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System-Network Complementarity


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Originally published in Transnational Associations, 1977, pp. 365-370 [searchable PDF version]. The distinctions (in practice) between systems and networks were presented, with the accompanying tables, as background papers to the meeting on "Exploring the Network Alternative " (see Transnational Associations, 1977, pp. 352-355). They formed part of the introductory report to the session on . "Complexity" during a meeting of the International Foundation for Social Innovation, March 1977. and as such accompanied the paper on "Organizational forms in response to complexity" (Transnational Associations, 1977, 5, pp. 178-183) and are referred to in the summary of the debate (Transnational Associations, 1977, p 369-372). The text is appearing as part of : International organization networks: a complementary perspective. In: Paul Taylor and AJR Groom (Eds). International Organizations; a conceptual approach. 1978. The two tables, reproduced from John McHale. Management; the larger perspective (In: Challenge to Leadership, managing in a changing world. Free Press. 1973), are the result of the integration of two different earlier efforts : in John McHale. The Changing Information Environment (in : Information Technology; some critical implications for decision makers, The Conference Board, 1972). and in Anthony Judge. The World Network of Organizations (in : International Associations, 1972, 1, pp. 18-22). The latter is an expansion of a table by Peter F. Rudge. Ministry and Management. Tavistock, 1968.

"System" (versus) "Network"

The definition of  "system " (like that of  "structure " is the subject of continuing confusion and often heated debate. It is not surprising therefore that the implication that  "network " is in some way distinct from  "system tends to give rise to vigorous debate as recently occurred in Montreal. It is the math- based pure and applied sciences which are most disturbed by the possibility of any distinction. Clearly, in purely formal mathematical terms, both system and network consist of an interconnected set of elements. But once account is taken of the nature of those elements, the manner of their interconnection and the properties of the resultant whole, then the distinctions between definitions of sytem and of network became confused especially where value-related questions are raised concerning the relative equitability of different social structures.

The question of interest may be less the distinction, if any, and more the connotations of the terms in contexts associated with international and organizational activity. The question may then be why is there a preference for  "network" instead of  "system"  under certain circumstances. Consider the distinctions in the case of a road system /network, a telephone system /network or a concept system /network before reflecting on the case of an inter-organizational system /network. Under what circumstances is there a negative connotation to either term ?

The Distinction in Practice

The following suggestions have been made as to how the distinction tends to be made in practice.

1. Systems tend to require more information for their description than networks, since flows must be described as well as structural relationships.

2. Systems are described primarily with quantitative information (which is both difficult and costly to obtain and has a short useful life), whereas networks may be described with non-quantitative structural information (which is more readily available at lower cost arid has a longer useful life).

3. Systems tend to have a unique (or ultimate) controller regulating the state of the system as a whole, whereas networks tend to have a plurality of controllers (if any), with a relatively high degree of autonomy. (in other words, systems tend to be centralized in some sense, whereas networks tend to be decentralized or polycentric).

4. Systems tend to be associated with imposed structures or patterns (even if limited to the choice of the system boundary), whereas networks tend to be associated with emergent structures or patterns.

5. Systems tend to have well-defined boundaries (even if they are opensystems) whereas the outer-limit (or fine detail) of a network is ill-defined and not of major significance to its description.

6. Systems tend to have well-defined, stable goals or functions, whereas networks, if they have any, may have ill-defined goals, a plurality of goals (possibly fairly incompatible), or may change goals relatively frequently.

7. Systems tend to have a more limited tolerance of changes to their environment, whereas networks

tend to maintain a fair degree of invariance and coherence even in the event of highly turbulent transformations to their environment.

8. Societal system descriptions tend to be meaningful only at a macrolevel to detached observers, whereas network descriptions retain their utility even when limited to the immediate environment of an involved participant at a particular node of the network.

9. Systems, and particularly their dynamics, tend to be difficult to represent, wherses complex networks can be represented with relative ease.

10. System components tend to have outputs, along relatively well-defined paths, resulting from (and predictable from) their inputs, whereas the nature of the outputs, if any, of the nodes in a network tends to be much less predictable, as is the pattern of nodes linked at any one time.


Rather than attempt to resolve the distinction between system and network, it may be useful to conceive of the two terms as being different but complementary conceptual approaches to a structure-process continuum. When a system perspective is used, in practice the emphasis is on the properties and the characteristics of the whole conceived as a set of interlinked processes (over which a measure of centralized control is described). The structure supporting the processes if considered at all, is perceived and represented in terms of its gross features. When a network perspective is used, in practice the emphasis is on the properties and characteristics of the continuous pattern of linkages constituting the structure. The processes which may occur in the network, if considered at all, are perceived and represented in terms of the pathways through the network (the mapping of which constitutes the initial challenge). As the concern with processes builds up, the perspective shifts towards the system focus. Whereas concern with detailed representation of the structure shifts the perspective towards the network focus. The system perspective therefore tends to be used when the structure is assumed to be relatively simple and conceptually well-defined but where the complexity of the processes poses a challenge to conceptualization and re~ presentation. The network perspective, conversely, is used when the processes are assumed to be relatively simple and well-defined but where the structural complexity poses a challenge to conceptualization and representation.

Expressed in these terms, the complementarity of the two perspectives high lights the problem of description, analysis and policy-formulation in relation to society. A focus on the system process dynamics, as typified by the current approaches to world modelling, is obliged to eliminate structural (and especially fine structural) features to reach a level of aggregation which renders the analysis viable. A focus on the network of fine structure would presumably only be practicable if the complexity of process characteristics was highly simplified. Either filter can be employed, but both cannot yet be removed together and result in any practicable comprehensible investigation.

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