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Roger Clarke's 'General Systems Theory, and Open Systems'

General Systems Theory, and Open Systems

Roger Clarke **

Notes of 7 July 2006

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I was astonished to discover that there was nothing on my web-site about General Systems Theory and more specifically about open systems. These ideas are just so fundamental that they're all too easily overlooked. And of course I'd embedded the ideas in my thinking, in the 25 years before I developed this site in the second half of 1994.

So here's a paragraph on systems thinking (extracted from a paper on the history of the information systems discipline in Australia):

Systems Thinking was an important thread in the emergence of the IS/MIS discipline. It drew originally on von Bertalanffy and Boulding and the Society for General Systems Research in the U.S. from the mid-1950s onwards (Mason 2005), Emery, Churchman, Jay Forrester, and Katz & Kahn (1966), and in the UK von Bertalanffy in 1950, and later Peter Checkland. Closely related to this movement was Cybernetics, as pioneered by Norbert Wiener, further developed by Ashby and applied by Stafford Beer. This focussed on the feedback and control aspects of systems. There was much interest in these bodies of theory in Continental Europe as well, centred around the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) conferences in Schloss Laxenburg south of Vienna. The emphases and patterns of development on the two sides of the Atlantic, and within Continental Europe, were rather different, and no history has been located to date that integrates them;

This set of 10 slides provided the basis for a quick overview for new PhD candidates at the European Business School in the Rheingau in 2003. They include the Boulding hierarchy.


Wikipedia on:

Ashby W.R. (1956) 'An Introduction to Cybernetics' Chapman & Hall, 1956, at and Ashby's Wikipedia entry

Beer S. (1972) 'Brain of the Firm' Allen Lane, London, 1972

Beer S. (1975) 'Platform for Change' Wiley, New York, 1975, and Beer's Wikipedia entry, and the entry for Cybersyn

Forrester J. (1961) 'Industrial Dynamics' MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, 1961, and Forrester's Wikipedia entry

Katz D. & Kahn R.L. (1966) 'The Social Psychology of Organizations' Wiley, 1966

Mason R.O. (2005) 'Putting 'Systems' Back into Information Systems: An Essay in Honor of Gordon Davis' Working Paper, May 2005

Mumford E. (1983) 'Designing Human Systems', Manchester Bus. Sch., 1983, and Mumford's Wikipedia entry

von Bertalanffy L. (1968) 'General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications' New York: George Braziller, 1968, and von Bertalanffy's Wikipedia entry

Wiener N. (1948) 'Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine' MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1948, 1961, and Wiener's Wikipedia entry

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.

From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.

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Created: 7 July 2006 - Last Amended: 7 July 2006 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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