Social groups and social systems


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What does it mean to say enterprise architecture regards an enterprise as a system, or system of systems?

This is one of several related papers answering that question; it distinguishes social system from social groups.

Social groups

A social group has been defined as two or more actors who interact with one another, share similar characteristics, and collectively have a sense of unity.

(“Social Groups” Accessed June 2011.)


“Sharing of similar characteristics” implies a homogeneous population (e.g. a flock of sheep).

Homogeneity is not a necessary feature of actors in populations modelled as social systems.

E.g. System Dynamics is technique for modelling a heterogeneous population of actors (e.g. wolves interacting with sheep).

And EA is about integrating actors who play heterogeneous roles in business operations (e.g. suppliers, employees and customers).


“Sense of unity” implies a self-aware sensibility.

Self-awareness is not a necessary feature of actors in a bee hive, shoal of fish or a flock of sheep.

However, EA does take a holistic view in which it is assumed actors play roles towards common purposes (whether they know them or not).


“Interact with one another” implies inter-actor communication.

Most “higher” animals communicate with members of their immediate family.

Inter-actor communication first evolved to assist with survival.

It helps in finding mates, raising children, warning family members of danger and helping them find food.

Animals often live in groups larger than a family (and smaller than a species) because they find it advantageous to share information about the state the world.

So, social communication evolved with and for actors who benefit from living in a group.


Languages help group members to communicate.

A language comprises a vocabulary and grammatical rules for writing and reading information in signals.

E.g. Honey bees use the language of dance to communicate where pollen can be found.


Honey bees inherit (rather than learn) a limited, rigid vocabulary and grammatical rules to communicate pollen locations.

Evolution has resulted in languages that are more refined and information exchanges that are more sophisticated.

Humans use very rich languages, and continually adapt them.


Communication may be fuzzy and imprecise, just good enough to survive.

One honey bee’s dance signal should convey the same meaning to all bees who observe it.

But provided some bees find the pollen; it doesn’t matter if some others misread the message.

Humans, when conducting business transactions, expect the meaning of a message to be firm, precise and clear to all.

Communication of information about the state of the world                                              

Actors in a social group share knowledge about the state of their world through communication.

Bees have evolved to describe the locations of pollen sources, using the limited language of dance movements.

Humans are able to communicate the state of countless things using a wide variety of language constructs.


We can share knowledge not only by messages that flow from senders to receivers.

But also by recording – by storing facts about the world in a shared memory or data store that many actors can access.

The integration of humans into a social group depends on messages and memories - both individual and shared memories.

Social systems

Individuals in a social group use languages to share information about the state of the world.

In addition, these actors may play roles that are defined by rules for how to act on information received or retrieved.

Actors who do this - follow the rules of defined roles - can be seen as cooperating in a social system.


Consider the roles played by actors in these social systems: beehive, football team, choir, school, courtroom.

One social system can be realised by several social groups; there are many beehives, football teams and choirs.


Conversely, one social group can act as several social systems – its actors can play unrelated roles in (say) a football team and a school.

Whenever a social group’s actors follow given roles and rules, then that group acts as a social system.

Honey bees do this when they follow rules (they inherit) to watch another bee’s dance, read the message and find the pollen.

If you could persuade the same bees to follow different rules, the same social group would act as a different social system.


Much that human actors do is not relevant to a social system they play a role in.

Some of what they do (outside a defined role in a system) may even be contrary to the goals of that system.

Abstraction of social systems from social groups

A basic idea in system theory is that a system is an abstraction from a reality.

A social system is an abstraction from a social group.

A social group or a business is not a system just because you call it a “system” or “organisation”.

It is only a system in so far as it corresponds to an abstract system description – in mind or in documentation.


“At this point we must be clear about how a "system" is to be defined.

Our first impulse is to point at [some entity] and to say "the system is that thing there". 

This method, however, has a fundamental disadvantage.

Every material object contains no less than an infinity of variables and therefore of possible systems." (Ashby in “Introduction to Cybernetics”).


Similarly, we must be clear about how an “organisation” or "social system" is to be defined.

Our first impulse is to point at a bunch of people and say "the system is that thing there". 

This method, however, has a fundamental disadvantage.

Every group of people has an infinite variety of abilities and possible activities, and is therefore potentially an infinite variety of different systems.


"Any suggestion that we should study "all" the facts is unrealistic, and actually the attempt is never made.

What is necessary is that we should pick out and study the facts that are relevant to some main interest that is already given.” (Ashby in “Introduction to Cybernetics”).

System describers pick out, from a real world entity, only what is relevant to stakeholders’ interests in that named entity.

A social system describer cannot and does not describe people, only the roles people play in a system.

All the human actors in a system could be replaced, and provided the new actors play the same roles, the system remains intact.


The boundary of a social system is logical, not physical.
It includes only what is relevant to the described system and excludes what is irrelevant.
Inside the boundary are those abilities and activities of actors that are relevant to the system.
Outside the boundary is everything else.


A core element in a system’s description is role.

A core element in a system’s operation is not such much actor as the assignment of an actor to a role.

Of course, human actors may act outside any role given to them, or refuse to act as expected.

The system describer may allow for this in “exception paths”.

The system describer decides what range of choices and activities to include in the system and what to exclude.


Read “Actors, roles and assignments” for more on those three concepts

Return to this page Sense and nonsense in system theory for more.




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