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Understanding the Nature of System Change: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Francis Stickland and Lawrence P. Reveal

The City University, Engineering Management Centre, Department of Systems Science, Northampton Square, London EC1? V OHB, UK

CCC 0731-7239/95/020147-08 1995 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Research Paper

The paper seeks to open up a debate on the nature of change at a conceptual and theoretical level. It argues that the abundance of methodologies and strategies for managing system change belies an acute lack of any clear understanding of the very nature and essence of change itself, whether it be institutional, technological, environmental or organizational. The paper calls for a greater comprehension of the fundamental dynamics of change, and highlights the considerable need for a solid theoretical basis from which to explore the complexities of system change. A crossdiscipline approach is suggested, involving the analysis of change phenomena drawn from across the natural and physical sciences, deriving common characteristics and principles for abstraction into a general change framework. Several examples of the approach are described briefly, using change phenomenon taken from a range,of disciplines. The paper concludes by outlining other subject areas which contain conceptually useful change phenomena worth investigating.

Key words change; phenomenon; interdisciplinary; metaphor; analogy


Change is a concept which has become an increasing focus of study and interest over the past decade. Across a wide range of disciplines the cry is going up-how can change be more effectively initiated, managed, implemented and accommodated? Organization theory and management science in particular have focused closely on developing effective strategies for managing innovation and change (Burnes, 1992; Conner and Lake, 1987).

Today's manager is now confronted with a bewildering array of methodologies to assist him in changing some aspect of his business for the better, or respond to changes beyond his control. Systems science has traditionally been the source of many methodologies for achieving change across a range of problem situations and system contexts-see for example Beer (1985); Checkland (1972); Flood and Jackson (1991b); and Jenkins (1969). However, the main thrust of much of this work has been to answer the practical 'how' questions of change-how it can be dealt with effectively. Arguably the more fundamental 'what' questions have yet to be seriously asked at a generic level: What is the nature of change? What characteristics and attributes does change possess? What structural features, interactions and processes define change? What (if any) basic principles govern change? What marks the beginning and .end of change? What perception and measurement issues are associated with change?

It is the firm belief of the authors that these and other probing questions like them need to be asked in an attempt to reveal the nature of change at a fundamental level. Change as a phenomenon occurs across the disciplines in the natural, physical and social sciences, but there has yet to emerge any solid theoretical framework for exploring and describing its nature and dynamics.

Vickers alluded to the need for such a basic understanding of the nature of change when he said: The view of entities as both systems and constituents of systems raises intriguing questions about identity and continuity. When does something, or somebody, retain its identity and continuity through change? When by contrast does it cease to be its old self and either vanish or become something new or different? The question is not frivolous or merely metaphysical but may be of great practical concern. (Vickers, 1980, p. 20)

Some systems practitioners may point to the apparent success of certain well-established strategies for dealing with change, and query why such fundamental questions need to be asked at all. Historically, has not man learnt how to manage and cope, for example, with the effects of gravity and solar radiation without fully understanding what their causes and origins are? Today, however, he can much more accurately and effectively explain, manage and deal with these phenomena now that science has provided far deeper and more detailed answers to the 'what' questions. Similarly, the existing methodologies and strategies for system change-whether economic, social, technological or organizational systems-would benefit significantly from a greater understanding of the nature of change itself.


Prigogine (1980a, 1980b) has made a useful start in exploring the nature of change in the physical sciences, particularly physics. He outlines three basic levels: macroscopic, stochastic and dynamic change in an attempt to unravel the concept of irreversibility. Drawing heavily upon concepts from biology, Jantsch spoke of the evolutionary vision and the quest to find commonalities in the evolutionary dynamics at all levels of reality. It [the evolutionary vision] is not satisfied with a cross section in time, but attempts to grasp the principles underlying the unfoldment over space and time of a rich variety of morphological and dynamic patterns. (Jantsch, 1980a, p. 1)

Within the social sciences Morgan (1986) has also realized the need for a more profound understanding of the concept of change. He examines the organization through what he terms the metaphor of flux and transformation, considering how the organization may exist within deep structures and processes which possess their own logic of change. He proposes three such logics and discusses them in detail: selforganization principles drawn from biology; concepts of mutual causality taken from cybernetics; and dialectics and the notion of opposites citing examples from philosophy and Marxian analysis. Building on the work of Dahrendorf (1959) and Hernes (1976), Van de Ven (1987) has suggested that a good, robust theory of change in social structures should satisfy four basic requirements:

1. It should explain how change, behaviour and structure are interconnected at both macro and micro levels of analysis. 2. It should describe how change is a function of internal and external factors. 3. It should account for both change and stability. 4. The concept of time should be incorporated as the key historical metric.

