Emergency Management Organizations are Flow Systems

At first, flow thinking appears as a simplistic way of thinking. However, looking at the elements of flow systems reveals an enormously dynamic entity.

Emergency Management Organizations 
are Flow Systems
The quintessential image for visualizing flow. 


This post originates from a lecture and paper prepared for the 2021 Northern European Conference on Emergency and Disaster Studies. I am now revisiting the article which I hope to publish. In this post, I will introduce the concept of flow systems, work through the foundational theory, and then ground the theoretical conversation in practical terms.

It is possible to conceive of communities as flow systems as well,  but that is beyond the scope of this post. If you are interested in this perspective, I have explored communities in a similar way in the Center for Homeland Defense and Security's Systems Thinking Course in the "Visualising Systems" module.

In earlier posts, I referred to emergency management organizations as complex adaptive systems. The idea of flow systems presented here is not meant to replace the complex adaptive systems approach but rather add flow to it as another key characteristic.

What are Flow Systems?

Emergency management organizations are flow systems: Elements flow in, and elements flow out and in between, internal transformative processes turn one into the other. This is the simplest definition of a flow system.

As they are imagined here, flow systems are integrated wholes with elements flowing through them. The flow is not passive as processes within the system actively work to transform the inflow into an outflow. A living flow system transforms food into waste through its internal processes. A flow system such as a steel mill turns ore into raw steel. Emergency management flow systems turn personnel, data, information, knowledge, experience, and technologies flowing into the system into the outflow of a successfully managed incident.

Flow systems are regularly encountered in daily and professional life inside and outside of emergency management. The field of emergency management, as well as the emergency services, have a unique relationship with flow systems as they can never not have elements flowing through them. In fact, emergency management organizations need to maintain continuous flow regardless of context. To be without flow is to be nonoperational. The flow systems perspective brings to the fore the core dynamics enabling emergency management organizations to operate effectively through varying contexts: Inflows, transformative processes, and outflows.

All dynamic systems are flow systems. In fact, openness to exchanges with the environment is a primary characteristic of systems. Flow systems bring in information, matter, and energy,  a portion of which is then exported out of the system. Systems exist in a state of "flowing balance" (Capra & Luisi 2014, p.86). Without flow, they cease to exist.

Much has been written about systems and flow. What this post intends to contribute to the conversation is a new conception of flow systems that focuses not only on the constitutive inflows, outflows, and internal processes within the system, but includes factors such as the way flow systems respond to events as structurally determined systems, continually reaffirm their own identity, and have social and technical components. To meet this end, socio-technical systems and an interpretation of autopoietic theory are braided together.

If all systems are flow systems, why bother with the distinction?

What is the benefit of calling emergency management organizations flow systems? Using the term "flow system" changes what we attend to and care about when observing a system such as an emergency management organization. A focus on flow draws attention to what is brought into the system, what exits the system, and any work done within the system to transform what comes in into what goes out. Distinguishing emergency management organizations as flow systems indicates there must be a continual inflow of a variety of elements into the system (e.g., information, funding, personnel) which then must be transformed into outflows that manage risk (e.g., emergency response, emergency operations center activations, services, phone applications, and other products). When working in the social domain where emergency management organizations exist, the flow systems distinction emphasizes not only the system's openness to exchanges with the environment but also the internal socio-technical transformative process that turns inflows into outflows. Flow is an active system process. The flow systems perspective, or “flow thinking,” makes clear the three components emergency managers can modify to change system performance. From this point forward, when "flow system" is written it will mean "emergency management organization" and vice versa.

