Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2008, Madison, Wisconsin, Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the ISSS

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The Hard Facts of Soft Social Systems: A General Systems Explanatory Model for Schools and Workplaces

Susan Farr Gabriele


In this paper, a new model for social systems is introduced, one that aims to inform all decision makers in schools and workplaces. The need for such a model is great, given the failure of modern well-intentioned reform efforts and wide variety of decision-makers. The new model is gleaned out of Boulding’s nine-level typology of system complexity, and named TPO for the three key domains that are clarified: technical, personal and organizational, for specialists; and things, people, and outcomes, for non-specialist decision-makers. These three key parts of a social system have very different properties. First, things (technical) are of three kinds--level 1: frameworks (e.g., buildings, books and equipment); level 2: clockworks (e.g., school routines, schedules and calendars); and level 3: thermostat-like systems (e.g., school goals which people--students and educators--self-regulate to attain.) Things are predictable and designable. Second, people (personal) in a social system are not designable. While things like thermostats self-regulate to externally prescribed criteria, living systems self-regulate to internally prescribed criteria (level 4: open; e.g., a living cell). Living systems (levels 4-7) act to meet their own basic needs first, then, in people, higher needs—generally predictable by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs: survival, safety, belonging, achievement, self-actualization and transcendence. People’s behavior decreases in predictability due to inherent individual differences (level 5: blueprint; e.g., plant); differing immediate perceptions from among competing stimuli (level 6: image-aware; e.g., animal), and their own long term reflections, prior knowledge, choices, and abilities (level 7: symbol processing; e.g., human). The third part of a social system is labeled outcomes (organizational). Outcomes depend on people’s behavior. If people easily meet their basic needs, they will act to meet the organization’s needs. This principle is not a question of ethics, but a question of physics. It is natural, biological, and scientific law that people will behave to meet their individual and personal needs (level 7: human) 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). The TPO model of a social system clarifies that effective designers put all their attention to things, the designable components of a social system: frameworks; clockworks; and thermostat-like systems (e.g., school and classroom goals and ratios and flows of resources). Effective designers fashion these designable components as attractors, to allow system members to meet individual/ personal goals as first priority, and organization goals as second priority. Goals of the TPO approach are termed here systemic renewal, or systemic change efforts designed to increase opportunities for each social system member to meet his/her own self-perceived goals at his/her own pace. The ISSS Morning RoundTable corresponds to the goals of systemic renewal and the TPO model.

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