Pettigrew (1990) emphasizes the context nature of change within organization theory, stressing the embeddedness of change phenomena in an interconnected network of events and behaviour patterns over time. In describing the history of ideas and events, Foucault outlines a similar multi-layered, non-linear view of change, with change processes moving at different speeds across different levels of analysis. He argues that our understanding of the nature of change is not sophisticated or subtle enough to identify the. slower-moving, underlying processes at work, with the consequence that events get lumped together and labeled according to the more discernible and obvious changes: as if time existed only in the vacant moment of the rupture, in that white, paradoxically a temporal crack in which one sudden formulation replaces another. (Foucault, 1972, p. 166)

This aggregation of events, while maybe serving as a useful approximation, means that the key dynamics of change are often missed or ignored. Clearly then, some efforts have been made to define and explore the nature of change. However, these have largely drawn upon the language and concepts of specific disciplines, with little cross-fertilization of ideas. With such a widely experienced phenomenon as change, a much broader cross-discipline approach is called for. One possible approach will now be described.


In his discussion of general systems theory (GST), the economist K. E. Boulding outlined a strategy for dealing with what he termed phenomena of 'universal significance'. This was: to look over the empirical universe and pick out certain general phenomena which are found in many different disciplines, and to seek to build up general theoretical models relevant to these phenomena. (Boulding, 1956, p. 199)

Arguably, change is just such a phenomenon. According to Bertalanffy (1968, p. 15) one of the original stated aims of GST was to 'investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models in various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another. This noble objective is perhaps far more embracing and ambitious than what is being proposed here with regard to change. Nonetheless, comparing and pooling concepts of change from across the disciplines does serve as a useful starting point.

As a first stage, then, well-documented change phenomena from both the physical and natural sciences are identified and examined in a traditional scientific sense. This involves an analysis of the theories and concepts employed by the relevant scientific community to describe and explain each change phenomenon. While providing a good approximation, however, theories are often unable to explain every aspect of the phenomenon they attempt to describe. The theoretical lens through which a particular phenomenon is examined and interpreted may well be misted or too weak to allow a comprehensive and accurate description. Therefore, the specific details of the phenomenon itself should also be examined-as far as possible independently of any established theoretical explanation. This will go some way to ensuring that no obvious conceptual insights are missed. Seemingly disparate change phenomenon may reveal many similarities in form and process when compared in this manner. Such analysis would serve to identify:

1. fundamental principles or themes of change; 2. general characteristics and attributes of change; 3. problem issues associated with system intervention to measure or manage change.

If successful, the results of this analysis could be used to form the beginnings of a general framework which embodies the fundamental dynamics and characteristics of change at a generic level. The initial utility of such a framework would be its descriptive and explanatory ability-a useful aid for identifying and classifying different types of system change, according to attribute and characteristic. Figure I summarizes the overall approach.

Fruitful metaphors and analogies thrown up by the phenomena under study which describe some aspect of change are of particular interest, however obscure. While the flux metaphor of Morgan (1986) discussed earlier provides a basis for considering different concepts of change, it is very general. Of more interest here is the identification of specific, well-defined metaphors for change rather than the collective metaphor of change itself. Metaphorical thinking is becoming well established as an explicit tool with which to study various facets of system behaviour, notably in GST (Rappaport, 1988); organization theory (Morgan, 1986); critical systems thinking (Flood and Jackson, 1991a); and creative management (Henry, 1991; McCaskey?, 1982; Van Gundy, 1988).

However, the authors are well aware that the use of inappropriate, poorly defined metaphors and analogies can often lead to muddled thinking and incorrect analysis. This is something that should be avoided rigorously.

Given time, the framework may also prove a useful theoretical base from which to appraise existing change strategies and methodologies across a wide range of disciplines, and assess to what extent they reflect the core principles of change. However, developing the framework into a robust model with predictive utility must at this stage remain only a very long-term and somewhat questionable goal.

To conclude this section, it is true to say that specialists have recourse to ideas, metaphors and analogies for describing change in their own field of endeavour. However, they will often be unaware of what other disciplines have to offer. Pursuing the approach outlined here should open up an abundance of change concepts from across the disciplines, making them available to specialists in other areas of study. It is hoped that this will provide them with a fresh source of potentially fruitful concepts from which to draw inspiration and enhance their own particular language, theories and methods.


