes: integration, health and feedback. Systems must realise more than productivity. Practically, only an organisation can “optimise this full range of outcomes can they maximise their basic contributions to their clients (students) and environment.”

Conscious and rational planning is needed for system optimisation. It is a notion of systems that output may exceed input, but generally, in practice, output “approximates input in a somewhat lesser quantity.”

Other important implications for administrative practice are: objective consideration of resources is necessary in formulating system strategy and action; attracting energy and resources, maintaining them and rejuvenating them as necessary are “crucial challenges” for any administrator; monitor and control mechanisms do not necessarily limit system action but rather set “appropriate boundaries for action and help the system to avoid pitfalls and impediments revealed in past  action”; by means of the homeostatic mechanism “differences are resolved and system efforts (of teachers and administrators) are co-ordinated for action toward basic organisational goals”; systems ideas indicate a need for a communications structure that “maximally permits the exchange of necessary information in an organization and also provides for information flow in all directions – up, down and horizontally,”;  if an open system does not seek “consciously a dynamic existence, if left to the natural tendency of all systems, it will become increasingly useless.” It is pointed out that schools having a captive clientele would probably never become entirely entropic but clearly this does not apply to the sphere of adult education, where the students attend voluntarily.


Output identification is crucial to systems thought but is generally difficult to make clear. Birley succinctly states the dilemma: “unless the education service takes seriously the question of measuring its own performance it will never be able to make out a satisfactory case for the resources it needs, nor use to the full the resources it is given.” The problem, of course, is to isolate educational output and at the same time to evaluate it. This, I believe, is given an added dimension of difficulty in the field of Adult Education.

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D