Self-Reaffirming Systems

When encountering a flow system, we find them busy already doing something. The "thing" that they are doing when we observe them is being themselves -- their identity is their task (Stendera, 2015). The identity of a flow system is what the members of the organization understand it to be as well as those who are outside the organization (these conceptions of identity may differ even internally). Whether conceived internally or externally, identity is an emergent property, meaning it exists through the interactions and relationships of the system's parts. In addition to the inflows, outflows, and processes that turn one into the other, any number of the system's parts contributing to an organization's identity might be mentioned. For example: the type of work the organization does and how it does it; the production of outflows that deliver value to someone; theories about the social and technical components of the organization and how they should interact; the workforce; ideas about what value the organization produces and to what stakeholders; explicit statements such as mission, vision, purpose, and objective; and formal and informal communication pathways and reporting structures. While only a short list, the prior is intended to give a sense of what is involved in the emergence of identity that is the organization's central, but generally tacit, task to reproduce. Although there are many elements involved in identity reproduction, this post is concerned with putting forth a theory of flow systems. In accordance with this perspective, the reproduction of identity will focus on inflows, outflows, and transformative processes.

If the system's identity is continually reproduced, the organization maintains itself as it is. Reproduction of identity is an active process. The organization must be continually engaged in reproducing itself as itself.  The workforce generally unknowingly engages in it every day through their actions. Organizational members may purposefully take part in the work of perpetuating an identity out of interest in maintaining conditions within the organization the way they are or unconsciously simply to fulfill the requirements of daily work life. Central to identity reproduction (continuing to maintain the flow system's identity across time) is the work of taking inflows and turning them into outflows that produce value to someone. While identity reproduction is driven by the system churning inflows into outflows, the process does not stop there as identity reproduction is more than an internal affair. By drawing in inflows and transforming them into outflows that deliver value to stakeholders in the form of managing risk, identity is reproduced. If the outflows produced by the flow system do not manage risk, then the identity of the flow system is not reproduced, if even temporarily.


Flow systems contain socio-technical processes. The transformative processes that turn inflows into outflows that benefit someone are comprised of entangled social and technical components. The social component executes and carries out work that reaffirms identity through the use of technology. Leaders, managers, and supervisors determine what Trist, Higgin, Murray, and Pollock (2013) and others call the “goodness of fit” between the social and technical systems. Trist, Higgin, Murray, and Pollock (2013) explain it is the fit “between the human work organization and the technical requirements that ultimately determines the efficiency of the whole system” (p.294).

The fit between social and technical aspects also influences the experience of work the social component will have. For example, if in the process of transforming inflows into outflows the social component is dominated by the task of servicing technology, the work experience may be negative (Trist & Bamforth, 1951). Flow systems containing a technological component dominated by the social one might have the work experience of using artisanal methods but include feelings of frustration over a lack of technology.  As said above, there needs to be a "goodness" of fit.

Socio-technical transformative processes within flow systems continually produce outcomes that set the stage for further socio-technical processes. For example, social and technical components come together to produce a report. Once the report is finished, the next task can be started - work begets more work and drives identity reproduction forward. Socio-technical transformative processes are at the heart of flow systems. They are what perpetuate the identity of the organization through the active process of completing work, they drive the flow. Still, identity reproduction is contingent on the value of what the socio-technical processes produce and flow out of the system.

Structural Determinism

Flow systems are also structurally determined. When they are observed, it is discovered that the system determines how it will react to an event and not the event itself. Structural determinism suggests external events can only trigger change within systems but not determine what the changes are (Maturana & Varela, 1987; Mingers, 1995). All external forces can do is perturb a system and trigger a change, ruling out what Maturana and Varela (1987) refer to as an instructive interaction where a system’s behavior is determined by outside events. In discussing structural determinism, Capra and Luisi (2014) provide the following example:

If you kick a stone, it will react to the kick according to a linear chain of cause and effect and its behavior can be calculated by applying the basic laws of Newtonian mechanics. If you kick a dog, the dog will respond with structural changes according to its own nature and nonlinear pattern of organization– the resulting behavior is generally unpredictable (p.136).

There is an important idea in the above about causality. Structural determinism is counter to the idea of there being direct linear causality between incidents and organizational responses. In this frame, incidents cause organizations to react in certain ways. Structural determinism, on the other hand, says that incidents give organizations something to react to but do not specify what that reaction is.

