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Synergy, parts, wholes

Synergy is a term that is sometimes used by laymen that could use some more clarification.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines synergy as:

The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects: ‘the synergy between artist and record company’

Origin: Mid 19th century: from Greek sunergos ‘working together’, from sun- ‘together’ + ergon ‘work’.

A common understanding is that synergy means that “a whole that is more than the sum of its parts”.  Since I’ve said that “Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes, and their relations”, a richer appreciation may come through working through a selective history on parts and wholes.  Let’s step through:

  • 1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)
  • 2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)
  • 3. Levels as “hierarchization” or “progressive organization (or individualization)” (von Bertalanffy 1932-1949 via Drack 2009)
  • 4. Normative model of work group synergy (Hackman 1987)
  • 5. Logical type in hierarchy theory (Allen 2008)

A challenge in appreciating a whole is: what is meant by more than?  In addition, is there a possibility for a whole to be less than the sum of its parts?  The formalization of systems theory (in the modern sense) didn’t really rise until the 1950s, so rather than going back to ancient Greek philosophers, let’s start in the 20th century.

1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)

Holism was coined as a term in the 1920s.  Jan Smuts was an amateur botanist, better known as a statesman, soldier and prime minister (1919-1924, 1939-1948) of South Africa.  The Encyclopedia Britannica writes:

Until he went to school at the age of 12, Smuts lived the life of a South African farm boy, taking his share in the work of the farm, learning from nature, and developing a life-long love of the land. Many years later, when asked by an American botanist why he, a general, should be an authority on grasses, Smuts replied, “But my dear lady, I am only a general in my spare time.”

Smuts’ career in politics and passion for botany shows up in appreciating a whole as more than mechanism.  In the 1926 book Holism and Evolution, he wrote:

The whole is not a mere mechanical system. It consists indeed of parts, but it is more than the sum of its parts, which a purely mechanical system necessarily is. The essence of a mechanical system is the absence of all inwardness, of all inner tendencies and relations and activities of the system or its parts. [….]

A whole, which is more than the sum of its parts, has something internal, some inwardness of structure and function, some specific inner relations, some internality of character or nature, which constitutes that more. And it is for us in this inquiry to try to elucidate what that more is. The point to grasp at this stage is that, while the mechanical theory assumes only external action as alone capable of mathematical treatment, and banishes all inner action, relation or function, the theory of the whole, on the contrary, is based on the assumption that in addition to external action between bodies, there is also an additional interior element or action of bodies which are wholes, and that this element or action is of a specific ascertainable character.  [Smuts 1926, pp. 103-104, editorial paragraphing and emphasis added]

Wholes are therefore composites which have an internal structure, function or character which clearly differentiates them from mere mechanical additions or constructions, such as science assumes on the mechanical hypothesis.  And this internal element which transforms a mere mechanical addition or sum into a whole shows a progressive development in Nature. Wholes are dynamic, organic, evolutionary, creative.  The mere idea of creativeness should be enough to negative the purely mechanical conception of the universe.

It is very important to recognise that the whole is not something additional to the parts: it is the parts in a definite structural arrangement and with mutual activities that constitute the whole. The structure and the activities differ in character according to the stage of development of the whole; but the whole is just this specific structure of parts with their appropriate activities and functions. Thus water as a chemical compound is, as we have seen, a whole in a limited sense, an incipient whole, differing qualitatively from its uncompounded elements Hydrogen and Oxygen in a mere state of mixture; it is a new specific structure with new physical and chemical properties. The whole as a biological organism is an immensely more complex structure with vastly more complex activities and functions than a mere chemical compound. But it must not be conceived as something over and above its parts in their structural synthesis, including the unique activities, and functions which accompany this synthesis. It is the very essence of the concept of the whole that the parts are together in a unique specific combination, in a specific internal relatedness, in a creative synthesis which differentiates it from all other forms of combination or togetherness. The combination of the elements into this structure is in a sense creative, that is to say, creative of new structure and new properties and functions. These properties and functions have themselves a creative or holistic character, as we shall see in the sequel.  At the start the fact of structure is all-important in wholes, but as we ascend the scale of wholes, we see structure becoming secondary to function, we see function becoming the dominant feature of the whole, we see it as a correlation of all the activities of the structure and effecting new syntheses which are more and more of a creative character.  [Smuts 1926, pp 104-105, emphasis added]

Smuts’ larger work on holism brings up ideas of creative activity, progress and development of wholes, so evolution and time are also involved.  Let’s skip forward a decade into another field.

