Stage 2.3   Visualizing The System

Understanding the Client as a System

General systems theory is a very simple way to visualize any entity that is engaged in any action. We can visualize any system by drawing a large circle. We place elements, parts, variables, inside the circle as components, and draw lines among the components. The lines may be thought of as rubber bands or springs, which stretch or contract as the forces increase or decrease. Outside the circle is the environment where we place all external elements that impinge upon the system.

Living systems are continuously engaged in a flow process or exchange with elements in the environment, taking in some, blocking others, while at the same time saving some and letting out other elements from inside. Within the system there is a complex mixing of in-taken elements with other elements already inside and the preparation of new elements to be expressed outward.

Thus, there are three underlying processes that comprise any living system:

  • Input
  • Throughput
  • Output

Although the diagram is greatly oversimplified, it does show the major elements that should be considered in a systematic diagnosis. First of all, it shows the goals as desired "outputs," or products which are generated by the system and dispensed to the greater community. The prime output of an educational system is an educated citizen, a graduate. There are many additional sorts of outputs, some intended and some not. These include providing jobs and incomes to teachers, administrators, maintenance workers, etc. Students also learn a lot of things that are not on the curriculum, such as social and sexual relations, how to manipulate others and the "system" for personal gain including, in some cases, how to commit crime, indulge in drinking and drug taking, and so forth.

Secondly, the diagram shows us a process through which the goals are achieved, namely a "learning environment." This learning environment in turn, is created and sustained by people and resources within the system in addition to some from outside. Three social groups work together to keep this system going: the administration, the teachers, and the students. Thirdly, the diagram shows the system being supplied with a continuous flow of new "inputs" from the greater environment: new ideas, new teachers, new students, and new materials. These inputs are the fuel which allows the system to keep functioning.

With the help of the diagram we can begin to spell out the critical diagnostic questions that emerge from a view of the client as a system. At the broadest level we can ask if this diagram accurately represents the major existing elements (e.g., have we forgotten to include the counselors as a separate element on the staff side, or the African-American students as a separate subculture among students?). Then we can ask if these elements are sufficient for making a system that will achieve the client's stated goals.

  • Are additional elements needed?
  • Are some elements  incomplete? ...undersupplied? ...overloaded?

 Another set of questions could be addressed to the inputs: are there enough inputs? Are the inputs provided in the right proportions? Do the inputs come in a form in which they can be used?

 A third set of questions may be addressed to the internal dynamics of the system: are the three major subsystems really working together? Are the student, teachers, and administrators adequately coordinated? Do they have a clear idea of what their respective roles and functions are? Are they able to communicate freely with one another? Do they trust one another?

 The system view further suggests a fourth set of diagnostic questions. These pertain to the boundaries of the system. A system needs to be seen as separate from the greater culture; it needs to be protected from continuous interruption and interference from outsiders so that it can fulfill its objectives smoothly and regularly. These boundaries or barriers must always be semi-permeable, in other words, partly closed and partly open. They should be designed to prevent some kinds of inputs from interfering with the system, but they must also allow responsiveness to valid needs of the greater culture. Barriers must also be designed to let in needed inputs in sufficient quantity to keep the internal system fully supplied. Therefore, our diagnostic inquiry should include consideration of these barriers.

Barrier questions include the following:

  • Is the system adequately protected?
  • Can it defend itself against attack or exploitation?
  • Conversely, does it get enough stimulation from outside?
  • Does the school get resupplied by skilled and well trained teachers?
  • Does it have a continuous influx of motivated students?
  • Is it able to acquire enough new materials and new ideas?

 This discussion of the client as a system is not a sufficient basis for a full systemic diagnosis, but hopefully it has given you the idea of what we mean by "system." Most change agents will have their own favorite way to describe the functioning of their client, and, as we have noted previously, several different approaches are probably valid and useful. The important thing is to look at the client as a totality, a functioning organism whose parts have a definable and meaningful relationship to one another.



"The classroom teacher is not an independent professional, much learning environment, by inspirational literature contrary not withstanding. He is instead one member of the staff of a stable institution. His behavior reflects his position." Brickell 4

 "Given the intersystem nature of the school, long lasting innovations may require not only system-wide involvement in the change process, but also careful work on linkages among the system, other socialization agencies and other key community groups." Miles 5

Figure 2-2  EXAMPLE: What does an educational system look like? 

Figure 2.3 General System

Generic In-put Problems

Financial input: not enough to keep system going and healthy; not enough to provide the flexibility to innovate
Recruitment of new members, highly qualified staff
Inadequate training of members
Not enough new ideas/ too many new ideas
Not enough openness to new ideas, new ways of doing things

Generic  Through-put Problems

Inadequate productivity, creativity
Conflict over mission
Conflict over power relations within the organization
Poor or inefficient integration of different units
Poor communication across levels, top-to-bottom; bottom-to-top
Aging or inadequate technology including ever-advancing IT

Generic Out-put Problems

Quality or quantity of goods and services produced is not what is should be
Image of system projected to is outsiders negative, fuzzy, or misleading
Poor or inadequate linkages to larger community

A long list of problems and opportunities is not enough to give us a clear picture either of a whole person or of a whole organization. That is why we use the word "system" in describing the client. The change agent should try to see ''the client" as a number of people and groups who are interrelated and at least partly interdependent, trying to work together to achieve some common goals.

“Goals” could be defined in systems terms as “desired outputs.” They do not describe the current reality but, rather, the hoped for reality at some point in the future.  As such they are only a part of the total system picture, which could also be described as the current reality. It is the current reality that the change agent is usually tasked to deal with.

In most areas of social endeavor, these goals are not very clearly spelled out, but they are there, nevertheless, and when members of the client system sit down together to talk about their goals, they are usually able to arrive at a consensus on what some of their major goals are. This is a useful exercise and can be used by the change agent as a first step in getting clients to think clearly and diagnostically about their problems. With the goals clearly in mind, the change agent and the client can begin to define the kinds of activities which have to be included and coordinated to achieve those goals. They can start by looking at their "system" as it exists today, and ask themselves if this "system" really achieves these goals. Let us illustrate this by a very simple diagram of a system