Systems Theory 1



Part 1 - How Organisations Work

Part 2- How Organisations Connect

Part 3 - Making Amateur Radio Accessible


by Richard Thomas G4JJP - January 2021

The purpose of Wessex Ham is to make Amateur Radio more accessible to more people, and we are using a Systems Theory approach.

Our project is based on the belief that the traditional access routes are outdated and largely based on closed systems. Society has recently gone through massive changes in the way that people connect with each other to achieve things, and closed systems are not helpful. We think that the access routes to the hobby of Amateur Radio need to change in order to align more closely with the way people connect today.

This article outlines the theory about how organisations work. It tries to explain Systems Theory in easy terms. If you want to understand what Wessex Ham aims to do, or indeed how people today connect with their leisure activities. you will need to understand Systems. 

Let's start by describing a simple system.

Closed Set ChoirOutputs, Roles, Boundaries, Energy, and Systems

A System
A system consists of people taking up roles and using energy to produce a desired output within defined boundaries.  In our example of a choir, you can't have lots of different people at different times wandering in to take on whatever role they like, or just turning up to sing without a voice or rehearsal. A good output depends on each person keeping to their role and maintaining very clear boundaries. 

The purpose of a system is to produce, achieve, or maintain an output. That ‘output’ can be anything from products, beliefs, leisure activities, to family life. In our example, the output is music that's attractive, in tune, in time, follows the rules of the composer, and can be performed. 

The desired ‘outcome’ will require roles that individuals exercise in order to achieve that ‘outcome’. Those roles are determined by the system requirements. For example, a Choir will usually need a Conductor, a Pianist, Singers, and a Composer to provide the music. Each of these is a clearly defined ‘role’, and all of them are needed in order to deliver the ‘Output’ – the music.

 The conductor may be a mechanical engineer at work, or a mother at home.  But the system doesn't need a mother or an engineer: it requires a 'conductor' with the skills for that role.  

When people exercising those roles come together to produce music, they create a very clear boundary to the system. The choir consists of only those people, exercising only those roles, in a specific geographical place, and for a clearly determined and pre-agreed time.  Those things create the system's boundary.  Inside the boundary, those individuals take up roles to create the required output. 

Producing the outputs requires energy from the individuals in the system. That energy may totally directed to producing the desired output, in which case the system is 100% efficient.  But that's unlikely. It takes energy to maintain individual roles. And in a closed system, it takes considerable energy to maintain the boundary. In our example, singers need to be auditioned and chosen, rehearsal time needs to be identified and maintained, and membership needs to be paid for. In disfunctional systems, more energy is used maintaining the system itself than in producing the outputs.  


Closed SystemsChurch
Broadly speaking, there are three different kinds of Systems - Closed, Open, and Centred.

The choir is essentially a 'closed' system. Only those people who take up the described roles, in a specific place and time, can be part of the choir.  The boundary is very clear, and is fixed.

But very few systems are completely closed, and our choir is no exception.  The composer is not a member of the choir, but is providing vital input from 'outside' the system, so the system is permeable (if the composer was a member of the choir and writing music only for that choir, the system would be completely closed). The composer is contributing energy to the system from outside - effectively, energising the system and increasing its efficiency.

Churches as Closed Systems
Other well-defined examples of closed systems are those defined by beliefs. A church, for example, has members who subscribe to a set of beliefs.  You are usually either inside the belief-boundary, or outside it. There is often a defining set of rules - a book, a creed, or a founding principle - that forms the most obvious boundary. If you don't subscribe to the beliefs, you will be 'outside' the boundary of the system.

Clubs as Closed Systems
Many clubs and societies operate as closed systems. Membership is defined by the payment of a subscription. Non-members are called ‘Visitors’. The Club meets at a specific time, in a defined geographical space.  

Problems with Closed Systems
Closed systems can be highly efficient, but usually not for long!  Human nature comes into play, and that generates competition rather than cooperation. Clubs compete with each other for members, reputation, and resources, which diverts energy into maintaining stronger boundaries rather than greater outputs. And because systems are made up of human beings, closed systems almost always generate feelings in the people who encounter them; feelings of superiority in those who are inside; rejection in those who fail to gain entry; fear in those who made to feel uncomforable exploring different systems, beliefs, activities or practices; guilt in those who leave the system. 