Here an attempt will be made to illustrate the approach, with examples of change phenomena drawn from physical and complexity science. Most are basic concepts, well documented and understood by the scientific community concerned. In each case, a brief summary of the technical details will be given, followed by an abstracted change principle and any potential metaphoric applications.

Isothermal Change

This refers to the ability of a substance to be subject to some kind of change but to remain at a constant temperature, usually during phase transition. A good example of an isothermal change process is demonstrated by the concept of latent heat. As defined by Williams et at. (1968), this is the heat absorbed or evolved during a change of state or simply the heat required to cause a change of state. Continued heating of a substance close to phase transition will produce little or no change in temperature. Then at some critical point, the temperature will begin to rise and the effects of the phase transition become more discernible.

Latent heat reveals an important principle of change. In applying some environmental input designed to cause an internal change, the ability of a system to absorb that input without undergoing the desired change must be considered. Before attempting to manipulate or change some attribute, element or relationship the 'latent heat capacity' of the system needs to be assessed. This information would enable a more accurate estimation of how much input to prescribe, at approximately what critical point the desired change will take place, and what direction and magnitude the eventual change will possess.

Latent heat and the concept of isothermal change suggest metaphorically that certain situations, processes or structures have the ability to absorb energy up to a point, before undergoing change. As with physical phase transitions, the direction and magnitude of the eventual change may be undesirable, and the timing unpredictable. During system intervention, this metaphor could help practitioners to identify those components of the system which are likely to resist change, and assess how resources can best be expended in order to overcome that resistance effectively.

Several other change concepts and phenomena in this area have been investigated by the authors, yielding some conceptually useful insights. These include first and second-order phase transitions, adiabatic change, evaporation and sublimation.

Crystalline Fracture

The atoms and molecules of a crystal form themselves into definite, ordered patterns, arranged into regular and symmetrical lattice positions. The precise ordering at the atomic scale is mirrored at the macro level, with the overall geometric shape of the crystal corresponding to the internal symmetry of these patterns. The edges and faces of the crystal are described in terms of axes of symmetry, planes of symmetry and a centre of symmetry (see Partington, 1944). Crystals break into pieces with plane faces meeting at sharp, precise edges: that is, when broken they show cleavage or split along definite preferred directions. This is known as crystalline fracture. It differs from conchoidal fracture, which refers to the way amorphous solids like glass and plastics break into very irregular pieces. Amorphous solids lack precise, symmetrical ordering in their lattice structure and tend to possess no definite, regular external shape as a result.

A useful change principle is suggested here, namely that change occurs where possible along the line of least resistance. Nature generally prefers the easiest path, whether it be lightning strikes, river flow or heat loss. This idea suggests that systems which are highly structured and are based on a definite ordering of their component parts will be more susceptible to change in certain directions. A knowledge of the underlying structural features at a micro level can lead to a greater understanding of how and why systems tend to undergo change in particular areas and ways when responding to some external stimulus. Considered metaphorically, this phenomenon seems to suggest that 'amorphous' systems with little formal structure or internal framework are susceptible to change in many directions. Indeed it could be argued that such systems are more flexible to change (albeit unpredictable), unlike I crystalline' systems whose internal symmetry and structure largely dictate what changes are permissible. Jantsch (1980b) has noted that the spontaneous breaking of symmetries present in a system can generate variety and lead to increased complexity. However, preserving key lines of symmetry can also provide a predictable and controllable means of change along certain strategically useful directions, and should not be eliminated or dismissed arbitrarily.

Chemical Reactivity

Unlike most change processes in physics, chemistry deals with changes to matter which alter its actual composition. The discipline is based upon the concept of reaction-two or more chemical elements changing and being changed by each other as they interact together. This makes it a rich hunting ground for abstracting general change phenomena as well as identifying insightful structural change analogies and metaphors. For example, consider the following statement:

When a chemical reaction occurs, there are frequently visual signals that something has happened. Colours may change; gases may evolve; precipitates may form. Less obvious are changes in energy which almost invariably accompany chemical reactions. (Sienko and Plane, 1979, p. 10)

Articulated here are some common attributes of change: visual and non-visual manifestations. Unseen change processes may be taking place in the heart of a system, transforming its very structure. Here we see the concept of energy appearing-that nebulous emergent property of a system which is so often overlooked and underestimated during change management. Outwardly at the macro level, nothing appears to have changed and yet, inside, new relationships have formed between elements, and old ones abandoned, subtly shifting the balance of power to some new equilibrium state. Failure to notice these changes can lead to inaccurate behaviour prediction and ineffectual system intervention. Such are the problems of chemistry. Theories describing the chemical bonding of atoms and molecules, the electron configurations of chemical elements, and the formation of new chemical products by atom collision offer many insights into the fundamentals of change.

