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A multisystemic approach for management education.


The multisystemic approach is a tool for increasing the analytic power of future managers. Based on a systems view of organizations, the approach emphasizes (a) using various criteria to view an organization in terms of its subsystems and (b) asking focused questions about the organization based on these different systemic views. The value of such questioning is that it stimulates thought and can lead to new and useful insights about the organization. In teaching the approach, it is important to present diverse kinds of systemic view and to give students practice in asking questions.


In today's demanding organizational environments, managers are required more than ever to quickly recognize, accurately evaluate, and effectively respond to threats and opportunities. Accordingly, it is more important than ever that management education focus on helping future managers to develop the recognitional, judgmental, and decisional skills they will need to effectively deal with the many problems and issues they are likely to face in their careers. What complicates the fulfillment of this goal of management education is the same accelerated organizational change that makes achieving the goal so necessary. The structures, functions, and objectives of many organizations are becoming more and more diverse as they expand, diversify, and develop in directions that enable them to sensitively respond to external and internal forces. In teaching future managers to think well on their feet, educators must find ways to take into account the increasingly multifarious nature of organizations. Especially, they must devise compelling methods to help students develop analytic skills that will be useful in any future management placement, no matter what the nature or complexity of the organization.

To develop such skills, it is of course important that students become familiar with different kinds of organizations and structures. A manager (or management student) must understand that even the simplest organization can be viewed from a number of perspectives; that the perspective from which the organization is viewed helps to determine which of its elements and relationships are brought most sharply into focus; and that the manager's ability to assume multiple perspectives in viewing the organization helps to avoid a distorting myopia and to create flesh, useful ideas (Linstone, 1999). A powerful way to help management students develop their ability to view organizations from multiple perspectives is to emphasize a multisystemic approach to understanding organizations and organizational structure. Teaching the multisystemic approach involves three basic elements: (1) It assumes an overall framework of systems theory as applied to organizations. (2) It emphasizes the various ways in which a single organization can be "broken down" into subsystems to form a particular systemic view, with each of these ways of classifying the organization into subsystems providing a unique and potentially valuable perspective on the organization. (3) It shows the student how to ask focused questions about each systemic view, questions whose answers may provide useful insights into the functioning of the organization; and gives the student practice in exploring such questions. Each of these three basic elements is briefly explained below.

The Systems View of Organizations

The systems view, which is an outgrowth of the biological sciences (Kast & Rosenzweig, 1972), is familiar to most of us. Briefly, the systems view sees an organization as a system of interconnected parts that form a more or less unitary whole. Like biological organisms, organizations are goal-directed, seeking to achieve objectives such as growth, profitability, or fulfilling a mission effectively (Aldrich, 1979). Organizations are also similar to organisms in having external boundaries that separate them from other organizations and other aspects of their environment (Long, 1992). Like cell walls, these external boundaries are permeable, thus organizations are open systems that interact with both the natural and human-made environment. Various elements of the environment influence the organization by means of inputs that cross external boundaries into the system, while the organization in turn influences the environment through its outputs (Muchinsky, 1993). Inputs include information that is processed through organizational channels and that in turn affects the system's outputs (Forsyth, 1983).

A pedagogical advantage of applying this model to understanding organizations is that many of the basic concepts of the systems view are used not only in biology but also in other fields that students may be familiar with, such as engineering, computer science, and sociology (Yan, 2002). An even greater advantage may be the fact that many of these same notions are also familiar from students' everyday lives. Such concepts as boundaries, inputs and outputs, and open versus closed--ideas central to the systems view--are commonly applied to many aspects of ordinary life. Those same concepts are therefore easily understandable, at least in their basic applications, when they are analogously applied to organizations considered as systems. But perhaps the most important advantage of applying the systems model to the understanding of organizations is that it provides a powerful standpoint from which the structure and functioning of organizations can be analyzed. To be a system is to be composed of parts that interrelate and function as a whole. It follows that understanding an organization involves understanding what its parts and how they relate to one another (Azumi & Hage, 1972). Such an understanding proceeds by identifying the organization's subsystems. In addition, the organization's subsystems will be related to one another and to the external environment in various ways.

Particular Systemic Views

Once the management student is familiar with the general systems view of organizations, including the concept of subsystems, the second main aspect of the multisystemic approach is to teach him or her that there are many different ways in which an organization can be viewed in terms of its subsystems. One of the most common types of systemic view is to regard the organization in terms of its functional subsystems. We might, for example, view a particular manufacturing organization in terms of its departments or divisions dedicated to research and development, manufacturing, marketing, personnel, maintenance, and so on.