Harder boundaries are created, and more and more energy is spent on maintaining those boundaries than on the original desired outputs. So, over time, many closed systems, lacking the challenge and stimulation of external inputs, tend to develop 'covert' aims.  The 'overt' aim might be to promote Amateur Radio, but the 'covert' aim is to maintain things as they always have been - safe, unchallenging, and comfortable. New members feel unwelcome because they challenge the covert aims of the system.

As a result, many closed systems are inherently unhealthy, lack transparency, fail to produce much output, and ultimately end up either fragmenting, stagnating, or dying.


Open SystemOpen Systems

Not all Systems are 'closed'. Some outputs require systems that are 'open'. However, just as very few systems can be completely closed, so too very few systems can be complete open.

One example of an open system is the Amazon online ordering and delivery service.  Theoretically, anthing from one to an infinite number of people can place anything from one to an infinte number of orders through an infinite number of online portals, where an ever-changing group of people process them from a range of different suppliers into anything from one to an infinite number of deliveries.

However, an open system still requires some fixed boundaries.  Amazon doesn't sell everything (though one day it may try). It has warehouses that are geographically fixed. It has a fixed purpose - selling. It has a continuous time line. And it has fixed branding that distinguishes it from others.

But an open system is constantly re-energised by external inputs. New orders, new products, wider deliveries, and changing workers, all bring fresh ideas and energy. 




Open SetsClosed and Open Sets

Systems very rarely operate in isolation from each other.   A choir competition might see different choirs (closed systems) performing to a set of judges who will determine who has the best output. These closed systems combine in a closed set.

In a similar way, an order to Amazon might be bounced from one warehouse to another in order to fulfil the order within a given time frame, creating an open set that is fully interactive between systems.

But what happens when an open set tries to interact with a closed set?  Firstly, the boundaries are tested. The open set members will try to discover if the closed set is permeable in any way.  The closed set may try to reinforce its boundaries. The result is often mutual suspicion, and sometimes open conflict. 

And there may be rejection.  Open set members will feel the rejection, or simply fail to gain the insights, connectivity, or resources they are seeking, and will go elsewhere. 

And when human factors come into play, fantasies develop and in the worst cases, people can become paranoid or delusional. 





Centred Systems and Centre Sets

A centred system is very different.  It has no boundary.  It is focused around a core idea, project, or event, and the output is usually the growth of the individuals engaging with the system; individual learning, enjoyment, or leisure fulfilment. The more people who are energised by the core, the stronger the system and the greater the output. Temporary boundaries may be created, but only if they serve the core.  In a centered system, boundaries are seen as barriers to growth.

It is the core individual, core concept, or core practice that attracts or repels individuals to or from the system.  Individuals within the system are in one of three states - moving towards, interacting with, or moving away from the core.  

Looking for boundaries in a centred system is a fruitless exercise - they don't exist. All that will be seen is a difference of density as you get closer to the core activity or belief. 

In a centred system, outputs are not fixed or even pre-determined. The interactions between the individuals create new ideas, new practices, new directions. Being part of a centred set feels both dangerous and exciting because the security provided by clear boundaries is absent. Being part of a centred set is also highly creative, because the cross-pollination of ideas can lead to new disoveries, new ways of doing things.

Because centred systems are focused on the participation and growth of the individuals, they can be relatively short-lived. Within Amateur Radio, for example,  a centred system can form from individuals interested in coming together to run a portable contest. There might not be enough individuals with this interest within the closed system of a single club, but within a wider geographical area, there may well be sufficient numbers to generate activity.

Systems Theory 2



Part 1 - How Organisations Work

Part 2 - How Organisations Connect

Part 3 - Making Amateur Radio Accessible


by Richard Thomas G4JJP - February 2021


Over the last twenty years, there has been a huge upheaval in the way people connect and access information and resources.  It has been driven by (a) the explosion of the internet and communication technology, and (b) changes in the dynamics of family life, where pressures of work and shifts in social behaviour. It has transformed the way we access almost everything. It wouldn't be wildly wrong to say that this is as big a shift in society as the first industrial revolution.

