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System Theory Application

The proper application of system theories is critical when consulting, counseling, or coaching in organizations. system theory

The purpose of a diagnosis is to identify existing problems within an organization.  The ability to identify issues and concerns is the first step of implementing change. This discussion will consist of an overview of relevant system theories, the appropriate way that these theories should be implemented and applied when acting as an agent of change within an organization, and the role of consultant during the change process.

System Theories Overview:

Organizational levels need to be analyzed to be successful as an agent of change.  Understanding system theories is imperative so that proper analysis and diagnoses can be achieved.  However, one needs to remember that system theories have remained largely theoretical.  Understanding social systems within an organization is also vital to the success of organizational change.

Argyris (1960) identified three internal forces in organizational behavior.  Changes in organizations can be created at all levels.  These problems can exist in upper-level positions and can range from behavioral problems or policy issues. Three external forces identified are demographic changes, changes in technology and external market change. These changes within an organization will require an agent of change to work on three different levels; individual level change, group level change, and systems level change.  These different levels of change will also include stages of change such as incremental and evolutionary change, transformational change, and radical or disruptive change.

Incremental change occurs during procedural change processes, small change, and a transformational change occurs when improving direction, external environment conditions, or the organizational mission, vision, and goals.  Implementing radical change indicates that change is needed in all aspects of the business.  Identifying the necessary system and social levels within the organization will be required to implement any new policies and processes.  Frequently discussed system theories are open system and socio-technical systems.

System Theories:

Open System Theory

The definition of an open system is that a system will continue to interact with the environment to which the system is exposed (citation). Continued interaction with the environment is required for an open system a closed system does not meet this criteria.  Human systems are open and dependent upon a continued relationship with environment across all boundaries.

According to Galbraith, Downey, and Kates (2002) an open system can be associated with an open fields, or the ocean versus a secure location that requires penetration to gain access.  Closing off the environment is considered to be the most significant difference when diagnosing an open and closed system creating a breakdown in communication.

Socio-Technical Theory

Galbraith et al. (2002) then examined many system theories used today within organizations.  Galbraith et al. determined that socio technical systems are modeled to consider the needs and requirements for technology.  The model also considers the individual components necessary for the employee performing the task.  This model is based on communication and the decision making process involves all employees.  Decisions are made using a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach creating a self-managed team environment. The socio-technical theory involves input and buy-in from all members of the organization ensuring that open lines of communication and a respect for individual opinion exists.

Application of System Theories

Chris Argyris (1960) concluded that incongruence between what people think and how people act can create conflict in the workplace diminishing moral and commitment.  Because of the truth in Argyris’s theory it is important that application of system theories involves possessing an understanding of the internal mechanisms that organizations employ.

Cummings and Worley (2010) identified internal mechanisms as systems that create differentiation by creating sub-systems creating specialty groups that separate taks by job description and function.  Also discussed are internal mechanisms that will create integration within the organization. Understanding these roles and establishing this method of empowerment will create communication and long-term working relationships (citation).

According to Alderfer (1976), organizational diagnosis is a process based on behavioral science theory for publicly entering a human system. The purpose of a diagnosis is to identify if change is needed.  To achieve positive results the agent of change must use the appropriate models and tools to ensure proper diagnoses of systems.

Process Models for Change:

Action Research Cycle, Force Field Analysis Modelorganization-change-developementkurt-kewins-contribution-to-od-5-638

Agents of change use process models to organize and plan change.  One example of a is Lewin’s force field analysis and action research cycle, the primary theory this model possesses is assuming that organizations operate in a stable state.   Other researchers such as Daft (2011) also stated that this assumption could be considered a flaw in this model.

Lewin’s process to assess if change is needed  is to unfreeze, change, and freeze (citation).  There are six assumptions of Lewin’s model for change. ARC and Force Field Analysis are used when major change is needed to overcome conflict and resistance to change.  This model is needed when major change is required long term.  The step in the ARC model that one potentially could face an ethical issue or encounter misuse of data is the data gathering preliminary diagnoses step.  Problem identification is why having general knowledge of the organizations structure, systems, and sub-systems is crucial for any agent of change.

