Known as one of the founders of General Systems Theory (GST), the Austrian-born Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s (1901-1972) background was as a biologist. GST attempted to provide alternatives to conventional models of organisation, emphasising holism over reductionism. Bertalanffy created many of the concepts and much of the language which today lies at the heart of systems thinking. His insights as a biologist led him to think about organisations in a holistic way: his biological work:
emphasises consideration of the organism as a whole or system, and sees the main objective of biological sciences in the discovery of the principle of organisation at its various levels.
(von Bertalanffy 1973, p10)
From this definition, we can see key concepts which were repeated throughout his works: the importance of the whole system and the idea that the distinction between a system and a collection of parts is that the system has some form of organisation of its parts.
He talked about two types of systems: closed systems, which had no exchanges with their environment, and open systems, which take inputs from their environment and then return them as some sort of product back to their environment. They depend on the environment for their existence and adapt in reaction to changes in their environment. Importantly, this openness allowed for creativity and what has been described as ‘self-transcendence’: the ability of a system to reach out beyond its boundaries, where necessary, to secure its survival. In addition, Bertalanffy argued for the significance of his concept of ‘dynamic equilibrium’: he observed that a system needs to be able to constantly change its component parts to be able to maintain its basic form of organisation. GST allowed for insights in one discipline to be transferred to another, and hence it was soon embraced by management thinkers who transferred the open system model to their study of organisations.
Von Bertalanffy, L 1973 ‘General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications’ Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK
Checkland P 1981 ‘Systems Thinking Systems Practice’ Wiley and Sons: Chichester
Jackson, M 2003 ‘Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers’ Wiley and Sons: Chichester
Ramage M and Shipp K 2009 ‘Systems Thinkers’ Open University: Milton Keynes