Personnel Management, Organizational Development and Synergetics

Abstract of the lecture of

Bernd RUNDE
University of Osnabrück (Germany)

Abstract of the lecture at the 10th Scientific Convention of the
Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA)
Vienna/Austria, March 1997

Theoreticians and practitioners continually present new arguments addressing the possibility of planning processes in organizations. Sceptics doubt that it is possible to predict processes and structures of organizations, or to plan goal oriented organizational changes. They call into question thereby the very essence of planning behavior in organizations. Systems theories strive for different emphases. What therein is relevant? The focus of this lecture, without being able to go into detail about every relevant concept from systems theory, will primarily be the concept of Synergetics.

1. Developmental branches of systems theory

Although the concept of cybernetics (introduced by N. WIENER in 1948 in the U.S.A. and VON HOLST in 1950) has currently fallen out of fashion, it remains the point of departure for the development of concepts which address the question of how patterns of order can originate at all in complex systems. In the last decades cybernetics has become divided into differing sub-disciplines, out of which two primary directions remain significant.

One direction describes the theory of information which in this connection plays a rather subordinate role; the second, more important direction is represented by theories of controlling and regulating out of which the known approaches have crystallized. The common thread in all approaches is the central concept of the system.

In speaking of systems, two characteristics common to all definitions are pertinent: a.) elements are distinguishable within systems, and b.) these elements exist in meaningful relation to each other. As one can, for example, bring elements into purely formal connections, the point here is broadly conceptualized criterion to order intellectually according to similarities, symmetries, fits, etc. (the Periodic Table, delusional system, and so on). In all of these cases the conceptual system is intended as an abstract scheme with which the observer brings order to his perceptions and ideas. A "meaningful connection" can, however, also exist in the fact that the elements are causally integrated; accordingly, the connection is not merely grounded subjectively by the observer, but, rather is palpably encountered as a real catagory, (central nervous system, reticular or endocrine system). Also, an organism, group, or a worker in his place of employment would be systems in this concrete sense, "real systems", as they are called.

The concepts which are subsumed under the label systems theory, are at all times engaged with real systems, which, accordingly, makes the following system definition possible:
System = a concrete section out of the physical reality within which interactions occur and processes are played out. Perhaps the expedience of my explication--my extensively working out this definition--is not yet clear for all. At this point my explication serves solely the possibility of showing that systems theoretical emphases emerging from this definition are applicable in organizations.

What then are the different spurs emerging from systems theory approaches:
*chaos theory
*concepts of self organization
*autopoiesis

Due to the extremely complex and dynamic structure of communication, all of these approaches lead one to a sceptical estimation of the possibility of planning actions in organizations! Planability, goal oriented dealings and success are nothing more than myths. Managers use such linguistic constructions and offer mutual confirmation of their interpretation in order to bring to light the meaning of their managing role. In this way, they construct their reality. And, certainly, aspects of these approaches are in part pertinent, so that the unstable, chaotic and unsteerable dynamic social systems may not be described with conventional, linear models--which in turn call out for a new development of methods and theories to explain and analyse such phenomena. But, it would be fatal were we-- being fascinated by such "butterfly effects"--to leave stable and predictable structures unexamined.

Blood circulation, breathing, movement and the achievement of living creatures can remain very stable even in complex and dynamic environmental conditions, as should be apparent in the following: Let us think of a small evolutionary excurse. Only those evolutionary species which were capable of successfully self-organizing appropriate nourishment from their environment could survive. Species which had at their disposal many faceted and flexible adaptive--organizational--learning capabilities could, due to these capabilities, better assert themselves in the search for food. In this connection, language proved helpful to human beings; language which was consciously used to influence and steer other human beings. Through language goals could be clarified, work tasks assigned, and rules for communal living communicated. Such rules function extraordinarily precisely and stably. Human beings have a certain self organizing competence to achieve stable and predictable performance results in spite of continual small interruptions (for example, by planning gaps in one's schedule); or, to put it another way, they can compensate for butterfly effects--a fact which is all too often neglected. The coin has already been indicated on the second page in this connection, wherein the system conditions alternate between phases of instable chaos and stable order.

Energies or processes which are responsible for the final construction of order are designated attractors in the chaos theory of natural science. Our thesis, then, is that in the scope of organizational development, as well as in measures taken in personell management, a function in the organization which is analagous to an attractor is taken over by influential and competent inividuals. The argument is this: constructivist systems analyses and team concepts to date have neglected the compensatory self organizing capability of work groups in response to the additional capabilities of single individuals functioning as production oriented models. There is now, nonetheless, a concept of systems theories which is capable of delivering concepts which may help us describe the changes and developments in organizations, without becoming completely sceptical -- this is Synergetics.

