What is the General Systems Theory? A Definition and Examples

The general systems theory, together with systems analysis, systems dynamics, or operations research, represents a methodology that uses a systems approach to understand the world, together with its complex problems and/or phenomena. Today we are going to look at a definition of this complex theory and analyze a couple of examples.

General Systems Theory Definition

The general systems theory (GST) relies on a system’s structure, instead of its function. It states that complex systems have common basic organizing principles, regardless of the field we are talking about. Consequently, these principles have the capacity of being modeled mathematically. This concept was first introduced around 1955, by the UK economist Kenneth Boulding and the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

Differently put, it’s a framework which you can use to classify and evaluate the entire world. What people appreciate most about it and one reason for which it is so important is the fact that it has a universal approach for all the sciences and fields we can study. One field where the general systems theory is extensively used is that of organizational development. Starting with the 1970s, organizations are open systems that interact with the environment.

Watch this brief introduction to the GST for a better understanding of the concept:

General Systems Theory Examples and Applications

Having such a general character, the general systems theory has been and is used successfully in many fields. Let’s have a look at a couple of examples and applications of this theory in various fields.

1. Mind Development

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who helped define the general systems theory as we know it today, was 30 years ahead of other scientists. By this, we refer to the fact that he declared that life is a system of self-organization that witnesses higher and higher levels of complexity. In his view, the whole cannot be reduced to its parts, since life comes from the interaction of the parts as a system.

Mind development has occurred as a relatively modern concept. However, this doesn’t mean it strays away from the GST. The mind is pretty much the same type of system as observed anywhere else in nature. Moreover, the body and the mind form the complex system human being.

2. Behavioristic Psychology/ Man as a Robot

If you’ve been watching the American psychology’s evolution in the last century, you may see how it was influenced by the GST. From behaviorism to cybernetics, learning, motivation theories, and so on, the man has been described as an animal, infant, or computer. His entire behavior has been and is determined by accidents, genes, instincts, conditionings, and reinforcements, or other social or cultural forces. One big problem with this application of the general systems theory is the fact that it excludes any freedom for voluntary decisions made by man.

3. Business Organizations

Another application of this important GST is the one reflected in the business organizations. In what follows, we are going to analyze various examples of this application. These are currently used in corporations and startups all over the world.


Initially, the scientists that came up with the GST tried to describe natural processes, like human body functions. However, it was later found out that the systems can also exist in business and other types of organizations. Let’s take, for example, a business that receives a shipment of lumber. They are further going to turn the lumber into desks and chairs, which they will sell and make a profit. Why not compare this with a living organism that takes in food and converts it to energy? This type of interaction is named by the GST a productive process.


According to the GST, a business is an open system, which means that it can exist in a certain environment and make constant adjustments to survive. The same thing happens with a living organism as well, since a closed system can’t survive. Some concrete examples of this application would be the market research process, which offers feedback, trade shows, as well as other forms of professional interaction with peers found outside of your company. The GST calls this an energizing process.


Many people use GST as a tool to get a better understanding of how a business works. For example, there are many parts of a business that don’t operate separately from one another. Instead, any action that takes place in a certain part of the company will affect the rest of the business as well. The enabling process described by the GST applies here too: all the parts of the system must work together to obtain good results. Various sub-systems need to enable each other if they want to be performant.


Yet another parallel we can draw between a living organism and a business is the fact that they both need to compete for survival, gaining territory, and reproducing. Most of the time, this can be done at the expense of other organisms. This metaphor is useful because it encourages business owners to grow constantly and to use their resources. The downside could be the fact that sometimes they can become self-destructive. This is where the GST offers the solution as well: for the natural (or business) systems to exist, they need to be in a state of equilibrium if they want to keep functioning.


While the traditional hierarchies can reach a certain point of ineffectiveness, a structure that relies on the GST can carry on indefinitely. This happens because it changes over time. Moreover, this becomes more and more responsive to the various developments that happen in the marketplace.

To draw a conclusion, we need to state the fact that the general systems theory states the fact that the entire universe relies on the same systems. This has enabled scientists from all the fields to analyze different phenomena and prevent different problems. Especially in the recent years, with the rise of the business industry, the GST has come in very handy in studying their structures and processes. As you have seen, there are various examples where the general systems theory is used to understand the business underlying principles.

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