Unlike the classic causality question about the chicken and the egg, the above question has a definitive answer. Interaction always precedes a system. It comes first.
One definition of a system taken from an on-line dictionary is: A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole. While there are many definitions of ‘system’ out there, this one captures what is often meant by a system, especially in organizations. It also illustrates the precondition of interaction in the formation of a system.
What is very interesting however is that in much of the mainstream thinking in organization development, the system is given precedence over the interaction. Even the term ‘systems thinking’ is far more common than ‘interaction thinking’. And yet no system involving people was ever formed or exists outside of the interaction of those people.
One of the most important things systems thinking taught us was that things were related beyond the individual elements involved. That action in one area would have an impact in other areas due to their relatedness and interaction. This enabled us to move away from mechanistic thinking of how organizations worked to a broader and more integrated view. Now we seem to have regressed to focusing so much on the system that this integrated view is reduced to simply a larger individual element. Designing the right organizational system, or understanding the system well enough to make changes that produce predictable results is where, far too often, a systems focus has taken us.
How often have you heard a manager say: “We need to get our performance management system working better?” Or a senior manager say: “We need to get our systems working better if we are going to execute on our strategy?” This is a systems view and it illustrates the subtle shift in thinking that has become so problematic in organization development. The system is considered to be some kind of entity that exists outside of the interactions that cause and sustain it. Indeed, many managers focus on systems design as if the people within them were like cogs in a machine. At a very practical level, a systems focus has led us back to the mechanistic thinking it helped us move away from.
It would be far more valuable I think to ask questions like: “What is the nature of our interactions about performance in our organization?” Or: “How can we most effectively interact with people in and out of our organization to enable our strategy to be realized?” These types of questions place interaction as the primary element of how organizations work. They focus on the real day-to-day happenings of our experience in organizational life. They do not exclude things like a performance management system or the need for other organizational systems but they are placed in a more realistic causal place.
I think the reason a systems focus has led us back to mechanistic thinking is that we have a need for predictability. The very nature of human interaction is unpredictable. When you focus on a system you can subtly separate yourself from the interactions that enable it and make the system primary. You have thus moved away from the unpredictable nature of human interaction. You can focus on the design of the system and pretend you have predictability. Many managers work very, very hard to sustain this false view of what their organization actually is. Indeed, even what their job is.
I think it’s time to take a serious look at what a systems focus is actually doing in our understanding of organizations. When we do take this look, perhaps we can place systems in its real causal place and let interaction become our primary focus.