2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)

Gestalt, says wiktionary, is a German word that doesn’t have quite the same sense in English.  Gestalt psychology focuses on innate mental laws leading to principles of perception.  A core idea, attributed to Kurt Koffka, was that a whole could be perceived as a shape or form, with parts as secondary.  One of Koffka’s associate, Grace Heider, commented on the much misquoted phrase from her memory at a meeting circa 1932.

I also remember [Kurt Koffa] making a fine distinction when a questioner asked him whether Gestalt psychology wasn’t mostly a matter of saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts:  “No, what we mean is that the whole is different from the sum of its parts.”  [Heider 1977, editorial emphasis added]

By 1935, Kurt Koffa had himself published a clarification in Principles of Gestalt Psychology.

… our reality is not a mere collocation of elemental facts, but consists of units in which no part exists by itself, where each part points beyond itself and implies a larger whole.  Facts and significance cease to be two concepts belonging to different realms, since a fact is always a fact in an intrinsically coherent whole.  We could solve no problem of organization by solving it for each point separately, one after the other; the solution had to come for the whole.  Thus we see how the problem of significance is closely bound up with the problem of the relation between the whole and its parts.

It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts.  It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful.  [Koffka 1935, p. 176, editorial paragraphing and emphasis added]

On the path towards understanding wholes, gestalt would be a topic of discussion in the Macy Conferences from 1945, with the rise of the cybernetics movement.

3. Levels as “hierarchization” or “progressive organization (or individualization)” (von Bertalanffy 1932-1949 via Drack 2009)

The father of General Systems Theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, evolved his ideas over the period 1932 to 1949.  Manfred Drack, a systems scholar and native German speaker, provides a helpful history of the development of ideas:

Although Bertalanffy already writes about wholeness and systems in early papers, the meaning of the term ‘system’ remained implicit for a long time. The explicit definition of the term was not presented before 1945, when a system was defined as a complex of elements in interaction (von Bertalanffy, 1945).

In the Aristotelian idea that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’, the ‘more’ is seen in the relations between the parts, which again shows the attempt to introduce a scientific approach. ‘The properties and modes of action of the higher levels are not explainable by the summation of the properties and modes of action of their components as studied only in isolation. But if we know all the components brought together and all the relations existing between them, then the higher levels are derivable from their components. (von Bertalanffy, 1932, p. 99; 1949a, p. 140).

As knowing all the parts and their relations may be hard to achieve or even practically impossible, the search for laws of higher order is proposed.  [Drack 2009, p. 566]

What is meant by (higher) levels?  Drack clarifies these as principles of “hierarchization” or “progressive organization (or individualization)”.  Of von Bertalanffy’s basic concepts as two principles (eventually becoming three), we’re most interested in the second:

The second ‘principle’ is the ‘striving of the organic Gestalt for a maximum of formness [Gestaltetheit]’ (von Bertalanffy, 1929b, p. 104). This is meant to play a role in ontogenesis as well as in phylogeny, and later becomes the ‘principle of hierarchization’ or ‘principle of progressive organization (or individualization)’ (von Bertalanffy, 1932, pp. 269–274, 300–320). The dynamic interactions in the system give rise to order. This principle is very much related to epigenetic phenomena and comprises the development from an initial equipotential state to segregation processes. This is followed by differentiation and specialization, where some sort of centralization, with ‘leading parts’ that control the development of other subsystems, can also occur. Characteristic is the inherent trend towards an ever- increasing complexity — a trend that he later (von Bertalanffy, 1949a) calls ‘anamorphosis’, after Richard Woltereck had coined the term in 1940 (cf. Drack et al., 2007). The ‘hierarchical’ or stratified organization was also used synonymously with the more neutral term ‘enkapsis’ (von Bertalanffy, 1934a, pp. 351f).  [Drack 2009, p. 566, editorial emphasis added]

The whole may be misconceived as being at the same level as the parts:  the whole could be at a higher order in a hierarchy (or possibly devolve into a lower order).  More insight into the meaning of level can be obtained by a deeper reading of von Bertalanffy’s work, or more recent work on type and scale in hierarchy theory (below).