There are two additional concepts of importance here: Organization and structure. In Maturana and Poerkson (2011), Maturana gives the example of a table. He explains a table is recognizable as such due to the relations between its components, for example, a flat surface supported by four legs. This is the organization of the table - its “tablehood” (Maturana & Poerkson, 2011, p.73). A table may have any number of structures, it may consist of metal, wood, glass, and two or four legs while still realizing the organizational form of “table.” Organization can remain invariant while structural changes are made, such as changing the flat surface from one material to another. Other structural changes such as cutting the table in half will cause it to lose its organization. The question becomes, "How much change is possible before things are no longer the same?" (Maturana & Poerkson, 2011).

Emergency Management Flow Systems

Flow systems have so far been described as being identity self-reaffirming, meaning they continually reassert their own identity, having social and technical components that combine to transform things flowing into the system to outflows that produce value for someone, and finally are structurally determined, meaning they react to stimuli based on their structure and not the event itself. Structure can be modified significantly in response to events within the constraints of organization. If structural changes exceed identity, identity may be lost, which would be catastrophic for an emergency management flow system. However, in a later publication, Maturana explains the loss of organization makes way for a new type of system to emerge. This does not fit the emergency management context outside of an intentional organizational transformation (Maturana & Verden-Zöller, 2008).

In Context

This post has so far been focused on setting in place the theoretical foundation that will make a discussion grounded in practice possible. To begin putting the above into context, it is important first to consider the relationships that give flow systems their "emergency management organizationhood." Like Maturana's "tablehood," "emergency management organizationhood" is used to convey the notion of organization, the relationships that make something recognizable as it is (e.g., a table, a fire apparatus, a house).

"Emergency management organizationhoood" will be found across all emergency management flow systems as it is a defining feature of this type of flow system. Relationships belonging to this type of system that grants them their "emergency management organizationhood" include, inflows, outflows, transformative processes, and the pattern of interactions between the flow system and the public where there is a delivery of goods and services that manage risk. These elements are what we expect to find when we encounter any emergency management organization. If the patterning of relationships between an organization and its environment produced the sale of shoes, then the flow system being observed would not be an emergency management organization.

There are different ways of realizing "emergency management organizationhood," as there are different structures that produce the same organization. Which is to say, there are many different ways of selecting and transforming inflows into outflows that deliver value to stakeholders in the form of reducing risk. From flow system to flow system, variations are endless. Inflows and outflows will vary as will the process that turns incoming elements into outgoing ones. Within the transformative processes are the social and technical components. The social component will vary in many ways including personnel, how the workforce is structured, as well as leadership, management, and supervisory staff and how these roles are understood, conceptions of the value being produced and to who, and the interaction with the technical component. The technical aspect will also vary by flow system in its relationship to the social component, the types of technologies in use, how they interact, and understandings about how they work or could work.

While "emergency management organizationhood" stays static across time, the structure that realizes it is dynamic. The elements listed above to describe how flow systems can vary structurally can all change as needed to meet the demands of the environment, including the demands of the stakeholders. Structure is vital to the flow system’s ability to maintain its "emergency management organizationhood" in the presence of disturbances.

In Action

As explored earlier, flow systems are structurally determined, meaning events do not determine responses, the structure of the flow system does. It is the way the system exists the moment an event unfolds that will determine what the response is. Flow systems are not without anticipation - events are not always complete surprises. Thus, they can ready themselves to respond to an event by modifying their structure ahead of time. The prior gives flow systems an adaptive quality as they are responding proactively to an incoming disturbance. Anticipation feeds adaptation which allows flow systems to respond with greater effectiveness to their environment (Di Paolo, 2005). Responses may include structuring for robustness in order to withstand an incoming disturbance or focusing on adaptability by creating ad-hoc teams to deal with a specific challenge, devising new plans and strategies, bringing in new technologies, holding exercises for emerging threats, or delivering training courses.