The problem is that many Amateur Radio Clubs have, largely, ignored it.  So in this section we're going to examine some of those changes.


The Transmission of Ideas

If we're to understand how to make Amateur Radio more accessible, we need to understand the evolving processes of connectivity between individuals, systems, and organisations.

Technology has always been central to these processes.  The emergence of language was the single most important process for organising and developing thought; the codification of language(s) into symbols and words followed; and then the means of recording and transmitting those words between people and groups underpins the developing history of mankind. Ideas have legs, but they need people to come together to engage with them, and advances in technology - writing, printing, and more recently electronic communication - have facilitated the transmission of ideas.

Fortunately, we don't need to go back to prehistory to understand the changes we need to deal with.


Victorian ClubsThe Emergence of Clubs

The earlierst clubs were probably the medieval trades guilds - though trades guilds go back much further.  Around the time of the French Revolution, informal political clubs emerged. The Coffee House movement in the mid 17th Century in England developed the intellectual, political or religious groups of the time. And in Victorian England, the London Clubs were the real seat of Government.

Like attracts like and repels difference. Political parties, religious organisations, and social interest groups formed their own self-sustaining clubs.  Because they existed to promote a particular issue or world view, they often became competitive.  It's no different for facebook groups today - people with similar views come together to have their views reinforced, not challenged (we will see later how this aspect of social grouping works against advancing the accessibility of Amateur Radio).

And in the early 1900s, the first Amateur Radio Clubs began to be formed.


Amateur Radio Clubs

The important point to grasp here is that until very recently, access required presence. If you wanted access to political, religious, or social activities, you needed to go to the places where people interested in those things met together.   You needed to travel and to meet physically - to go to political meetings, to go to Church, or to go to the theatre.

experimenterWhen Amateur Radio clubs first emerged, they followed the social norms of all clubs:  committees were formed, a hall was hired, talks on aspects of the hobby were arranged, and funding was organised through membership subscriptions.  In systems theory terms, Radio Amateurs formed closed groups - little different from the other closed groups that grew up.  And some became competitive - in systems theory, they developed covert agendas with boundaries that had less to do with making Radio accessible and more to do with control.

Information about Radio also followed the social norms of the time.  Remember, there was no Internet, but advances in printing meant that magazines about radio and electronics were available with colour pictures.  You could subscribe to regular magazines, and people tended to collect them into a mini library of information.  Instead of Google, you searched the back copies of Practical Wireless or Radcom.



The Internet and Disintermediation

 It was much the same with shopping.  If you wanted to buy something, you had to physically visit the shop. The problem with shops is that they can only stock a limited range of stuff, access is limited by proximity and time, and because of the overheads, the cost of running the shop is passed on through the price of the goods themselves.  

Take Pubs as an example. The Brewery Tap was the pub that was directly run by the brewery.  The advantage was that you could access the full range of beers produced by the brewery - not just the stuff that the local pub thought it could sell.  It was cheaper, because there were no transport costs. And you were much less likely to find your beer contained additional water. 

It was called 'doing away with the middle-man'. Or to give it it's technical name, 'Disintermediation' - removing the intermediary. Greater availability of stuff at any time of day (or night) at lower cost right on your doorstep.

And then along came the internet.  Which, with the evolution of transport systems and a huge change in family dynamics (and more recently accelerated by the pandemic which made us even more reliant on the internet), led to things like Ebay, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google. All of them are prime examples of disintermediation.

TwitterAnother example is the use of social media to disintermediate communication.  Donald Trump could communicate directly into the homes, hearts, and minds of his supporters (and detractors) using Twitter.  No more having to rely on the filters of newsrooms, printers, or political meetings. 

The internet has driven a disintermediated revolution that has transformed the way people access almost everything. Whether those things are products or information, training or social entertainment, we've seen a fundamental change greater than the industrial revolution in about one eighth of the time.

So what does this mean for Amateur Radio?