4. Normative model of work group synergy (Hackman 1987)

Narrowing our scope down from systems in general (i.e. biological or ecological contexts), the idea of synergy has been popular in business.  One source that mentions both positive synergy and negative synergy comes from Richard Hackman, from research in 1983 formally published in 1987.  This is a normative model prescribing gains and losses from working in groups, rather than originally coming from empirical research.


Group synergy “tunes” the impact of design and contextual factors. Positive synergy — that is, when the synergistic gains from group interaction exceed group process losses — can help a group overcome the limitations of a poor performance situation (e.g., a badly designed group task or an unsupportive reward system). And if performance conditions are favorable, positive synergy can help a group exploit the opportunities those conditions provide. Negative synergy, when process losses exceed synergistic gains, has opposite effects. It can amplify the negative impact of a poor performance situation, and it can prevent a group from taking advantage of favorable circumstances. The relationship between performance conditions (i.e., the group design and the organizational context) and group synergy are illustrated in figure 20.7. 28 

Figure 20.7 Consequences for task behavior of the interaction between performance conditions and group synergy
(Group Design and Organizational Context)
Unfavorable Favorable
GROUP SYNERGY Predominantly negative Amplification of the impact of performance-depressing conditions Failure by the group to exploit opportunities in the performance situation
Predominantly positive Damping of the negative effect of performance conditions; perhaps transcending their effects for a limited period of time Full exploitation of favorable performance conditions

28. Although performance conditions and group synergy are placed on separate axes in the figure, they are not independent: positive synergy is more likely under favorable conditions, and negative synergy is more likely under unfavorable conditions. Thus performance spirals can develop. For example, good group performance can lead to management decisions that improve the group’s performance situation, which promotes positive synergy, which results in even better performance, and so on. Equally plausible is a negative spiral, in which poor performance begets organizational “tightening up,” resulting in negative synergy, and so on.

The normative model that has been discussed in this section specifies a number of factors that should be present if a group is to perform well. It does not say how the strengths and weaknesses of a group can be assessed, nor does it specify what managers can do to create an effective work group. [Hackman 1987, p. 332]

Systems thinking is relatively strong is this work in organizational behavior, reflecting the popularity of contingency theory in the 1980s.  Organizational performance results not only from the dynamics of the group, but also the conditions in the organizational context.  The potential to spiral either up or down shows attention to dynamics over time.

In this normative model, the group can exhibit positive synergy (where the benefits of group interaction outweigh process losses) or negative synergy (where the weight of process losses calls for disaggregated effort).  This perspective limits synergy to social contexts, and isn’t generalized across other types of systems.

5. Logical type in hierarchy theory (Allen 2008)

Jumping forward to the 21st century, progress in (general) systems theory has continued.  In the sciences of biology and ecology, scale has traditionally been the way that researchers have seen the world.  Allometry is the study of biological scaling.  With hierarchy theory, Timothy F.H. Allen sees logical types as an alternative, particularly in appreciating cross-scale effects.  In 2008, he contributed to an encyclopedic entry:

In the terms of Russell and Whitehead (made accessible by Gregory Bateson), new scientific ideas amount to the definition of new logical types. Hierarchy theory’s central activity is recognizing logical type. Logical types are tied to some new level of inclusivity, a new hierarchical level with its own meaning.  [….]

Ecology in particular invites many logical types because its hierarchies are so rich. A new type invokes new aggregation criteria, which come explicitly from observer decisions. Consider the difference between a community conception of vegetation as opposed to the process-functional conception that prevails in ecosystem modeling. A forest can be considered as a collection of trees on a tract of land. Alternatively those same tree trunks may be aggregated as a separate class from the leaves (Figure 1).

2008 Encyclopedia of Ecology, T.F.H. Allen, Figure1p
Figure 1 A community conception leads to an expected situating of whole trees in an environment. But a process-functional ecosystem conception of that same forest can lead to a hierarchy where tree boles are separated from the leaves, and then united with soil elements in a carbon storage compartment. Each respective hierarchy takes its form from the purpose for which it is intended.

