One of the most important insights made in the realm of Systems Theory was due to Kent D. Palmer in a paper published in 2010. (Source: http://holonomic.net/sd01V04.pdf ). The key paper, under the title “Advanced Meta-Systems Theory For MetaSystems Engineers,” presents a radical reformulation of the relations between the concepts of “system” and “meta-system.” Palmer writes:
“A meta-system is what lies beyond the system, i.e. its context, milieu, environment, ecosystem, etc. For the meaning of sequential change we use the term emergence. For the meaning of above we speak of meta-levels or kinds of Being. So, by Meta-system we do not mean the meta-levels of Being, i.e. the logical meta-levels beyond the system, these are described in terms of meta-levels. And we do not mean by meta-systems what might be called meta-system transitions, which are described as emergent events. different authors have chosen to use the term ‘metasystem’ differently from this. But here we will try to sick to this usage in order to avoid confusion.
“By developing the meta-system as a focus of study we are attempting to describe the inverse dual of the system. The meta-levels of Being to not provide an inverse dual, nor do the metasystem transitions, or emergent events. The duality of the system can only be seen in the beyond meaning of ‘meta’, We use the term meta-system for that dual only because our language does not provide a convenient term for this concept. That which forms the background on which the system is seen, that is the inverse dual of the system. By inverse dual we mean that all the attributes of the system are reversed in the meta-system forming a duality. This is different from the sort of duality that exists when attributes are merely rearranged. For instance, a system as a social gestalt is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. So a meta-system is a whole less than the sum of its parts. The system has a positive appearance as a perceptual or conceptual unity, while a meta-system is a totality that does not have the unity but forms the background on which the unity of the system is seen. The meta-system inverts the attributes of the system but also reverses them as well. A meta-system is a field of niches within which systems may fit. A meta-ystem has holes just right for the system to fit into. It is a whole les than the sum of the parts, because the parts are systems and they have been withdrawn, so the meta-system is what is left when all the systems are taken out of their context, and the meta-system is the deconstructed, disunified, detotalized field that is left. […]
“The meta-system is not a unity, nor is it a totality, but is a whole less than the sum of the systems that go into it. Yet it provides these systems with resources and it protects them, and it gives them an environment in which to be created, exist, and then which destroys them. Meta-systems are active media that self-organize around the systems to provide for their needs. But we make a mistake if we just think that they are higher level systems. Systems of Systems merely applies to the schema of ‘system’ at a higher (or lower) level of abstraction. But meta-systems are made up of complementarities, or complementarities of complementarities. they are not unified and not totalities. Rather they provide the environment that the system needs to exist. They exist just beyond the interface of the system, either inside or outside of the system. In other words, the meta-system mediates between a system and its parts, just as well as it mediates between the supersystem (system of systems) and its subsystems. […] (Pages 1 – 3)
In these and other dense paragraphs, Kent Palmer develops the concept of meta-system beyond the consensual, mechanistic understanding, creating the basis for a powerful Systems Theory.
The key aspect to understand is one frequently seen in organisational life where the relationships between interacting systems can be characterised as “less than a system” or more directly as non-rational and non-complete articulation of parts. In this sense, organisations can be conceived as more or less “pure” environments of systems, or the ground where production and business systems interact. The space created by these interactions is marked by lacks and “holes,” by inefficiencies and functional gaps which are nevertheless part of the normality of the organisation.
In this sense –following Palmer—an organisation can be seen as non unified de-totalised mesh of complementarities, which nevertheless exists as the supporting ground of the actual production and control systems. A realistic and sobering view of organisations arises here, one which does not expect self-sustaining processes or transformation trends which might lead to higher levels of rationality and operational quality. Instead, a meta-system picture will help to see how the gaps and lacks in the organisation are effectively functional (i.e. complementary and supporting) to those processes which are lodged in the meta-system.
One precision is necessary in relation to Palmer’s definitions, specifically when he says that “the meta-system is what is left when all the systems are taken out of their context.” This seems to consider a situation where the systems can be “withdrawn,” or “taken out of context.” Obviously this does not correspond to the essence of Palmer’s thesis, which assumes that systems and meta-systems are co-created and co-dependent.