The Hard Facts of Soft Social Systems: Towards a Theoretical and Practical Model for Schools and Other Organizations

Susan Farr Gabriele


In this essay, three hard facts of soft social systems are identified, intended to inform instructional designers and designers of organizational change efforts. The facts are gleaned out of an elaboration of Boulding’s nine-level typology of system complexity. The need for these hard facts is great, given the failure of many well-intentioned reform efforts to positively impact schools and organizations.
In brief, the three facts are as follows.  First, things are designable--mass, space, time, and organization goals (cf. Boulding’s levels 1-3).  Second, people are not designable. A person’s behavior is determined by internally prescribed criteria (level 4: cell), generally predictable by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, but increasingly variable with each individual/person/ system member (e.g., employee, student, teacher, parent) because people differ (level 5: plant, genetic variety). They act according to their own immediate perceptions (level 6: animal, sensory perceptors), and their own long term reflections and choices (level 7: human, symbol processing).  The third fact is: It is natural, biological, and scientific law that people will behave to meet their individual and personal needs before their social system or organization’s needs (levels 8 and 9). Level 8 systems (social) are optional; level 7 functioning is mandatory.  A person can transfer schools (level 8), but cannot transfer bodies (level 7).
Implications are that effective instructional and organization designers put all their attention to the designable components of a social system: space (e.g., buildings, rooms, book shelves, books and equipment), time (e.g., school and classroom routines, schedules and calendars), school and classroom goals (e.g., classroom projects, school mission statements, etc.); and ratios and flows of resources. Effective designers fashion these designable components as attractors, to attract system members.  These attractors function to allow system members to meet individual/personal goals as first priority, and organization goals as second priority.  Contribution to systemic change theory is a new systemic approach, referred to and named here as systemic renewal.  Systemic renewal is defined here as systemic change efforts with goals of facilitating each system member to learn and grow at his or her own pace. The ISSS Morning RoundTable is a practice that corresponds to the goals of systemic renewal.


Keywords: organizational change theory, systemic school change, systemic renewal

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