Reviewing an inventory of key concepts in systems theory applied to biological, ecological, and human systems can illuminate ideas for understanding the dynamic nature of organizational systems.


Considering systems concepts for living systems seems to start with perpetual question of humanity posed by Capra (1996): What is life? From the perspective of a biologist, Bertalanffy (1972) seemed to scoff at attempts to describe life using mechanical definitions, saying that the qualitative laws of nature have “little to do with the ultimate reality of nature” (p. 156). From the perspective of a deep ecology philosophy that sees “spiritual and religious” interdependence among all phenomena, Capra (p. 8) joined Bertalanffy in condemning traditional scientific approaches that attempt to understand the behavior of complex systems by analyzing the quantitative parts; insisting that systems can only be understood by understanding qualitative relationships of components within context.

Bertalanffy said that the difference between living and dead is in the process not the mechanics. The living system has order in which chemical and physical process allows persistence, development, grown, reproduction, and other biological functions. He pointed out that definition of life does not adequately exist in mechanical descriptions because they do not address how the organization came to exist, how it regulates itself, and how it exchanges matter with the environment (pp. 139-140).


Bertalanffy (1972) said that a living organism is a complex open system, meaning that it maintains itself by continuously exchanging matter with the environment (p. 156). The fundamental characteristics of a living system--metabolism, growth, development, self-regulation, response to stimuli, spontaneous activity-- are the consequences of open systems processes (p. 149).

An open system has two key variables, statics and dynamics:

A system starts in an unstable state and moves toward a stable state, causing growth and development. The steady state can be disturbed by changes in the environment causing “adaptation and stimulus response” (Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 160).

Capra (1996) proposed that a comprehensive theory of life should integrate an understanding of the pattern, structure, and process of the organism, saying that “the process of life is the continual embodiment of an autopoietic pattern of organization in a dissipative structure” that is identified with cognition, “the process of knowing” (p. 159). Following are summaries of the concepts in Capras statement about life theory:


The pattern of an organism is form, order, and quantity; it shows the configuration of relationships among the system’s components that determine its essential characteristics. Describing the pattern involves mapping the relationships among the organism’s components.


The structure of an organism is the substance, matter, quantity; it shows the pattern of organization. Describing the structure involves mapping the physical components in the system.

Life Process.

“Life process is the continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization” (Capra, 1996, p. 161). Process serves as a link between pattern and structure; the pattern of organization is in the organism’s structure, while the link between pattern and structure is “in the process of continual embodiment” (p. 160). In other words, process is how the components within the system continuously interact.


A key characteristic of living systems is that they continuously reproduce themselves. This process is called Autopoiesis, or “self-making”. Rather than being a relationship among static components, autopoiesis is “relations among processes of production” of components (p. 168). The organism’s networks continuously regenerate to maintain organization, providing a key distinction between physical and biological phenomena.

Dissipative structures.

A dissipative structure is structurally open but organizationally closed. The boundary of an organism encloses the network of metabolic processes and limits their extension, while filtering energy and matter in and out of the system. This makes the organism autonomous in organization; but, the organism’s survival depends on its continuous interaction and exchange with the environment.

For example, the skin of the human acts as a boundary inside which the internal parts and processes continuously interact while the boundary filters in food and allows for expulsion of waist. Interaction with the environment allows the human body to maintain and renew itself using energy and resources from the environment. This self-making also allows the body to form new structural relationships that result in development and evolution.


Deriving his ideas from his conversations with plants, Bates proposed that nature speaks the language of relationships, and that the mind is inseparably connected with life, “the essence of being alive” (Capra, 1996, p. 174). The Santiago Theory proposes that cognition--the act of knowing--is connected to life, but that the brain is not necessary for mind to exist (Capra, 1996). Knowing is broader than thinking; it is perception, emotion, and action. For example, simple organisms and plants do not have brains but they perceive and react to changes in the environment. This implies that cognition, mind, is a relationship that operates in the brain, structure (Capra, 1996).


“Continuous” seems to be a key word for understanding living systems. Both Capra and Bertalanffy emphasized that in a living system, components continuously change, matter continuously flows, organs continuously replace cells, and growth, development and evolution are continuously occurring. When the biological processes cease, organic life ceases.

Applying systems concepts

A key claim of general system theory is that its principles apply to systems regardless of their components or environment and that it explores wholes not physical and chemical entities. The basis of the open systems model is the dynamic interaction of components. This would mean then that laws that apply to a cell would also apply to a human, to a human system, to the earth system to the planetary system, to the universe system. Bertalanffy described this as a hierarchy of systems within systems. Philosopher Ken Wilber (2000) expanded on this idea by saying “natural hierarchies” are “orders of increasing wholeness or “holarchies” (p. 39).


Capra applied systems theory concepts to the earth system by presenting James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory (2005) which proposes that the earth is a living organism in which integrated physical components and subsystems interact “within a single web” (215) to maintain the planet in a state of homeostasis while exchanging matter with its environment. Capra argued that the earth is an autopoietic system that is a dissipative structure.

As an autopoietic system, the earth is self-bounded, self-generating, and self-perpetuating. As a dissipative structure, the earth is structurally open but organizationally closed; maintaining itself by continuously exchanging matter with its environment by continuously discharging excess waste out of the atmosphere and by filtering sufficient energy to maintain life processes.


So how does general systems theory apply to humanity? Bertalanffy (1972) said: “Social science is the science of social systems” (p. 195). Granted, man seems to introduce some new variables that might be limited or non-existent in biological and ecological systems, like consciousness, values, choice, culture, and other characteristics. However, Bertalanffy proposed that humanity presents the “widest possible application of the systems idea” (p. 195). Whereas natural science deals with physical entities, social science deals with “human beings and their self-created universe of culture” (197). In addition, the values of humanity “transcend the sphere of the physical world”.

Bertalanffy offered the biological organism as a metaphor to explain how organizations are complex open systems, a concept that was later applied for organizational development practice by Katz and Kahn (1966) and other practitioners. The organization-as-organism metaphor shows how the internal components and subsystems dynamically interact within the organizations boundaries to maintain the organization and assure survivability, while the organization continuously exchanges resources with and adapts to its environment. The concept of open systems is considered an “anchor” of organizational behavior (McShane & Von Glinow, 2005).

The anchor is represented as a dynamic process of input, process, and output. The organization imports sustenance from the environment while influencing the environment through its output. The organization consists of interrelated subsystems comprised of individuals, groups and processes dynamically interacting to maintain the organization within its competitive environment. If the organization exists as a monopoly in a static competitive environment, the internal processes can be maintained at a steady state.

However, as the competitive environment becomes increasingly dynamic, the internal people and processes must increasingly enhance productivity, innovation, and adaptation so the organization can survive. As an interrelated web of relationships, change that happens to an individual, group, or subsystem within the organizational system or to any variable outside of the organization can have unplanned and unintended consequences throughout the organization, as follows:


Exploring key concepts in general systems theory illuminates that the systems perspective not only applies to all systems, it also provides a basis for understanding the process of life.


Bertalanffy, L. V. (1972). The history and status of general systems theory. Academy of Management Journal , 15 (Dec), 407-425.

Capra, F. (1996). The web of life. New York: Anchor Books.

Jex, S. M. (2002). Organizational psychology: A scientist-practitioner approach. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York, NY: Wiley.

Lovelock, J. (2005) What is Gaia? Extracted on September 27, 2009 from

McShane, S. L., & Von Glinow, M. A. (2005). Organizational behavior: Emerging realities for the workplace revolution (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Wilber, K. (2000). A brief history of everything. Boston, MA: Shambhala.