Now in its 107th year (2014) the International Academy of Pathology (IAP) can justifiably claim that its exponential growth (a metric of its success) has been closely tied to the fact that it has continuously and virtually simultaneously adapted to the needs of not only its professional constituency but also society at large -- all the while remaining true to its founding spirit, i.e. its “mission and objectives”. The IAP is a star instantiation of system that meets the demands of these two dimensions: its sustained successes attributed to the open systems nature of the enterprise. This document briefly outlines:
(a) what a complex system and derivatively what an open system is;
(b) the virtues of an open system; and
(c) how (a) and (b) impacts the IAP’s objectives.
Complexity and Open Systems
Systems theory is a veritable smorgasbord of interdisciplinary research programmes that cuts across computational intelligence, biology, philosophy, sociology, organizational theory, management, and economics -- to name the most prominent. The broad confluence of interest in “complexity” has its modern conceptual provenance in the Scottish Enlightenment, namely in the work of Adam Smith . Because of the interdisciplinary nature of complexity studies, a shared vocabulary or terminology is far from settled. The two typical features (“family resemblances” so to speak) of this loose coalition (“complexity studies”) are emergence and self-organization. Though the term “complexity” is highly contentious an “open” system, as the term implies is one that has ongoing feedback loops with its external environment, its boundaries being somewhat porous. “Closed” systems, by contrast, tend to be more self-contained and come in a variety of familiar guises and can be corporate, theocratic or political in nature. In light of this, any system whereby information is somehow, in the broadest sense of the term “sequestered,” must surely be deemed a closed system.
The Virtues of an Open System
Closed systems are problematic first and foremost because science itself has historically been an open (and spontaneous) system requiring the dissemination of knowledge not only for the community of science but also for the common good (i.e. society at large) [2, 3, 4, 5]. Pathologists (and scientists in general), having a natural tendency to share knowledge, are therefore attuned to the inextricably linked problem of managing the staggering volume of knowledge (a characteristic of science in general and medical science in particular). The associated logistics of dissemination can only be efficiently effected though a decentralized, open and consequently a dynamic system.
The IAP as an Open System
The IAP’s raison d’etre is the advancement of pathology through the improvement of methods of teaching pathology in medical schools, laboratories, hospitals and medical museums. The IAP coordinates anatomic pathology, pathologic physiology and comparative pathology, ensuring evolving diagnostic parameters, pathogenic stages and consequential medical and surgical therapies are available on a global basis -- with allied sciences and techniques. To effect this successfully, the Global IAP’s open system structure comes to the fore. The key to the open character of the system is in its coordinating of the aforementioned activities: that is, the IAP executive it is not in the business of centralizing, instructing or directing: the emphasis is very much on cooperation, coordination and collaboration. It is a distributed and thus open system that facilitates and aggregates knowledge, leaving implementation to local divisions and assemblies.
Figure 1: This simple graphical representation illustrates that the greater body of the IAP is comprised of 55 regional divisions. The outer ring connotes the coordinating function, not as a centralizing tendency, but as the IAP facilitating and coordinating the free-flow of information between the 55 divisions.
One of the most conspicuous “open system” aspects of the IAP’s activities is The Knowledge Hub for Pathology (TKHP) and numerous IAP Divisional websites. The TKHP is an online open system in that its design removes stumbling blocks to access and welcomes both innovators and adaptors to conduct creative and translational research, a digital analogue of the conventional IAP, in support of the common good [2, 6]. Moreover, as already indicated above, given the volume and dynamic nature of scientific knowledge, it would be impracticable for any centralized body to manage the overwhelming volume of knowledge . To claim otherwise would fall foul of what Hayek termed the “pretence of knowledge”, the rationalistic tendency or belief that complex phenomenon can be managed merely through the implementation of a plan or blue-print, typically via a centralized institutional body .
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