Laura Roelofs  

Open System Concepts

Laura Roelofs
April 1, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

If you have read the about us area of this website, you know that our roots are with an organization that was founded by Paul R. Judy in 1994—the Symphony Orchestra Institute. As a successful businessman with a keen interest in music and symphony orchestras, Mr. Judy created the SOI with the particularly interest and dedication to improve the effectiveness of symphony orchestra organizations. His interest in organizational change led him to commission Laura Roelofs to write a series of eight articles for the web version of the SOI journal Harmony. The articles describe various approaches to understanding and implementing organization change.

Today Polyphonic begins presenting this series again, and will publish one article every two weeks. But to start us off, and since seven years have elapsed since Laura published the first article on the subject, we asked her to bring us up to date with recent trends in the field.

- Ramon Ricker

Open System Concepts

In the last installment (Branches and Blossoms), we introduced several key concepts that have emerged in the field of Organization Change over the past 40 years. We will now begin to focus on some fundamental concepts that we believe are especially applicable to symphony orchestra organizations. One such concept involves viewing organizations as "open systems."

What is an "open system"?

An open system is any distinct entity -- a cell, a person, a forest, or an orchestra organization -- that takes in resources from its environment, processes them in some way, and produces output. To survive, such a system depends on its environment, and on interactions between its component parts or subsystems. When taking an open-systems approach, we look both inward and outward. We are interested in relationships and patterns of interaction between subsystems and their environments within the organization. We also look for relationships and reciprocal influences between the organization and the environment outside its formal "boundary."

How does an orchestra fit this model?

A symphony orchestra organization is a complex set of interdependent subsystems. It takes in resources and information and processes them in a variety of ways, returning a range of cultural services and products to individuals and systems in its environment. It is highly dependent on that environment for sustenance and survival.

What are the boundaries of a symphony orchestra organization?

Assigning boundaries to any organization is somewhat arbitrary, and symphony orchestra organizations are no exception. Traditionally, the Institute, and the industry overall, has drawn the boundary to include members of the orchestra, administrative and conducting staff, the board, and direct service volunteers. But perhaps we should examine our assumptions about how far the system extends. For example, are audiences part of the system, or part of its environment? What about contributors, individual and institutional? To what extent should we view symphony organizations as subsystems of their communities? Or as subsystems of the symphony industry? Or of the entertainment industry? An orchestra organization's programming, marketing, and even its governance structure and overall strategy will depend on the answers to these questions, either implicitly or explicitly.

Within the orchestra organization, the various subsystems are usually assigned very distinct boundaries, based on job function: orchestra, staff, board, volunteers. Some of these groupings ("constituencies") may be divided yet further (sections within the orchestra, departments within the staff, committees within the board). At the individual level, participants may belong to more than one subsystem inside the organization (as when musicians serve on boards) and they will inevitably belong to other systems "outside." All of this adds complexity and blurs boundaries.

An orchestra organization's placement of its internal boundaries, and its choice about how permeable those boundaries will be, can help determine its success in its environmental context.

How does the idea of "input-process-output" apply to an orchestral system?

Orchestra organizations take in financial resources from their environments in two basic forms: earned income (i.e., ticket sales and fees-for-service) and contributions. These organizations also depend heavily on their environment's human resources to sustain a pool of donors and volunteers, replace departing musicians, recruit new board and staff members, and obtain the services of guest artists and conductors. In addition to being "personnel intensive," orchestra organizations require special, costly, fixed assets, most notably concert venues and unique and valuable instruments. Another vital form of input for orchestral systems is information; for example, market research data and political, business, and music industry news.

The most obvious output of an orchestra organization is live musical performance for a live audience. Another output is recorded music in various forms, which can be reproduced for broader impact over a longer period of time. In recent years, the output of most symphony organizations has come to include some forms of music education services in their communities.

But suppose we also consider less tangible outputs? What about the organization's effect on its participants' quality of life and attitudes, which then spread via their families into the wider community? Should we consider the long-term impact of an orchestra organization on the overall cultural development of its community, or the impact of the organization on its community's economy and sense of pride? The success of this kind of output is difficult, but not impossible, to measure and may help determine how well an orchestra organization is functioning as a system.

Between inputs and outputs, there are processes or "throughput." In a typical orchestra organization, the subsystems have very specialized functions, and the work includes a number of processes that are both distinct and interdependent. For instance, the musicians and the music director receive input in the form of sheet music and scores; through individual practice and group rehearsal, they turn printed notation into live music. The marketing department uses research data to create effective advertisements, with the intent of generating a full house. Our readers will have no trouble thinking of other specific examples, as well as ways in which the separate functions may be interdependent.

Another kind of organizational throughput, which is no less critical to success, is the work of coordinating individual and subsystem efforts toward the goal of producing output. This work may be done through formal processes, such as staff meetings, committee meetings, or rehearsals. It can also take the form of informal interactions backstage or in the hallway. What if an orchestra organization considered such informal interactions between individuals to be vital throughput? Such an assumption would clearly affect the way it organizes its human resources, as well as how it structures and uses its physical space.

What happens after the "input-throughput-output" cycle is complete?

Completing the cycle, the orchestra organization receives feedback from the environment about its products and services in the form of sales figures, attendance numbers, music reviews, even strength of applause. Individual subsystems may also receive feedback from their immediate environments inside the organization. All this information serves as new input and becomes part of a new cycle, potentially shaping future actions.

How do we use "open systems theory" as a way of looking at orchestra organizations?

According to open systems theory, orchestra organizations interact with their environments in a complex series of interrelated loops (see Kerres below). Like individual organisms, their success depends on how well their characteristics and behavior align with their environment (see Spich and Sylvester below). In our next installment, we will use some classic open systems concepts to help understand the challenges (and opportunities) symphony orchestra organizations face, especially as they identify possible directions for change.

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