OST Primer

Open Systems Theory comes from a well researched approach and methodology that has evolved over the years to become an organisational design strategy. Open systems theory is the collective knowledge, study and concepts that help us work to define better ways of working, originally studied and published by Professor Fred Emery and Dr Merrelyn Emery. It is called “Open” because it recognises that systems of work within organisations and communities are not closed, and that the system exists within an environment with interplay between the system and the environment. OST also emphasises the importance of understanding the contexts: the relationships, environment, culture, and beliefs that surround a system.

Design Principle 1 and 2

Open systems theorists have defined some design principles that can be observed in organisational structures. Design Principle 1 (DP1) – the traditional hierarchical structure and its democratic alternative, Design Principle 2 (DP2). The choice of Design principle determines the operation of an organisation or community.

Democratic Ideals

In OST the concept of participation is strongly represented. The people involved in the system become a planning community that can create a plan for the future, based on shared ideals, that they can live for and work to implement. Because of this strong democratic foundation the likelihood of engagement and subsequent success of the emergent structural design is increased.

Utilising the processes of OST makes it possible for any kind of system, whether community or workplace, to thrive in the face of uncertain, turbulent times.

The two stage model for organisational re-design

In OST, there are two specific processes known as “The Search Conference” and the “Participative Design Workshop.” These are part of what is often called the two-stage model for organisational re-design, which can be used to create more adaptive organisations responsive to change, that are aligned to Design Principle 2

The Search Conference

The Search Conference is a strategic planning method designed to identify if the organisation needs to adapt to a new or changing context. It provides a structured framework with specific activities for participants to engage in. Typically lasting for two nights and two days, the conference involves a group of 20 to 40 individuals who possess relevant expertise across various domains, and each participant is considered equal in standing. As an embodiment of DP2, the Search conference allows a group of people to take collective responsibility for learning about their system and environment, to articulate their strategic goals and carry out action plans.

By engaging in the Search Conference, organisations can gather diverse perspectives, tap into the group’s collective wisdom, and foster a sense of shared ownership in driving positive change.

Participative Design Workshops

Participative Design Workshops are an organisational change practice that helps to build a fully participative workforce, by engaging all the teams in co-designing how they will operate in the newly adapted structure. Participative Design Workshops involve as many workers from an organisation or area as possible, usually in groups of 24-36 people, who work in small groups of 6 to 8. 

The Participative Design Workshop focuses on real business needs, management priorities and parameters, and the logistics of re-designing the work. During the sessions, participants analyse their work, design new, adaptive structures, and plan in detail the action steps required to implement their designs.

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