The importance of being open

A closed system has an impermeable border that prevents the exchange of energy between the inside of the system and the outside. We try to create a closed system when we fill a cooler with ice and put the lid on tightly. What we are trying to do is create an environment inside the cooler in which nothing changes.

As we know of course, the cooler isn’t a perfectly closed system – heat exchange will occur and the ice will eventually melt. And in fact it is rare to find a truly closed system. There are systems that tend to be more closed than others.

Organizations can suffer from a tendency to being closed if they cut themselves off from new ideas.

With no ideas coming in from the outside, the useful energy in the organization dissipates, and the organization stagnates. Some in the organization feel comfortable with the resulting stability, others feel the organization is languishing and are frustrated at their inability to change things. This can happen, for example, if jobs are secure and employees stay in the organization for a long time, not making way for new people and fresh ideas. It can happen if those with power in the organization are comfortable and not open to change, or are afraid of rocking the boat. It can also happen if there is too little diversity in the organization. Without diverse viewpoints, the organization can become an echo chamber with no possibility for fresh ideas and innovation.

This is why it’s important for people who have responsibility for organizations to actively ensure that the organizational boundary is permeable.

In an open system, energy flows in and keeps the system moving and evolving. Schools and academic departments can help ensure an open boundary by actively seeking diversity in their hires, encouraging professional development for teachers and staff, and entering into networks with other organizations. Administrators must conduct environmental scans to find out what is happening in the world beyond their departments’ walls; faculty must actively seek new ideas from their own field and others to enhance teaching and learning.

The result of this approach is dynamism and change. Ideas flow not only into the system but out of it too, into other systems.

This is the sign of a healthy organization, and a healthy academic field, in which organizations (departments, schools) exchange ideas, but the field itself also has an open border whereby it can communicate its best ideas to the outside world and in turn gain fresh ideas from other fields, industries, and activities. To those who enjoy comfort and stability, this complexity may look like a nightmare. But in a changing world, an organization that is not itself changing is sure to be left behind.

We educators have a responsibility to see ourselves, our departments and schools, and our field as open systems, always open to new ideas and diverse viewpoints, always willing to exchange those ideas inside and outside our organizations, and act on the best ones.