Complexity Science: Self-organized Criticality

The study of complex physical systems with many interacting elements, and their behaviour and evolution over time has been the focus of much attention in recent years (see jen, 1990; Stein, 1989; and Waldrop, 1992). In particular, theories are currently being developed to describe cascading change, and the intricacies of the change process during the two-way transition between ordered and chaotic states. The work of Bak et al. (1988) on self-organized criticality is of particular interest. Simply put, the theory proposes that 'many composite systems naturally evolve to a critical state in which a minor event starts a chain reaction that can affect any number of elements in the system' (Bak and Chen, 1991, p. 26).

As a description of change this theory is of special interest because it challenges the notion that a large, complex system undergoes change usually when an environmental influence dislodges it from some internally maintained equilibrium. Rather, it suggests that such systems only exist in metastable states, in perpetual I criticality', where small perturbations can give rise to both large and small system changes. The theory also presents the paradox of dynamic continual change at the micro level coexisting with stability and continuity at the level of the whole. Obviously these descriptions of change are not applicable to all types of system, but as Bak and his colleagues themselves indicate, they may well provide important insights into the nature of change in many fields concerned with large composite systems, including economics, biology, ecology and geology.

In summary, then, isothermal change processes and the concept of latent heat suggest that systems are able to absorb energy directed at changing them, up to a point. Evidence of this principle is often seen in organizations, where problem situations appear to change very little in the short run, despite the continual application of corporate resources. Crystalline fracture offers the idea that controllable and predictable system change is achieved easiest along structural boundaries and clear lines of symmetry. For example, change in political systems can sometimes be best accomplished by basing the change measure around some existing structural feature, like an issue of common concern or a cultural norm. Concepts from chemistry and theories of chemical reactivity present an insight into change dynamics at the micro level, and demonstrate how influential unseen interactions and relationships between system elements can be in determining systemic properties and behaviour. Fluctuations in demand and supply, market share and exchange rates are often the result of subtle interactions and obscure, unlikely events at deep levels of analysis-beyond the eye of the most discerning economist. And finally, the theory of self-organized criticality is beginning to shed some light on the nature of cascading change, and the delicate balance between stability and change in large composite systems. Ecological, social and economic systems contain examples of such critical behaviour, where change can be initiated by chain reactions between a multitude of interdependent parts.


There are many other manifestations of change phenomena well documented in the natural and physical sciences. Some which the authors have already examined include the process of aging, enzyme regulation; chemical and biological catalysts; protein synthesis; osmosis; the endocrine system; metabolism; nuclear fission; metamorphosis and maturation; and the concepts of potential and kinetic energy. Chaos theory and non-linear dynamics also contain many ideas relevant to the study of change (see Bai-Lin, 1984; Cvitanovic, 1984; Gleick, 1988), including for example the concept of strange and chaotic attractors as explored by Ruelle (1989) and Abraham (1988). The conceptual implications for change of relativity theory and quantum mechanics are worth exploring, including issues such as causality; the distinction between past, present and future; simultaneous perception of events; relative motion and position during observation; objectivity and the description and measurement of quantum states. Work being done in the fields of genetic algorithms (Goldberg, 1989), neural networks and adaptation (Forrest, 1991), cellular automata (Dewdney, 1985; Wolfram 1986) and artificial life (Langton, 1989; Langton et al., 1992) is all concerned with modeling and understanding the process of change over time in dynamic complex systems, and is likely to contain many change concepts worth exploring and building into a crossdiscipline framework of change.


It is the authors' belief that lying hidden among the multitude of specialist disciplines of natural and physical science are a wealth of rich and useful change concepts suitable f ' or abstraction at a general level, and appropriate for application as metaphors and structural analogies at a conceptual level into other fields of study. Theories of change in the social sciences also have much to offer, and some are currently being explored by the authors. In time, organizing all these ideas into some semblance of order could lead to the development of a comprehensive conceptual framework describing the nature of change. Such a framework would form a much needed theoretical foundation for the systems change management practitioners, providing them with a sound foundation from which to develop new strategies and tools for change management. It may also serve as a useful basis from which to assess the theoretical footing and ontological validity of the many and varied methodologies for change already in existence.


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