Star Modelgalbraith

Galbraith’s Star model s a model used to assess and design appropriate intervention strategies.  The Star Model process is based on strategic framework and works to ensure that leaders understand the framework and have the necessary tools to execute the organizations change strategy.  According to Galbraith (2002), “Strategy is the cornerstone of this design process.  If the strategy is not clear or agreed upon by leadership, there are no criteria on which to base other design decisions.  Without knowing the goal, it is impossible to make rational choices along the way.” (p. 2)

The four phases of Galbraith’s design process is:

  • Top executives determine design framework
  • Broader leadership team designs new organizations
  • Steering Committee develops the details with groups of employees/workshops
  • Whole organization implements the new design

Once the framework has been designed the leadership team can strategize the new mission, vision, goals.  At this time, the members of the team can begin to implement a change process that will include the new procedures, roles, relationships, and goals.  Galbraith’s plan includes researching the following subject matter:

  • Designing around the customer
  • Organizing across borders
  • Making a matrix work
  • Solving the centralization or decentralization issues
  • Organizing for innovation

The Role of the Consultant:

Drucker (2008) described an ethical dilemma of self, a dilemma of competence and confidence as a major concern for agents of change regardless of the capacity that the agent is working in, consulting, counseling, or coaching in organizations.  Drucker and Daft (2011) concurred that the primary problem with consulting is problem identification, what is wrong versus what is right, and that a successful agent of change will work themselves out of a job.

Cummings and Worley (2008) identified marginality as the skill the consultant, counselor or coach must possess to remain neutral and keep an open mind.  It is very important that one remains neutral and does not make his or her personal opinion known.  One must remain neutral to be effective. Daft (2011) described successful leaders, consultants, counselors, or coaches as those individuals who possess the ability to reduce anxiety, create differentiation, and create integration.

Lowman (2002) suggested that consultant competency is very challenging.  There are many possible consequences for not properly assessing readiness for change.  One needs to possess the ability to accurately identify the willingness of the employees to implement a change process, if leaders, consultants, counselors, or coaches do not accurately identy this major issue conflict will arise within various department of the organization.  People cannot be forced to change.


Daft (2011) indicated that measuring and evaluating outcomes is the only way to measure successful change.  Drucker (2008) suggested that questions to be answered over the next 12 to 18 months would consist of was the appropriate model used, did the intervention make a difference, did the intervention strategies produce the intended results, and were the stated outcomes realistic and achieved.  Feedback of these results should occur with the consultant, counselor, or coach until the desired outcomes are reached.  By incorporating different aspects of different models one creates a viable plan to meet the needs of the organization. Consultants, counselors, and coaches use models to organize when diagnosing decreasing the margin for error.  Models help to organize and incorporate data, and provide a common language for the consultant, counselor, or coach, and client.  The “bottom line about how to change” is that people support what they help to create!

Veronica Emilia Nuzzolo, MBA, MAOP

Alderfer, C. P. (1976),  Boundary relations and organizational diagnosis. In H. Meltzer & F. R.
Wickert (Eds.), Humanizing organizational behavior (pp. xx-xx). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
Argyris, Chris, (1960), Understanding organizational behavior, The Dorsey Press Inc.,Homewood, Illinois
Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G., (2008), Organization development and change. (9th ed.) South-Western Cengage learning.
Daft, R. (2011), The leadership experience. (5th ed.). Mason: South-Western Cengage learning.
Drucker, P.F. (2008) The effective executive: The definitive guide to getting the right things done. City, ST: HarperCollins Publishers.
Galbraith, J., Downey, D., & Kates, A. (2002). Designing dynamic organizations: A hands-on guide for leaders at all levels. New York: AMACON.

How to cite this article:
Nuzzolo, V. E., (2016).  System Theory Application.  Retrieved from

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