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Open Systems Theory

Open systems theory is based on the work of Kurt Lewin, which was further developed in the Tavistock Institute during the fifties, especially by A. K. Rice and Eric Miller. 

This theory assumes that, similarly to biological organisms, it is possible to analyze any organization in terms of an open system - a system that can survive only by exchanging materials with its environment. The organization imports raw materials, converts them into end-products by carrying out various processes on them, utilizes some of these products for its own needs and exports the rest by exchanging it, directly or indirectly, for raw materials and other resources it needs. These processes of import-conversion-export are the work the organization has to perform in order to survive. Organizations differ from one another by the various kinds of materials they import, by the processes they use for achieving conversion and by the end-products they export.

In order to carry out the process of import-conversion-export the organization has to develop a boundary which separates it from its environment, and through which the exchange processes will take place. This boundary should be solid enough to prevent leakage and protect the organization against the danger of falling apart, but also permeable enough to enable the two-way flow of materials. For the organization to perform what is required of it, its boundaries should be managed - management that will ensure the appropriate inward and outward flow of materials.

Individuals and groups can also be considered as open systems, requiring exchange processes with their environment for survival. Open systems theory assumes that the individual, the small or larger group and the whole organization demonstrate, in increasing levels of complexity, the same basic structural principle. Each one can be described in terms of internal world, external environment and boundary function responsible for the activities connecting the two.

Similarly to the analysis of biological organisms, the analysis of organizations requires the creation of various theories: theories dealing with the type of raw materials the organization needs, with the processes it uses for their conversion, and with the relationships between the organization and its environment, relationships that determine its ability to import raw materials and export end-products. In addition to these kinds of theories, organizations, unlike biological organisms, are based on human beings, and thus any theory offered regarding them should include some component relating to human behavior.

Open systems theory includes a set of concepts required for the development of these theories. One of the central concepts - the concept of the primary task - is brought here as an example. The following short discussion of this concept can demonstrate how the use of the basic concepts of this theory - open system, boundaries, import-conversion-export, primary task, together with some other concepts - provides tools for furthering the understanding of the complex and sometimes confusing operation of organizations. 

Primary Task

Open systems theory claims that every organization has at any moment a primary task, which is defined as the task it has to perform if it is to survive. The definition of the primary task of the organization illuminates the hierarchy among the various activities existing simultaneously in it - determining the dominant import-conversion-export process and consequently the important set of activities. In addition, the concept opens the possibility of considering different organizational structures based on different definitions of the primary task, and of comparing them.    

One of the conclusions derived from the analysis of the organization from this point of view is that various subsystems in the organization may define its primary task in different or even conflicting ways. A conflict may also be found between the primary task as it is defined by the organization itself and the primary task its environment imposes on it.

The concept of primary task is not a normative one. Open systems theory does not claim that every organization or system has to define its primary task, but it does claim that any unit, at any specific moment, has one task that can be looked at as its primary one.

Gordon Lawrence developed the concept of primary task as a tool for the analysis of organizational activities and claimed that at any given moment the different members of the organization fulfill different primary tasks. Some of them fulfill the normative primary task - the one that has been formally decided upon and declared, usually by the top of the organization. Others are active in pursuing the existential primary task - the one they believe they ought to attain, which is derived from their own interpretation of their roles in the specific set of activities they are placed in. Finally, there exists the phenomenological primary task - the one which can be deduced from the actual overall activity of the organization. Looking at the discrepancies, if they exist, between these three categories of the concept can offer us important insights about the organization and the relationships between its different components.     


Lawrence, G. W. Management development...some ideals, images and realties. In: Colman, A. D. and Geller, M. H. (eds.) Group relations reader 2 (1985) A. K. Rice Institute Series. p.231-241.

Lewin, K. (1947) 'Frontiers in group dynamics', Parts I and II, Human Relations, 1: 5-41; 2:53-143.

Miller, E. J. & Rice, A. K. (1967) Systems of Organization. London: Tavistock Publications. See also: Selections from Systems of Organization. In: Colman, A. D. & Bexton, W. H. (eds.) Group Relations Reader 1 (1975) A. K. Rice Institute Series. p. 43-68.

Zagier Roberts, V. The organization of work: contribution from open systems theory. In: Obholzer A. and Zagier Roberts, V. (eds.) (1994) The unconscious at work. Routledge  p. 28-38.