The basic principles of Synergetics are easily clarified in light of the example of Benard-Convection. In this case a liquid is heated from underneath. Following a temperature difference between the bottom and top surface, a macroscopic movement of the liquid begins in accordance with a specially ordered pattern. The molecules move in such a way that a rolling movement within the liquid becomes identifyable. Because of the increase in temperature, the liquid expands and the specific weight of the single molecules decreases, which results in an upward movement of the liquid elements. Up until a certain temperature, the upward movement can not overcome the internal friction. The liquid remains, therefore, in a macroscopic resting condition, notwithstanding fluctuations. One can represent the potential, i.e. the energy of a macroscopic body yet to be transformed into movement, with a mountain.

The system structure is recorded along the X axis, (the exact scale of which need not further interest us here; in general this is n-dimensional), with which we understand the totality of all of the macroscopic characteristics which become transformed when potential energy performs its work. The potential system energy is recorded as a variable along the Y axis; accordingly, the macroscopically organized and consequential potential energy can produce conditions, whereby it is important that the unorganized energy can produce thoroughly organized macroscopic conditions. The drop of grease on the surface of a soup Bs formed, for example, through just such transformations of energy. The potential landscape of one such ball (which should reflect back upon the systems condition), shows that in spite of fluctuations within the liquid, i.e. in spite of the distraction of these balls, they return over and over again to a stable condition of rest.

When, however, a critical difference in temperature is exceeded, the driving power prevails. An instable balance is reached in which the liquid molecules, warmed from below, push upwards and the yet cold liquid elements push downnward due to their greater weight. As a consequence, configurations of rolling movements in the liquid are "tested", with the goal of coming to the best possible elevation of heat, wherein the movement or "mode" which best accomplishes this goal succeeds. As HAKEN (1988) could mathematically derive, it is precisely the rolling movement which fulfills these criterion.

For the analogy of the ball in the mountain landscape, the increase in temperature means that the bottom of the valley becomes increasingly flat and finally, upon exceeding the critical difference, it takes the form of a hill between two valleys. The situation for the ball has then become instable. Nonetheless, there are often numerous such instable conditions in complex systems, not mearly two possibilities.

This process of building structure, as it is postulated by Synergetics, is based finally on four fundamental catagories: the guiding influences of the environment on the system (in the case of Benard, for example, the one-sided heating) are summararily designated as control parameter. The energy introduced from the control parameter is, at least partially, transformed into macroscopic convection. The truly interesting question is why the convection proceeds in an orderly fashion and not turbulently. This effect is based on the quality of the material. At the microscopic level this system is composed of numerous molecular elements, each of which is marked by chemical and kinestetic attributes, and is accordingly subject to macroscopically uncontrollable fluctuations. Each molecule then has a certain path of movement (in English: "mode"); Bischof designates these individual movements, accordingly, as Gestalt sprouts (in German: Gestaltkeime). These modes agitate one another, thus battling for dominance, wherein, most of the modes are repressed, only a few remain. However, the fewer the number of victors, all the more regular is the common pattern of movement which has been formed by them. The dominant modes determine the macroscopic order of the system, and enslave the non-dominant modes; they are accordingly designated ordering parameters.

As the final catagory, the external conditions need to be labelled; in the Benard example, for example, the form of the container. In this case rigid structures determine which material belongs to the system at all, thereby chanelling their interaction. To understand the interaction of these four qualities, one can imagine the four variables in a negative feedback or regulation system. (For example the room temperature with PLANT or REGULATED SYSTEM as the room in which the temperature should be controlled; the GOVERNOR as thermostat; the HOMEOSTATIC VARIABLE as the room temperature; the MANIPULATED VARIABLE as the warmth produced by the heater; the DISTURBANCE VARIABLE as the temperature outside).

I have yet only introduced systems theoretical approaches, and indicated the implications for certain areas which until now have presented a rather pessimistic picture. With Synergetics, however, there is now a concept with the help of which I can conceptualize concrete measures for organizational developmental. This then will be the final part of my lecture.


This is a provisional abstract of the lecture.

Back to conference program 1997 in English.
Zum Tagungsprogramm 1997 in Deutsch.


Click here for a list of on-line abstracts of lectures at the Scientific Conventions of the GTA since 1997

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