Whether anticipatorily or not, flow systems can draw on new or different inflows. New personnel such as consultants may flow into the system, information sources such as Facebook and Twitter may be integrated into the system, and new technologies may flow in as well. It is desirable to have redundancies: two flows serving the same purpose. The more inflows that a system can draw on and still maintain flow and identity self-reproduction, the more resilient and adaptive the system is. Of course, this is contingent on the social and technical components having the capacity to work with multiple types of flows and being able to transform them into the outflows stakeholders need.

The transformative processes within the system are of particular concern to enabling flow, reproducing flow system identity, and producing outflows that ultimately determine if identity is reproduced or not. Within the transformative processes, social and technical aspects may change. For example, if the flow system is operating in a dynamic environment with great uncertainty, the social component may be structured in a decentralized form. If the opposite is true, a more rigid, streamlined approach with a focus on eliminating waste and variation may be taken (Donaldson, 2001). The role of technology may also change, shifting from supporting process to driving it or vice versa. New technologies may also be put to use.

The social component must continue to find pathways for flow to move through the system in such a way that value is created for someone else. In doing so, the social aspect maintains the "emergency managementhood" of the system all while making structural changes to how it is realized. If structural changes exceed the system's "emergency management hood" perhaps through a failure to provide services that manage risk to the public, then identity is lost. In a departure from Maturana, identity being lost is not a permanent state, but something that can be recovered and returned to through the work of the social component.

Outflows are always of concern, but even more so during an incident. As stated in the opening, flow systems need to continue to flow. This makes them both operational and supports the reproduction of the systems "being themselves" in their unique way as they realize "emergency managementhood." The outflow of value may be the most challenging part of being a flow system. First, there is the issue of what value needs to be created and for who and determining how it should be designed. Second, there is the issue of getting the value to the correct people and having them do something with it. Issues like cultural barriers, differences of opinion, and available resources may complicate the prior. Third, there is the issue of how the value should be released. Should it be released on a fast timetable in component parts with each part bringing a portion of the total value? Or should emergency managers wait until the entire product or service is completed, and then release it out of the system? Lastly, how will the social component plan to correct errors should they arise? While not by any means a complete list, the prior is meant to give an idea of the challenges faced at the outflow stage.


The flow thinking that unfolds from a concern for flow systems draws attention to three main components: Inflows, outflows, and processes that transform inflows into outflows. At first, it appears as almost a simplistic way of thinking. However, looking at the three elements of flow systems introduced above reveals an enormously dynamic entity, the behavior of which cannot be reduced to any of the three component parts. In their complexity, flow systems produce an identity they continually reproduce through their own actions--namely, through the transformation of flows into outflows and stakeholders finding those outflows valuable. The transformative processes at the center of the flow system drive identity self-production forward. The completion of tasks sets the stage for carrying out more work. The cycle continually repeats itself. Breakdowns in this cycle interrupt the system's flow, its identity reproduction, and its operability. As flow systems are structurally determined, members of the system's social component respond to events based on the structure of the system when the event occurs. Structure becomes something to be modified ahead of an incident (e.g., events forecasted in the future) by experimenting with different organizational forms and means for delivering outflows.


Capra, F., & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Padstow, England: Cambridge University Press.

Donaldson, L. (2001). The contingency theory of organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.

Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2011). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition (2nd ed.). (W. K. Koeck, & A. R. Koeck, Trans.) Kaunas, Lithuania: Carl-Auer.

Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1987). The tree of knowledge. Boston, Massachusetts : New Science Library.

Mingers, J. (1995). Self-producing systems: Implications and applications of autopoiesis. New York, NY: Plenum Publishing.

Stendera, M. (2015). Being-in-the-world, temporality and autopoiesis. parrhesia, 261-284.

Trist, E. L., & Bamforth, K. W. (1951). Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal-getting: An examination of the psychological situation and defences of a work group in relation to the social structure and technological content of the work system. Human Relations, 4(1), 3-38. Retrieved from doi.org/10.1177/001872675100400101

Trist, E. L., Higgin, G. W., Murray, H., & Pollock, A. B. (2013). Organizational choice: capabilities of groups at the coal face under changing technologies : The loss, re-discovery & transformation of a work tradition. London: Routledge.