What are “open” and “close” systems

Open and closed systems are terms that were coined in physics more specific in thermodynamics. Open systems are systems that their parts can interact with the environment and close systems are systems that their parts can’t interact with the environment.  

In more detail, systems are defined as closed and open based on the ability of the particles and energy to flow in and out of the system. This definition brings a third type of system, an isolated system. Open systems enable both particles and energy to flow in and out (boiling water), closed systems disable the flow of particles, but enable energy flow (pressure cooker), and isolated systems prevent both particles and energy to flow in any direction (thermoflask).

Let’s see how those definitions apply to social systems, such as organizations. The particles are people and groups of people. The energy is any form of data and information that exchange between elements of the social system and the environment. 

Following our definitions, an open social system is a group of people and subgroups that exchange both people and data. A closed system is an organization that prevents the exchange of people but enables the exchange of data. An Isolate social system prevents any exchange of people and data.

In reality, those types of systems are continuous options from “open systems” to “isolate system”. Any point represents a different combination of how a group of people exchanging (add, remove) people and data with the external environment. The external environment is defined as any element outside the boundary of a group of people. We will explore social systems boundaries in one of the upcoming posts. 

The last point that I want to touch before getting into more practical aspects is controlled and uncontrolled systems. In any man-made system, there will always be two different social systems, that we see as one. The formal system is set by people and the informal social system that emerges. Each one of those systems might have a different position on the scale of the social system types we defined above. 

When we want to have an isolated system

Some people (I’m not included) see a need to create an isolated system when they want to protect or prevent any data or information leak in a social system. If they want a group of people to work on new business initiatives that might impact the company, they will create an isolated system. Most of the time isolated social systems will operate in physical isolation.

It’s also common to see more isolated systems when they are dealing with sensitive data. HR, legal and payroll groups are usually common examples of more isolated systems.

when we want to be more close

In a company where people retention is a goal, we’ll see social groups that will be more closed. More closed systems are also common in environments where it takes people a lot of time to learn the business and become productive. When the focus of a company is loyalty, we can expect to have more closed social systems. In all the examples above, the system tries to reduce people coming in and out, but it encourages people to exchange data with the environment.

If you pay a visit to an office and you notice that everyone is looking at the stranger that is walking in the aisles, you are paying a visit to a company with a more closed system.

when we want to be more open

If we want both exchanges of people and data with the environment, we should implement a more open system. For example, companies that have a high ratio of consultants and 3rd party providers are implementing a more open system (compared to the other types above). Companies that replace employees in a certain bottom percentage are implementing a more open system. They might not aware of it, but they are doing it. 

Open systems will try to maximize the flow of people and data in and out of the company. There are many ways to tune a social system to be more open. As mentioned above, there are many variations of open systems. Just a very few will be (by choice) on the left side of our scale.

what’s the reality

Here’s a paradox that nature provides us: the majority of the emergent systems will be open, but the system that holds all other systems (the universe for most of us) is a closed system. As the only system that contains all the rest, it can’t exchange anything because there isn’t any environment to exchange with. 

If you remember, we discussed formal and informal social system. The informal system is an emergent system, and it is an open system. This system adds externals, even if they are not part of the formal structure. Emergent social systems will have different groups that have people from across all the formal structure groups. Informal systems have a continuous flow of people and information.

Since most people in any organization are part of the informal social system, in reality, all organizations have an uncontrolled open system. It really doesn’t matter what the company will try to do in the informal closed or isolated social system, the open informal social system will eventually kick in.

It might take time for the informal open system to populate the information, but eventually, every member of this system will get part of the data (if not all the data). Because this system adds people easily, more people will know the data. 

I just want to remind you that these properties of an open system make them so efficient for getting things done, This is the main reason people are part of those emerging social systems.

What does a leader need to do?

As a leader of groups, you have two options. If you can set the type of the group, you have the option of sticking to open groups, learning how to work with their advantage and disadvantage, and tuning to people and data that are joining and leaving the group. It’s easier to recommend this change than to implement it. It’s much more easy to operate more closed or isolated systems.

If you don’t have the authority to change a group system, you can still focus on the informal system. The informal system will give you signs if the type of system you required to maintain is deteriorating and some activities need to take place. 

So here’s another daily activity every leader should do, but I doubt it that even 10% of leaders are doing it today. In a controlled social system, there is an importance to the type of the system each group is operating according to. If no one is thinking on the system type, maintain it, or change it when needed; no one is maintaining any order. With no effort to put an order, entropy will take over.


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