Another kind of systemic view appropriate for some organizations is to view them in relation to their geographical divisions, either in terms of the actual physical locations of the organization or in terms of the geographical areas that it serves. Thus, a global business organization might be seen in terms of two subsystems, with all of its physical facilities and employees based in one country, but with sale and distribution efforts in others might be described in terms of two subsystems: national production and marketing, and international sale and distribution.

Yet another way to break down an entire organizational system into subsystems that would be appropriate for some organizations is to use temporal criteria. For example, financial reporting periods can be thought of as separate subsystems and can thereby provide a particular systemic view of the organization. Shopping seasons, such as Christmas and summer, can be considered separate subsystems for some retail organizations. In addition, spatial criteria (different from geographical considerations mentioned above) can often be applied in order to provide a particular systemic view of an organization, one that regards the organization in terms of who and what is located just where in a particular building, plant, or other facility.

For these and other kinds of systemic view, variations typically exist. For example, for a manufacturing organization, an alternative to the kind of functional classification suggested above could be to view it in terms of five functional subsystems: senior management, other management, supervisory personnel, labor, and support personnel. The fineness of grain with which an organization is classified into subsystems is another variable that determines alternative systemic views. For instance, from one perspective, all marketing efforts of a software development company might be considered a single functional subsystem within the company; from another perspective, efforts focused on marketing the company's financial software might be considered a different subsystem from those dedicated to marketing its word processing software.

In explaining how systemic views may vary, it is important to get across the idea that there is no single best way in which to view an organization in terms of its subsystems. The most appropriate perspective to take on the structure of an organization depends on pragmatic issues such as what problems or issues the inquirer is attempting to get a better grip on. Out of two systemic views of an organization, one may be more appropriate or useful than the other given one set of interests; the other may be more useful given other interests. Furthermore, it is important that students are taught that no systemic view of an organization should be ruled out on the basis of its being unusual. On the contrary, management students should be encouraged not only to apply "standard" systemic views to an organization, but also to experiment with nonstandard ways of classifying the organization into subsystems. By conceptually "breaking down" an organization by using various criteria, fresh and useful new ways of understanding how the elements of the organization interrelate may result.

Asking Questions about Systemic Views

After (or while) being introduced to the idea of a systemic view, the management student's attention can be directed to the main point of the multisystemic approach-learning to ask probing questions about a specific systemic view of an organization.

--What are the subsystems of the organization given this particular systemic view?

--How does each of these subsystems relate to each of the other subsystems?

--What are the inputs and outputs of each subsystem?

--What constitutes smooth functioning in each subsystem? Between subsystems?

--In what ways can each subsystem be broken down into further subsystems?

The goal of asking such questions is to better understand how the various parts of the organization interrelate with one another and with their environment. In this way, a fuller view of the organization's overall functioning can be gained. Further, by providing in-depth answers to such questions, new realizations about how the organization can be made to work more effectively may result.

To illustrate how this might play out in a particular context, let us consider how questions could be deployed in regard to a specific systemic view--the "3W" perspective--that can be applied to virtually any organization. The 3W perspective views an organization as composed of three basic subsystems: the workplace, the work done, and the workers (which may include management personnel, depending on how the model is employed). Any goal-directed human organization in which work is done can be viewed in these terms. This includes the one-man system that constitutes an independent taxi driver whose workplace is his taxi and whose work is to transport people from one location to another, as well as a large multinational corporation whose workers may number in the tens of thousands in various locations and whose work may include hundreds of different kinds of jobs. Suppose we apply the 3W perspective to a small manufacturing organization. How might some of the questions listed above be applied to this systemic view of the organization, and what kinds of further questions might these give rise to? Let us consider three overall questions.

How do the various subsystems relate to one another? This question can be broken down into several others. For one thing, a manager (or management student) may ask, how does the workplace affect the workers? Is it arranged so that the workers can work with the greatest efficiency? Are there any adverse effects from any elements in the workplace? Too much noise? Possibly hazardous materials? Likewise, the manager may ask, how do the workers affect the workplace? Are they doing anything that could cause a problem? Are they applying appropriate preventive maintenance principles at their workplaces? Do they return tools to their proper places after use? Another question in this line would be, how does the work done affect the workers? This is not quite the same question as the one about how the workplace affects workers. Instead, here the manager or the student would focus on trying to determine the effects of the work itself. For example, are the workers' tasks overly tedious? If so, does this lead to absenteeism? Or lead to mistakes on the assembly line? What methods might help alleviate the tedium? Would enactment of these methods be cost effective?