If leaves in a forest are the production system independent of species, then the boles are part of the carbon storage function. This assignment has the peculiar effect of unifying the tree trunks with soil carbon in a single carbon storage compartment. A community focus aggregates trees set in an environment of soil and atmosphere. Meanwhile a flux-process conception splits the trees into at least two parts, one of which aggregates with the soil. But the soil was part of the environment in the community conception. Thus the same pieces of soil and plant biomass are aggregated into different higher units, depending on the type of system that is recognized as being in the foreground by the observer. Note how forests under either conception may be called forest ecosystems, suggesting that one use of hierarchy theory is to untangle alternative meanings in commonplace ecological terminology. The difference between a process-focused ecosystem and a community is a change in logical type. [Allen 2008, p. 1853, editorial emphasis added]

With multiple logical types, a part can have relations with multiple wholes.  There could not only be multiple wholes in the physical world, but also multiple wholes in general (e.g. Angyal 1941).  Hierarchy theory recognizes scale, at the same time it introduces logical type as a frame for science.

Scale and Type

Scale problems invited hierarchy theory into the discipline. Ecologists have long been aware of scale, investigating the properties of quadrats in obtaining estimates of vegetation in the 1950s. Then change in variance across quadrat size was used to measure aggregation of plants on the ground. Hierarchy theory remains associated with scale today. The observation protocol brings attention to a universe of a certain extent, while making a second distinction, the finest grain at which observation units are distinguished from one another. Grain and extent together characterize the scalar level in question in many ecological hierarchies. Grain and extent are connected. Wider extents require coarser grains, if the mass of data are to be remembered, analyzed, and understood. […]

In contrast to linking across scales, it is possible to unify ecology across types of ecological system that correspond to the main subdisciplines of ecology: organism; population; community; ecosystem; landscape; biome; and biosphere. These types for ecological subdisciplines are explicitly not scale based, and so are not required to be assigned to level in the order given in the previous sentence. When scale is parsed away from type, the various approaches to ecology achieve a sharper depth of focus, offering clear relief between types of investigation. The subdisciplines of ecology are not scalar levels. If they are levels at all, they are type-based levels of organization, with the different types related to one another by asymmetric relationships made explicit in the definitions. [….]  An ecological hierarchy may change the scale and type at the same time, but it is fraught with conceptual danger. Indeed, hierarchy theory is often invoked to clean up the mess in the aftermath of scale and type being mixed together. There is no prohibition changing both together, but only so long as the relationships at each new level are explicit. This matters because most descriptions of ecological material precisely do change type across widening scalar levels, although most of them do not follow the textbook ordering from organism to biosphere. For instance, in a forest community, a rotting tree trunk may be considered an ecosystem, whose upper surface is landscape, on which grows a community of bryophytes.

[….]  Hierarchy theory can capture a rich set of scaled examples across a mixture of types. Ecology is a multiple- scaled labyrinth of types. Hierarchy theory is the ball of string that we can trail behind, so that ecological scientists do not get lost. [Allen 2008, p. 1857]

Within a specified scale, parts, wholes and relations can contemporaneously be identified.  Narrowing or broadening a scale is equivalent to specifying the boundaries of a system of interest.  Hydrogen and oxygen are parts of water.  Hydrogen and oxygen are typed as chemical elements.  Water is typed as a chemical compound.  Within a specified scale, parts and wholes can be recognized as different types.

So, in appreciating a whole, what is meant by more than … or different from … or something else than?  We can identify parts as (a) type(s), and then identify a whole as a different type.  A whole isn’t a part that is rescaled (i.e. it’s not just a bigger part, or a summation of parts).  A whole is a type that has properties that differ from those in the parts.  The property of wetness in water (as a whole in a chemical compound) does not exist as a property in hydrogen or oxygen (as parts of chemical elements).


Allen, Timothy F. H. “Hierarchy Theory in Ecology.” Encyclopedia of Ecology. Academic Press, 2008. doi:10.1016/B978-008045405-4.00692-3.

Drack, Manfred. “Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s Early System Approach.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 26, no. 5 (September 1, 2009): 563–72. doi:10.1002/sres.992.

Hackman, J. Richard. “Design of Work Teams.” In Handbook of Organizational Behavior, edited by Jay W. Lorsch, 315–42. Prentice-Hall, 1987., previously published as as “A Normative Model of Work Team Effectiveness”, Technical Report #2, Research Program on Group Effectiveness, Yale School of Organization and Management, November 1983.

Heider, Grace M. “More about Hull and Koffka.” American Psychologist 32, no. 5 (1977): 383. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.32.5.383.a.

Koffka, Kurt. Principles Of Gestalt Psychology. Routledge, 1935.

Smuts, Jan C. Holism and Evolution. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

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