978-1319052348 Chapter 4

Document Type
Homework Help
Book Title
Organizational Communication: Balancing Creativity and Constraint 8th Edition
Angela Trethewey, Eric M. Eisenberg, Marianne LeGreco
The Systems Perspective on Organizations and Communication
Chapter 4 introduces the systems approach to organizations, which is one of the most dominant metaphors in
organizational research and practice. The systems metaphor, which borrows several ideas and concepts from the
life sciences, develops a view of organizations as living organisms or biological systems. Unlike the machine
metaphor utilized in earlier perspectives, the focus of the systems approach is not on individual parts or people,
but instead on relationships or connections between the parts and people. Those scholars who use systems theo-
ry believe in the openness and complexity of social life. In systems theory, communication is viewed as the pro-
cess that creates relationships and meanings and thus is central to the effectiveness of the total organization.
Unlike previous conceptions that focused on downward/upward or lateral movements of messages, systems the-
ories treat communication as the organizing locus of organizational structures and functions. Systems theory
brings to light the interdependencies within organizations, and at the same time it risks dehumanizing the indi-
viduals who make up the system. Perhaps the most important concept to take away from this chapter involves
the process of sense making through enactment, selection, and retention. Chapter 4 ends with a fresh look at
systems theories by examining modern-day applications of the study of policy communication.
Explain how the basic principles of the life sciences, particularly biology, provided the basic concepts
on which systems theory was founded.
Explain how the survival of a system depends on all the processes of all the components rather than
solely on one process or one part.
Provide a basic definition for concepts such as system, distributed intelligence, environmental scan-
ning, and interdependence.
Define feedback, and identify and differentiate between the two types of feedback.
Understand the notion of equifinality and the principles of contingency theory.
Explain the processes of sense making and its attendant concepts of enactment, selection, and retention.
Discuss the work of Peter Senge and Karl Weick.
Discuss the importance of policy communication within an organization.
Teaching systems theory can be a bit challenging due to its inherent complexity. Make the theory easier to grasp
by being consistent in terminology and sticking with the metaphor of organizations as organisms or living sys-
tems. Compare systems theory to human body parts:
1. The parts of a system are interdependent. A functioning system cannot independently maximize its dif-
ferent parts. For example, the human heart cannot just decide it is going to pump up to 400 rpm.
2. An organism is an open system and must interact with its environment. Humans must breathe, eat, and
excrete, or we will die. Like bodies, organizations must be open and interact with their environments or
they will die.
3. According to systems theory, there is no “one best way” to organize. Organizations are contingent on
changing environments. Likewise, different bodies adapt to different climates and cultures.
Exercise 1
The opening pages of Chapter 1 in Karl Weick’s The Social Psychology of Organizing offer several scenarios to
illustrate processes and practices of sense making. Select some of these scenarios and read them for your stu-
dents. Ask them to apply the concepts of enactment, selection, and retention to the scenario. Engage in a discus-
sion about retrospective sense making. Do we really follow specific plans for action, or do we make sense of
what we do after we “see what we say”?
Exercise 2
Have students read the What Would You Do? box titled “Locavores, Sustainability, and Systems.” Have stu-
dents consider the terms locavore and carbon footprint and the impact that these terms are having on the ways
in which we organize our eating practices. In small groups, ask your students to identify some of their own eat-
ing practices. See if students can identify where their foods were produced. Are there opportunities for them to
reorganize the ways they eat based on the ideas explored in this box?
Exercise 3
Communication scholars such as Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Sarah Tracy, and Jess Alberts have used drawing as a
way to get participants to talk about complex organizational communication phenomena such as workplace bul-
lying. Use a similar strategy to get students to think about systems theory at their own college, university, or
Ask students to use elements such as interdependence, feedback, openness, and coopetition to draw their college
or university as a system diagram. Ask them to think about how parts of their campus, such as the offices of
student affairs, housing, parking, registration, athletics, etc., are all parts of an integrated system that enable
them to take classes. Engage students in a discussion of the similarities and differences in their drawings. Also,
ask them to consider which parts of the system they chose to prioritize in their drawings and what their priori-
ties say about their institution (and their own place in the system).
