The systems approach is an old concept. The approach stands on the assumption that breaking down of a complex concept into simple easy to understand units helps in better understanding of the complexity. Ludwig von Bertalanffy first proposed the systems approach under the name of ‘General System Theory’.
Even though he had orally created the notion of the general systems theory in the 1940’s he formally published it in 1968 (Ludwig von Bertalanffy 1968). He introduced system as a new scientific philosophy and defined it in a formal manner. He noted that most systems (biological or physical) of any practical relevance are open as they interact with the environment. Therefore, to understand the system it has to be differentiated from the environment, i.e., the boundary of the system has to be clearly defined along with its interaction with the environment from within this boundary.
The approach concentrates on the holistic entity of the system without neglecting the components. It attempts to understand the role each component plays in the system while simultaneously understanding the activity of the whole system. Major concepts of the systems approach are:
- Holism: A change in any part/component of a system affects the whole system directly or indirectly (Boulding 1985, Litterer 1973, von Bertalanffy 1968).
- Specialization: A whole system can be divided into granular (smaller easy to understand), components so that the specialized role of each component is appreciated.
- Non-summational: Every component (subsystem/partial system) is of importance to the whole. It is therefore essential to understand the actions of each component to get the holistic perspective (Boulding 1985, Litterer 1973).
- Grouping: The process of specialization can create its own complexity by proliferating components with increasing specialization. To avoid this it becomes essential to group related disciplines or sub-disciplines.
- Coordination: The grouped components and sub components need coordination. Without coordination the components will not be able to work in a concerted manner and will lead to chaos. Coordination and control is a very important concept in the study of systems as without this we will not be a unified holistic concept.
- Emergent properties: This is an important concept of systems approach. It means that the group of interrelated entities (components) has properties as a group that is not present in any individual component. This is the holistic view of a system. For example, multicellular organisms exhibit characteristics as a whole which are not present in individual constituent parts like cells.