What are the inputs and outputs of each subsystem? This, question, too, can be broken down into several more specific questions. For example, what are the inputs to the workers subsystem? In particular, what communication inputs affect the workers? Which of these are from outside the subsystem, which from inside? Which are formal, which informal? Are formal and informal communications inputs working at cross-purposes? Are workers being kept informed in a timely way about all relevant aspects of their work? Another question along this line would be, what are the outputs of the workplace? This question could be viewed as inquiring not about products, but about the outputs of the physical plant itself. Such outputs might include not only any chemical pollutants, but also visual, auditory, and olfactory outputs that might affect how the plant is viewed by its neighbors. Yet another question here would be, what are the inputs into the work done? For example, what determines the work to be done each day and what determines assignments? Is scheduling at an optimum for efficiency? Would two shifts work better than one?

In what ways can each subsystem be broken into further subsystems? For each of the three subsystems of the 3W view as applied to a manufacturing organization, we can probably devise several answers to this question. For example, the workers subsystem might be divisible into line workers and off-line workers; or into widget 1 workers and widget 2 workers; or, on a more comprehensive view of the organization, into management personnel, supervisory personnel, line workers, and support personnel. For any of these divisions into sub-subsystems, further questions can be asked about their interrelations, inputs and outputs, how well each one is functioning, and so on. There will also typically be multiple ways of breaking the work and workplace subsystems into sub-subsystems. Managers can then ask additional questions from each of these perspectives.

Questioning Provokes Thought and New Insights

The examples above focused on a particular kind of systemic view, the 3W perspective. But in teaching the multisystemic approach, it is important to use examples from a range of systemic view types, including functional, spatial, and other systemic perspectives. Asking such questions is not an end in itself, of course, and it is typically harder to answer a question than it is to raise it. Yet asking good questions is a crucial step on the road to finding good answers, and managers often find it difficult to frame probing questions that could give them important new insights into how their organization is working. One thing that makes it so difficult is that like many of us, managers are often creatures of habit that fall into customary ways of viewing the organization's structure and functioning. It is here where the multisystemic approach shines. Teaching management students how to view an organization from multiple perspectives and giving them instruction and practice in asking probing questions about particular systemic views of the organization provides them with a powerful tool they can use to avoid getting stuck within a single perspective in their future management roles.

In fact, simply to formulate a new question may serve to open up fresh perspectives. To return to one of the above examples, raising the question of how the workplace affects the workers can start a manager thinking about a host of potentially important issues such as how the workplace setup affects workers' activities, efficiency, and mood. And questions about the inputs into the workers system and the work system can lead the manager to inquire about issues such as communication channels and how workers become aware of job objectives. After answering these questions, the manager may conclude that everything is working fine as it is. On the other hand, the answers might indicate that a new workplace signage policy is in order, with schedules and other job-related information to be displayed on workplace signs visible to all workers.


Overall, there is no guarantee that new ideas about how to improve some organization will arise out of a set of questions that is guided by a particular systemic view. But it is clear that if there are fresh insights to be gained about the organization, the process of posing guided questions can be an effective way to uncover those insights. Because the multisystemic approach strengthens the management student's ability to ask such questions, it is a valuable tool for them to acquire, one that may serve them well in the future.


Aldrich, H. E. (1979). Organizations and environment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Azumi, K., & Hage, J. (1972). Organizational systems: A text-reader in the sociology of organizations. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company.

Forsyth, D. R. (1983). An introduction to group dynamics. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Kast, F. E., & Rosenzweig, J. E. (1972). General systems theory: Applications for organization and management (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Linstone, H. A. (1999). Decision making for technology executives: Using multiple perspectives to improve performance. Boston: Artech House.

Long, S. (1992). A structural analysis of small groups. London: Routledge.

Muchinsky, P. M. (1993). Psychology applied to work: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (4th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Yan, X. T. (2002). An approach to teaching engineering design using multiple perspective and integrated product models and simulation. Retrieved July 20, 2003, from

Chong Aik is a doctoral student in the School of Management at Walden University. His research interests include post-industrial workplace and change management.
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Author:Aik, Chong-Tek
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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