Exercise 4
The “Crisis in the Zion Emergency Room” case study at the end of Chapter 4 is a wonderful way for students to
use their new knowledge regarding the systems approach to play the role of consultant for a day. The case in-
formation is quite short and can be read easily during class time. If time allows, have students break into smaller
work groups and work through the questions and situations that are given at the end of the case. After each
group has had sufficient time to coordinate a response, it may be interesting to open up into a full class discus-
sion. Be sure to ask each group for input. Emphasize the similarities and differences of the answers and how the
systems approach, and most things in life, are open to interpretation and can lead different groups to different
solutions or ideas.
Exercise 5
Place students in groups and instruct them to review the materials about Honest Tea, Coopetition, and Barry
Nalebuff provided in the Online Resources section for this chapter. Ask students to find as many things in the
Honest Tea story that are an application of coopetition.
Exercise 6
Have students review the Peter Senge videos introducing learning organizations. Peter Senge notes that learning
organizations are unique because of their system thinking, personal mastery, flexible mental models, shared
vision, and team learning.” Apply this concept to the movie Now You See Me 2, listed below under Classroom
Media Resources.
Taking exercises online: Many of these suggested exercises can be made digital for those teaching hybrid or
online classes. Simply conduct discussions on your online forum, discussion boards, or course management
systems. In particular, Exercises 1, 2, 4, and 6 lend themselves to this conversion.
How Do You Define a Learning Organization? (2015, 5:38 minutes, Not Rated). Peter Senge, author of The
Fifth Discipline, suggests we “jettison the jargon and look at learning organizations as organizations where eve-
ryone works together successfully.’”
Now You See Me 2 (2016, 169 minutes, Rated PG-13). The Four Horsemen are performing illusionists who cre-
ate diversions to accomplish heists. This is an illustration of Senge’s learning organizations where people work
together to accomplish goals.
Ocean’s Thirteen (2007, 162 minutes, Rated PG-13). For many students, watching the Ocean’s Eleven movie
franchise is a real “aha” moment where they start seeing the relevance and importance of organizational com-
munication. The films provide an excellent depiction of interdependence; the concepts of enactment, selection,
and retention; and the general principles of systems theory. The plots follow eleven, twelve, or thirteen individ-
uals as they network to pull off heists. Ocean’s Thirteen continues as the third in the movie trilogy about the
same organization.
The Office: “The New Boss” (2009, Season 5, Episode 17, 22 minutes, Rated TV-14). This episode of the
award-winning workplace comedy focuses on different management and communication styles when a new
boss arrives at the Dunder Mifflin paper company. The episode also demonstrates concepts associated specifi-
cally with the systems approach.
Peter Senge Introduction to Systems Thinking (2014, 2:20 minutes, Not Rated)
(https://youtu.be/eXdzKBWDraM). Peter Senge is the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning. Sen-
ge briefly introduces the idea of systems thinking.
Storm Chasers: Judgment Day (2010, Season 4, Episode 8, 44 minutes, Rated TV-PG). This documentary series
follows different groups of meteorologists and semiprofessional storm chasers as they search for tornadoes dur-
ing the late spring and early summer months. This particular series follows teams who are working to develop a
better scientific understanding of storms. This episode provides a nice illustration of the concepts of interdepend-
ence, flexibility and adaptability, coopetition, and contingency as the chasers work to track down “the Perfect
Barry Nalebuff, PhD: Co-Author of Co-opetition, Ivy League Professor, Game Theory Expert
(https://youtu.be/6KlBf6mJPj4). This video reveals the theory of coopetition.
CIW Entrepreneurship: Barry Nalebuff, "Mission in a Bottle" (https://youtu.be/V17RYNfwIZ0). At a Chicago
conference, Barry Nalebuff explains how his product Honest Tea was created and discusses his application of
coopetition within the beverage industry while he created his start-up.
Making Systems Thinking Sexy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1fcYefOHN4). This TED talk, from Eli
Stefanski of the Business Innovation Factory, addresses ways to keep systems thinking fresh and important,
especially for innovation junkies out there.
Mission in a Bottle: The Story of Honest Tea (http://missioninabottle.net/). Mission in a Bottle offers an account
of a real-world experience with coopetition. This interesting website features the story in cartoons.
