Systems Theory

Systems are widely recognised as structures consisting of a number of interdependent components or elements. These elements influence or affect each other in a continuous manner and as a result enable the functioning of the system as a whole. Such elements are not only physical constructs, such as automated robotics in a manufacturing line, but can also represent a set of procedures, rules or principles in a management or governing system. Systems are mostly known by the characteristics of inputs, outputs and mechanisms for feedback. Furthermore, systems maintain homeostasis (a state of steadiness), regardless of the external environment experiencing change. Systems also reflect emergent properties, detected in the system as a whole, but not in the individual components.

Homeostatic Control System  (Copyright © 2013 Pearson Education Inc.)

Systems theory is seen by many as the predecessor and foundation of complexity theory. Systems theory dealt with the ideas of complexity, self-organisation and adaptation before the existence of complexity theory. Hence, “the interpretation of complexity depend upon the concept of a system” (Systems Academy). Cybernetics was also found to be closely related to systems theory and studies predominantly control and communications systems. The Austrian theoretical biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, is recognised as one of the originators of the field of systems theory, mainly through the advancement of his work known as general systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968). He also realised the “potential to develop a general science of organised complexity” (Laszlo and Krippner, 1998:5).


Laszlo, A. and Krippner, S. (1998).  ‘Systems Theories: Their origins, foundations, and development’, in Systems Theories and A Priori Aspects of Perception, J.S.Jordan (ed.), Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Von Bertalanffy, L. (1968).  General system theory: Essays on its foundation and development, rev. ed. New York: George Braziller.

Additional Systems Theory text in Further Reading