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Information Flow and Systems Theory

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Information Flow and Systems Theory

Open systems of interaction, originally applied to biological systems, provides a compelling symbolic foundation for an IS study of EM decision-making. Many IS studies found basis for systems of information flow using Shannon and Weaver’s 1947 communications / information systems model (Figure 1) to describe group communication systems.5

Figure 1

Lewin, Lippitt, and White (1939) introduced the systems approach to studying the group information process; however, scholars did not embrace the theory until Bales (1950) enhanced it. Bales compared groups—like those found in EM—to an open system that is, from inception to outcome, a cyclical process—dynamic, continuous, and evolving (Hare, A. Paul, 1962; Harris and Sherblom, 2002). EM organizations can be viewed as a subsystem within the larger social system—an open system. An open system is a set of interrelated components that operate together as a whole with three major elements: input, process, and output. Multiple subsystems of transactions, called processes, characterize a system of interaction, called information flow. These processes are between and among people, components who continually and simultaneously send output and receive input. The purpose of these transactions is to achieve a mutual goal, a successful outcome (Bales, 1950) (Table 5).

Table 5

Information Flow Systems

System elements

Example in EM


  • preparation, response, recovery, mitigation  


  • police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, meteorologists, volunteer groups, building inspectors, politicians. local/state/federal officials, businesses, nearby jurisdictions


  • disaster prevention, disaster mitigation

The Communications discipline investigates face-to-face and virtual systems of information flow and decisions. It has provided group information flow with a respectable position in formal research (Poole, M., 2004). Studies include groups as systems (Hare, A Paul, 2003; Lester, Ready, Hostager and Bergmann, 2003; Mabry, 1999; McGrath, Arrow and Berdahl, 2000; Moon et al., 2003; Prekop, 2002), group interaction (information flow) (Chernyshenko, Miner, Baumann and Sniezek, 2003; Kelly and Loving, 2004; Wilkinson and Fung, 2002; Wittenbaum et al., 2004), virtual group interaction (Balthazard, Potter and Warren, 2004; Benbunan-Ficha, Hiltz and Turoff, 2003; Dasgupta, 2003), group decisions (Condon, Golden and Wasil, 2003; Ellis and Fisher, 1994; Poole, Marshall, 1985; Slezak, 2000; Sunwolf and Seibold, 1999), and virtual group decisions (Alge, Wiethoff and Klein, 2003; Benbunan-Ficha, Hiltz and Turoff, 2003; Burkhalter, Gastil and Kelshaw, 2002).

IS studies of information behavior, flow, and processes as systems could contribute to the success of EM organizations, who interact by consulting and researching national organizations—for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—to gain information (input), and then make suggestions (output) to local EM members and EM researchers to solicit feedback. The feedback then becomes further input and shapes the subsequent suggestions made by all EM information contributors until a decision is reached. Systems theory is also the framework for a newer theory, the Bona Fide Group Perspective (BFGP) that can be used to demonstrate the relationship of EM as a whole to information flow. BFGP is one of four contemporary theories that describe information flow (Table 6).

Table 6

Four Major Contemporary Theories Of Information Flow In Groups


Functional Theory is a normative approach to explaining group information flow. The focus of functional theory are inputs and processes, elements grounded in systems theory (Wittenbaum et al., 2004) and Dewey’s reflective thinking model.


Structuration Theory is a way to explain the pattern of relationship between the group system of information flow and the group structure, the rules and resources members use to maintain the group system (Poole, Marshall, 1985).

Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT)

Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT) explains the information flow process of group members as they form group identity. The group assuming its own identity significantly improves decision-making (Bormann, 1982).


BFGP is a theory created by Putnam and Stohl (1990) that embraces the relationship between groups and their larger social systems. BFGP proposes two major ideas: 1) groups have permeable and fluid boundaries with shifting borders and 2) groups are embedded in and interdependent with their environment, their larger system.

The systems metaphor (Appendix E), however, remains the basis for textbook study of group information flow(Arrow, Poole, Henry, Wheelan and Moreland, 2004; Bales, 1999). The IS application of systems theory overlaps with communications, cognition, small group research, management, and therefore demonstrates the potential for integration into EM research.

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