Society for Organizational Learning (http://www.solonline.org).This site is the home of an intentional online
community that includes organizations and individuals who want to create collaboratively. Peter Senge is the
founding chairperson of this society, and the site features some of his most recent papers, talks, and other online
Systems Management Theory (http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/systems-management-theory.html).
This online resource features a short lesson and video about systems theory. The site provides a basic definition
of what a system is, explains how systems work and function within an organization, and distinguishes between
the types of systems. The video itself offers a lighthearted illustration of the systems approach in ways that are
accessible to students.
Tight vs. Loose Coupling Organizational Structure (http://smallbusiness.chron.com/tight-vs-loose-coupling-
organizational-structure-69016.html). Karl Weick’s tight and loose coupling concepts are applied to a sandwich
What’s Wrong with Our Food System (http://www.ted.com/talks/birke_baehr_what_s_wrong_with_our_
food_system.html). This TED talk, given by an eleven-year old boy, addresses systemic problems surrounding
the ways in which we grow and eat food. Students can apply the concepts of systems theory to examine where
communication might also play a role in our food systems. This site pairs nicely with Exercise 2 and the What
Would You Do? box in Chapter 4.
What are the key contributions made by the systems perspective? What are the challenges and opportu-
nities provided by this approach?
Explain the two main advantages to modeling organizations after living systems.
What are some examples of open systems as opposed to closed systems?
What role does coopetition play in maintaining a healthy work environment?
How is interdependence an essential quality of a system? How might the division of labor have an im-
pact on the perception of interdependence within an organization?
What makes feedback so important to organizational communication? How might some feedback prac-
tices, such as “counter-networking” and negative feedback, seem counterintuitive to assumptions that
you might have about organizations?
Explain the concept of retrospective sense making. Identify and explain at least three out of the seven
“properties of sense making” proposed by Karl Weick.
What advantages does the systems approach have over previous theories that we have studied?
systems approach Emphasizes the difference between a disconnected set of parts versus
a collection of parts that work together to create a functional whole.
general systems theory Applies the properties of living systemssuch as input, output,
boundaries, homeostasis, and equifinality (the idea that there is more
than one right way to accomplish the same goal)to a wide array of
social phenomena.
distributed intelligence All members of a systembe they people or cellsare important to
the ongoing self-organization of a system.
boundary spanner A member of a system who has regular opportunities to interact with
people outside of the organization.
coopetition A blend of cooperation and competition.
open-systems theory The notion that an organization relies on interaction with a larger
environment just as living organisms rely on food and air.
interdependence The wholeness of the system and its environment and the interrela-
tionships of individuals within the system.
goal There are many views on goals. From a systems perspective, goals
are interdependent and negotiated among organizational members.
feedback A system of loops that connect communication and action.
equifinality The notion that there is more than one right way to accomplish the
same goal.
learning organization According to Peter Senge, learning organizations are unique because
of their systems thinking, personal mastery, flexible mental models,
shared vision, and team learning.
retrospective sense making Karl Weick’s argument that although people in organizations think
that they plan first and then act according to plan, they actually act
first and later examine their actions in an attempt to explain their
loosely coupled Communication connections among people in organizations that are
often of weak intensity.
partial inclusion Karl Weick’s notion that certain strategies for motivating employees
are ineffective because employees only display some of their behav-
iors at work and do not reveal all of their characteristics and roles.
How does the systems approach differ from the machine metaphor of classical management theory?
Expand upon the idea that the life sciences, specifically biology, contributed to general systems thinking.
Explain how theorists initially incorporated the systems approach to organizational communication stud-
Define the concept of a system.
Explain the relevance of the environment and open systems within systems theory.
Describe interdependence as an essential quality of a system.
Summarize the role of organizational goals from an open-systems perspective.
Discuss the concept of feedback.
Explain the need for multiple solutions across organizations and the basic principles of
contingency theory.
Discuss the appeal of and the problems with systems theory.
Acquaint your students with the more recent efforts that have been made to revitalize systems theory
in ways that impact organizational communication. Begin with Peter Senge’s work with learning
Explain how Karl Weick and his sense-making model revived systems thinking by connecting it with is-
sues of meaning and communication.
Remind students that systems theory is far more open-ended than earlier organizational approaches and
is highly influential in focusing our attention on the whole organization instead of dissecting it piece by

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