A simpler system

Definitely some feedback in this system

A few weeks ago Katie Dallison wrote a post about the Systems Theory Framework of Career Development — an attempt to combine all the different theoretical strands into one big ‘metatheory’.

Vinny Potter responded to this behemoth of a theory by suggesting that we keep it simple. He proposed his balloon model as a something that practitioners might be able to apply live in the real world.

Perhaps Vinny didn’t need to invent something new (although I’m glad he did). He could have just backtracked to one of the simplest formulations of general systems theory: the open system model.

Systems theory assumes that many complex systems can be described and analysed by referring to the interaction of some common basic elements. To understand a system you have to look at the interaction of these elements rather than focusing on individual elements. The open system model can be used to represent any entity which interacts with its environment. It could be a micro-organism, a company, a computer program, a steam engine, a human being…anything.

Open systems model

A simple open system

In an interactive system, an entity usually moves towards an goal or final state. This final state could be the end result of a client moving through a transition, or it could be the outcome of the interview.

In order to make progress towards a goal, an entity has to produce some kinds of outputs that act on the environment in which the individual operates. In careers terms, these outputs could be particular actions of the client [or adviser] on the surrounding environment, e.g. research, gaining experience, talking to people, etc. It is worth asking whether the client’s current outputs are appropriate for achieving their goals. Are there different outputs that might lead to the same goal (equifinality)? Could different goals be approached using the same outputs (multifinality)? How are the outputs limited by the environment?

The possible outputs will be determined partly by the inputs that can be obtained from the environment. For a client, these inputs could be the information and impressions they have picked up from others, learning experiences, training, etc. In guidance, the inputs are the information you obtain from the client and from elsewhere, but could also include your assumptions or service priorities. Are the inputs appropriate? Do they provide everything the client needs or has the environment deprived them of certain essential inputs?

Inputs have to be transformed into outputs by some kind of process. For both the client and the adviser this is the cognitive process they go through in turning information and experiences into intentions. It is worth asking how effective the processes (yours and the client’s) are at transforming inputs into useful outputs. For example, has the client learnt as much as they could from their researches or has some information failed to make an appropriate impact?

In order for a system to be adaptive, there has to be some sort of feedback: a way of using the results of the output in order to modify the input. In careers terms, this could relate to monitoring the success of any career actions and modifying your behaviours in order to maximise the chances of succeeding. With this in mind it could be important to look at how the client has responded to failure. Do they try to change what they do to see if they can get better results or do they keep trying the same unsuccessful tactics over and over again? How much do they learn from their actions in order to refine the type of information they obtain?

The environment in which someone operates has a significant impact on their performance and behaviour. It determines which goals are possible and how they can be achieved. It determines the type of inputs available and can moderate the effectiveness of any feedback. For a client, one might need to take into account the socio-economic, ethnic or cultural background; peer or parental pressure; or even the current economic climate. This applies to the environment in which guidance takes place as much as to the environments in which the client has developed and operates.

An important component of the environment is randomness or chance. How much are the client’s goals, outputs and inputs influenced by chance events?

The nature of the boundary represents the extent to which the client is open to the environment. How many potentially useful inputs are filtered out by the individual? How isolated is the individual from their environment? How many intended outputs make it into the environment?


As you can see, this simple model can be used to understand more about a particular client but it can also be applied to the guidance relationship — or a whole careers service. In each case, all you have to do is to identify what each of the elements are for that particular system and then reflect on how they influence each other. Try it.

Further reading

See the following sites for various resources on system theory.

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  1. #1 by Ghislaine Dell on 20 May 2011 - 10:14

    I love this very adaptable theory. I am v tempted to put the picture up in my ‘Career Essentials for Engineers’ talk and ask them what it is….and what it could also be applied to.

    • #2 by David Winter on 20 May 2011 - 22:27

      Do it! And report back. That’s an order. 🙂

  2. #3 by John King on 2 June 2011 - 11:20

    I’m not sure about all this goal-orientation. I wonder whether it actually can put people off. Goals make lots of sense for small things (a cell trying to feed itself; making a cup of coffee; writing an essay; completing a project). I’m not sure whether ‘having a career goal’ is something we should hold up as being particularly important.

    This is not to say that it is a bad thing – in fact, people with clear career goals often tend to achieve them, and perhaps are happier as a result. But many people don’t have a goal – and perhaps we shouldn’t try to help them find one.

    Students often say that they don’t come into the Careers Service because they don’t know what they want to do (have no career goal). This puzzles us, because surely that’s what we are for – to help people find their career goal.

    But perhaps they don’t want one? Perhaps modern life is now too complex for the idea of a career goal to have meaning? For example, the idea of defining jobs by role and sector is less relevant now: the same skills of emotional intelligence, relationship-building, etc. can underlie success in any sector. Am I really more suited to being a careers adviser than, for example, an architect (who will need to coach his clients), or even a painter (who will need to maintain relationships with galleries)?

    Instead, aren’t the values and principles that we apply more important? Chance isn’t just an important component – in modern life it is the predominant component. This invalidates the model.

    If we strengthen people’s confidence in their innate ability to deal with randomness and uncertainty: if we encourage the inculcation and application of values which, in themselves, possess value; then we help someone succeed. Even if they fail.

    • #4 by David Winter on 2 June 2011 - 13:16

      Hi John

      In this system goals related to any desired future state and can cover any time period.

      They don’t have to be career occupational goals (‘I want to be a patent attorney’). They could be vision/value goals (‘I want to help people’) or lifestyle goals (‘I want to have good work-life balance’). They could be developmental goals (‘I want to gain more confidence in networking’) or self-awareness goals (‘I want to find out what I’m good at’)

      Even ‘I want to avoid having to make a decision’ and ‘I want to try a few things and see what happens’ are goals.

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