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6.2 Systems Theory Approach

The view of organizations as open social systems that must interact with their environments in order to survive is known as the systems theory approachThe view of organizations as open social systems that must interact with their environments in order to survive.. Organizations depend on their environments for several essential resources: customers who purchase the product or service, suppliers who provide materials, employees who provide labor or management, shareholders who invest, and governments that regulate. According to Cutlip, Center, and Broom, public relations’ essential role is to help organizations adjust and adapt to changes in an organization’s environment.Cutlip, Center, and Broom (2006).

The open-systems approachOrganizational behavior in which an organization exchanges information, energy, or resources with its environment. This approach is responsive to changes in the environment. was first applied by Katz and Kahn, who adapted General Systems Theory to organizational behavior.Katz and Kahn (1966); Bertalanffy (1951), pp. 303–361. This approach identifies organizational behavior by mapping the repeated cycles of input, throughput, output, and feedback between an organization and its external environment. Systems receive input from the environment either as information or in the form of resources. The systems then process the input internally, which is called throughput, and release outputs into the environment in an attempt to restore equilibrium to the environment. The system then seeks feedback to determine if the output was effective in restoring equilibrium. As can be seen, the systems approach focuses on the means used to maintain organizational survival and emphasize long-term goals rather than the short-term goals of the goal-attainment approach.

Theoretically, systems can be considered either open or closed. Open organizations exchange information, energy, or resources with their environments, whereas closed systems do not. In reality, because no social systems can be completely closed or open, they are usually identified as relatively closed or relatively open. The distinction between closed and open systems is determined by the level of sensitivity to the external environment. Closed systemsOrganizational behavior in which an organization is insensitive to environmental deviations. are insensitive to environmental deviations, whereas open systems are responsive to changes in the environment.

The systems approach is an external standard that measures effectiveness based on long-term growth or sustainability. Effective systems are characterized by a steady state that systems theorists call homeostasisThe ability of an organization to survive and also grow. Homeostasis is a measure of how effective an organization is. in order to “avoid the static connotations of equilibrium and to bring out the dynamic, processual, potential-maintaining properties of basically unstable… systems.”Buckley (1967), p. 14. If an organization is able to maintain homeostasis, which includes not just survival but also growth, then it is effective. This perspective is broader and more comprehensive than the goal-attainment approach because it is not limited to measuring effectiveness as meeting goals determined by powerful internal coalitions that may or may not be propitious for the whole organization. Pfeffer and Salancik defined effectiveness as “how well an organization is meeting the demands of the various groups and organizations that are concerned with its activities.”Pfeffer and Salancik (1978), p. 11.

Most effective organizations, according to systems theory, adapt to their environments. Pfeffer and Salancik described the environment as the events occurring in the world that have any effect on the activities and outcomes of an organization. Environments range from “static” on one extreme to “dynamic” on the other. Static environments are relatively stable or predictable and do not have great variation, whereas dynamic environments are in a constant state of flux. Because environments cannot be completely static or constantly changing, organizations have varying levels of dynamic or static environments.

Organizations that exist in dynamic environments must be open systems in order to maintain homeostasis. Because dynamic environments are constantly changing, they create a lot of uncertainty about what an organization must do in order to survive and grow. The key to dealing with uncertainty is information. An open organization monitors its environment and collects information about environmental deviations that is labeled as inputThe feedback from its environment that an open organization collects about environmental deviations. Input can be categorized as negative, which alerts the organization to problems that need correcting, or positive, which tells the organization what it is doing right that should be continued or increased.. Input can also be thought of as a form of feedback. The most important information is negative input, according to systems theorists, because this information alerts the organization to problems that need to be corrected. Negative input tells the organization that it is doing something wrong and that it must make adjustments to correct the problem; positive input tells the organization that it is doing something right and that it should continue or increase that activity.

Organizations then organize and process this information to formulate solutions or responses to these changes. As Cutlip, Center, and Broom noted, open systems use information to respond to environmental changes and adjust accordingly. The adjustments affect the structure or process of the organization, or both. The structure is what the organization is, whereas process is what the organization does. Adjustments are “intended to reduce, maintain, or increase the deviations.”Cutlip, Center, and Broom (2006), p. 181. For example, an organization can alter its structure by downsizing to remain competitive. Other organizations may change their processes in order to adhere to new environmental laws. Processing positive and negative input to adjust to environmental change is called throughputAn organization's processing of positive and negative input to adjust to environmental change.. In the throughput of information, the organization analyzes it and tailors it strategically to fit with the organization’s goals, values, and within the relationship context it holds with publics.

After an organization adapts to environmental changes, its actions and messages represent its output. The automobile industry is constantly enticing car consumers to try the latest models, hoping that it has responded to changing expectations. Recently, many auto manufacturers have attempted to color their products as “green” or environmentally friendly. However, messages are not enough. If the cars are not really friendlier to the environment, then these messages eventually will fall on skeptical ears and impugn the credibility of the organization. An organization measures the effectiveness of its output by seeking feedback. If its actions and messages were not effective then the process is repeated until the appropriate solution is found. If the organization is not able to adapt to the environmental variation then it will eventually cease to exist. The public relations professional engaged in an organization that takes a systems approach is continually focusing on feedback as a way of measuring organizational success.

The public relations professional can use the academic concept of systems theory to implement protocols for regular feedback to the organization, thereby aligning it with the desires of publics in its environment. This theory can also be useful in understanding the role of research and feedback in creating a thoroughly analyzed and consistent strategy (the throughput stage of information in systems theory). The analysis of information and creation of strategy known as throughput helps to conceptualize and justify not only the research budget of the public relations department but also the need for making decisions that strategically align the public communications of an organization with the information needed by publics. The practical implementation of this approach keeps public relations from being used as a simple publicity function, and places the function squarely in the strategic planning process.

Systems theory, however, is not without some shortcomings. The first shortcoming relates to measurement, and the second is the issue of whether the means by which an organization survives really matter. Robbins noted that one criticism of this approach is that its focus is on “the means necessary to achieve effectiveness rather than on organizational effectiveness itself.”Robbins (1990), p. 62. Measuring the means, or process, of an organization can be very difficult when compared to measuring specific end goals of the goal-attainment approach.