What is a holistic service system?

Defining What is a Holistic Service System: I am looking for ideas about what is a good definition for a holistic service system.  My own definition is to first offer some examples: cities, universities, luxury resort hotels.  And then mention that holistic service systems are a type of system of service systems (service network), that must address:  transportation, water/air, food/products, energy, communications, buildings, retail, finance, health, education, security-governance.  And then to give an out of this world example – a space ship. And finally, a more mundane example, a luxury ocean liner…  So what is a good definition for a holistic service system?   My primary interest these days is apply service science to the study of universities and cities — two tightly coupled “holistic service systems” — nations and states are also good examples of holistic service systems.   Populations of holistic service systems balance interdependence and independence.   An interesting finding so far is the near linear correlations between % of GDP of nations and % of universities in the top 500…..  A good source of data is http://www.arwu.org/ARWUAnalysis2009.jsp For exanmple, China makes a nice country to look at over the last few years, since they have jumped both in GDP and top-500-universities.  So far the leader though is still the US, with 23% of WW GDP and 30% of top-500-universities….   So universities and cities as tightly-coupled holistic service systems are of keen interest these days…   a city-making industry is beginning to emerge, and universities seem to be a core aspect of new cities.   In IBM University Programs (IBM UP) WW, we are very interested in helping to align universities on the idea of an emerging “city-making” industry.   The key is not just a city-making industry, but making it economical to re-cycle and re-make cities as a sustainable investment decade over decade…  even the most environmentally friendly buildings today, may look like dinosaurs in 20 years as green-tech gets onto its own Moore’s law of continuous improvement.  Think of super-computers 20 years ago compared to super-computers today.  Green buildings are approaching their own kind of decade-based accelerated improvement curves due to new materials and techniques.


  1. Janet, This is great help – so thank! I am very interested in holistic service systems as entities that process matter, energy, information, and support a wide range of human activities, including governance. The relationship to physical symbol systems (PSS) of Newell and Simon is also an important connection. The fact that these are learning entities – March’s exploitation and exploration – also applies; or in our IBM jargon run-transform-innovate, with run being exploitation, and transform (copy) and innovate (invent) both being exploitation.

    The following reference you provided separately was also very helpful:
    “Living Systems Theory as a Paradigm for Organizational Behavior: Understanding Humans, Organizations, and Social Processes”, Jeffrey B. Vancouver, Behavioral Science (1996) Volume 41, issue 3, page:165-204.

    Referenced in the following paper: http://preval.org/files/Kellogg%20enfoque%20sistematico%20en%20evaluacion.pdf#page=65

    Thanks, -Jim

  2. Jim, Here are the details of the LST framework.

    The eight levels of living systems the Millers settled on are cells, organs, organisms, groups, organizations, communities, societies, and supranational systems.

    At each level, the living systems share twenty critical subsystems:

    — two which process both matter-energy and information: 1) reproducer and 2) boundary;

    — eight which process matter-energy only: 3) ingestor, 4) distributor, 5) converter, 6) producer, 7) matter-energy storage, 8) extruder, 9) motor, and 10) supporter;

    — ten which process information only: 11) input transducer, 12) internal transducer, 13) channel and net, 14) timer, 15) decoder, 16) associator, 17) memory, 18) decider, 19) encoder, and 20) output transducer.

    (Ken Bailey discusses the addition of the community level and timer subsystem in “Emergence, Drop-Back and Reductionism in Living Systems Theory” at http://www3.unitn.it/events/do/download/emergence.pdf.)

  3. Janet thanks for the helpful comment. I have a copy, but will take some time to find it… if you have it handy – can you remind us on the specifics of…

    Miller’s list of eight levels and 20 critical subsystems?

  4. In J.G. Miller’s Living Systems Theory, the entities you cite—universities, cities, luxury resort hotels, space ships, ocean liners—would themselves be identified as living systems, or input-output systems which process matter, energy, and information through the characteristic subsystems essential for their survival. From the introduction to Miller’s 1978 Living Systems book (1054 pages, in preparation for 25 years):

    “Firmly grounded in current scientific knowledge, Living Systems shows how biological and social systems are organized and operate at each of seven hierarchical levels: cells, organs (composed of cells); organisms (independent life forms); groups (families, committees, working groups, etc.); organizations (communities, cities, corporations, universities, multinational corporations, etc.); societies or nations; and supranational systems. …

    This book offers a detailed analysis of the major aspects and characteristics encountered at all seven levels. For every level it identifies multiple variables of each of 19 matter-energy and information processing subsystems, normal and pathological states of these variables, and practical indicators for measuring changes in them. The book also specifies cross-level formal identities among the levels and describes the artifacts, machines, or technologies employed at each level.”

    (Miller soon after settled on eight levels and 20 critical subsystems.)

    Also of special relevance to service systems science is G.A. Swanson’s work (with MIller and on his own) using LST as the basis for an integrative, coherent framework for accounting practices, e.g., Measurement and Interpretation in Accounting: A living systems theory approach (Swanson and Miller, 1989) and A Systems View of the Environment of Environmental Accounting (Swanson, 2006).

    For Swanson on Miller, see http://projects.isss.org/James_Grier_Miller

  5. David thanks for the pointer to Perlmutter’s notion of “indispensable institutions” – and yes, it does seem related to the concept of service system. A “holistic service system” is one that has to provide the range of service offerings typical of a city – transportation, water/air, food/products, energy, communications, buildings, retail/hospitality/media/entertainment, finance, health, education, security, and governance.

    So I think some institutions are not holistic service systems.

    However, institutions that have to provide overnight accomodations for people, become quite close. Such as hospitals.

  6. #jimspohrer Your “holistic service systems” have a spirit similar to “indispensable institutions”, as described by Howard Perlmutter in Towards a Theory and Practice of Social Architecture. In 1965, Perlmutter differentiated between organizations (as expendable tools) and institutions (as relatively indispensible).

    Perlmutter wrote:

    At least three features characterize an institution:
    (a) its functions and services are related to society’s commonly agreed requirements, as tested by its adaptability over time to human needs and values;
    (b) its internal structures embody and protect commonly held norms and values of the society to which it is related;
    (c ) its achievements over time have included influencing the environment in positive ways, as, for example, through the values it creates and makes available to other institutions which are linked to it.
    One indication of an institution’s indispensability is to be found in the attempts by individuals, groups, and other institutions in the environment to preserve it when it risks failure or begins to be ineffective — when the threat of its disappearance becomes actual (Selznick, 1957). [1965, p. 2-3]

    The “other institutions which are linked to it” means that the success of the institution can’t be independent of the success of others.

    I don’t particularly like the use of the word “holistic” because it’s an overloaded term. It feels as though you may be reaching for systems that service multiple functions in multiple supersystems, e.g. universities not only have the functions of producing research and teaching within an academic perspective, but also attracting employees with deep talent who are also contributors to the social and economic wealth of a city. This puts us into the ballpark of Gunnar Hedlund’s work on heterarchy that was closely related and complementary to Perlmutter’s work.

Leave a Reply