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What are Systems?

What are Systems?

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the basic structure that underlies all systems, including human groups and organizations.

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To better understand conflict, it's helpful to look at more than just individual interactions between people, but to also examine systems, human systems. Because as human beings, we gather into groups, and those groups are part of systems. All systems have structures, basic structures and dynamics that affect how they function. And in human systems, sometimes those dynamics can be the impetus for conflict. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you more about systems.

Let's start by examining what a system is. All systems, of course, exist to give us a product or a service. We could call that the output. The input or the ingredients, whatever that might be, and the output would be the product or service. And there are components within a system that do this. Let's take a look at a very common system that we're all familiar with to some extent, and that would be the circulatory system, the vascular system in our own body.

Here's a very rough drawing, very basic drawing. In red, you see the heart and veins and the arteries here. Of course, the circulatory system exists as a system to bring nutrients from our food and oxygen from the air we breathe. So the input here is the food and the oxygen, and it comes in through other systems in the body. I think we all know the respiratory and the digestive system. The digestive system does things to the food so that by the time it gets into this system here, into the arteries and veins and circulates through the body, it's become nutrients, things that we need for health.

So how does this all work? Well, we know the heart, of course, is the central organ here. It's the pump. And there's basically two pumps here. There is one set of pumps that's the upper chambers of the heart. The heart has four chambers. They call that the pulmonary chamber, because these arteries pump blood into the lung, and the veins come back. So if you think about this, all this part of the system does is take blood out of the heart into the lungs, get oxygen from the lungs, bring it back into the heart, back and forth, back and forth.

This section down here, the lower chambers of the heart, take the blood from the heart and all throughout the body. If this is our body, it takes it through the entire body back and forth, circulates it. So there are components here. This is a system made up of a set of components. In this case, it's the heart, the veins, the arteries, and then of course, off the arteries we have capillaries. These components behave in a particular way. I've showed you here a little bit about how they behave. Of course, it's much more complex than this. And there's a sequence of events that lead to an outcome.

And it's all very beautifully done here when it works well. When each of these components-- they have a particular behavior, whatever it is-- when it's working, it works absolutely very fantastically and brilliantly. We don't have to think about it. Because these parts are all interconnected, it means that if something goes wrong with one part-- for example, you have a clogged artery-- it's going to affect everything else. Or the heart doesn't beat quite right, it's going to obviously affect the whole system.

So there's interconnectivity here between all the components, and there's a structure. The structure here is the relationship between all these parts. So this is almost like a superhighway in here working almost miraculously on its own. But these components, each have a job. They behave in a particular way, and they're connected.

This is true in human systems as well. The same elements are operating. So if this is like a superhighway we don't even have to think of, airports are also a travel system. And we as humans are the components within that system. And there are a lot of components that have to work together in order to make this system work.

Here are just a few of those elements. And we have all probably been in airports and traveled. We know there's security, baggage claim, ticket agents, then you've got your gate agents, pilots, flight attendants. Of course, you're not going to go anywhere without air traffic control. And you still need mechanics to make sure the planes are ready to fly. All of these people are really components. There's a structure here, relationships between these parts, and there's interconnectivity. If there should be anything that happens with one of these parts of this system, it's going to affect the whole system. It's going to affect the whole system. In fact, we may not even go anywhere.

So we can see how this is a system just like our vascular system. Let's bring this home to where we may work-- maybe in an office, a small team. And our team that we're working with is also a system. Let's say you have to give a presentation on some important project that you've just completed. You were waiting for the research here. The researcher has to get back with the information here that's going to go into the presentation. There are a couple of writers who are putting together different sections of the presentation. They're handing it off to you for review and editing. Then you're going to put it into PowerPoint, and you want somebody on staff to look at that PowerPoint and make it look nice. And then you're going to deliver the presentation, and you need IT to make sure there's a projector and a laptop.

You can tell there's a whole lot of components involved here to make this system operate. There's a structure here, relationship between these individuals. There is input the research, output your presentation. It's all interconnected. And if something goes wrong at any point in this system, things might not go so well. So if there's a conflict with one of the writers, or let's say the researcher does not get the research to you on time and there's conflict-- conflict here at any part of this system is going to slow the system down and definitely would be an opportunity for conflict resolution.

So in conflict resolution, we can talk about decomposing a system, which is the process of analyzing a system and seeing it as a collection of subsystems, all these parts working together. And that could be very helpful in looking at what might be troubling the system, what might be making it less efficient than it could be. So a subsystem, of course, is a system that's part of a larger system. And all of these systems we've talked about are, of course, part of larger systems.

That's just a basic introduction to systems. Thank you for joining me, and I look forward to next time.

  • Components

    The specific elements that make up a given system.

  • System

    A set of components whose behaviors affect one another causing a sequence of related events leading towards an outcome (transformation of inputs into outputs).

  • Structure

    The set of relationships between components and their behaviors within a system.

  • Behavior

    The action of a given component within a system.

  • Inputs

    The "ingredients" put through a system to be transformed into "product" (outputs).

  • Outputs

    The "product" created from the impact of a system on "ingredients" (inputs).

  • Interconnectivity

    The influences of behavior of system components on each other.

  • Decompose

    The process of analyzing a system as a collection of smaller sub-systems and components.

  • Sub-System

    A system which serves as a component of a larger system.