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One of the activities in Part 1 of TU812 asks us to draw a Trajectory diagram that shows our points of entry to the module.  Effectively, how is it we got here.

In my Trajectory diagram, I have a note ‘first exposure to word systems – King’s Fund work in Newcastle using whole systems’.  It set me thinking…

In 1996/97, not long after I came back from a year of traveling, I was working in a charity managing a volunteer scheme which involved volunteers visiting older people for a short period of time after they returned home from a hospital stay.  At the time, our then Health Authority had instigated a piece of work with the King’s Fund introducing “whole systems working” into strategic planning for older people’s services.  Newcastle was one of only four sites in the country involved in this work.  A book describing ‘whole systems working’, which includes Newcastle’s story was published in 1999 (with a second edition in 2005)*.

The large group, whole systems interventions we were involved in at the time were a revelation to the traditional ‘expert-led’ conferences.  The most symbolic aspect was the seating – people sat on round tables, cabaret style rather than in a top table, lecture format.  Over 200 people were involved one way or another in this work and a few of us were interested enough to do some related courses and dig into the principles behind the approach.  We learned to design the large scale events and carried it into other arenas.

But then it kind of disappeared. Occasionally, we still have large scale events and most of them still use round tables but very few are truly designed on the principles of whole systems working.

It is hard to pinpoint why it withered away, rather than blossomed.  Obviously the external input and drive finished and many people moved on.  But it can’t be a coincidence that we found ourselves caught up in a national performance management regime that made us focus on targets, not outcomes.  Our energy went on building control regimes and reporting structures.  NHS Commissioning became more ‘formal’ and required needs assessments which valued expert and data driven ways of ‘knowing’.  All of this required so much of people’s time and energy that in the statutory sector at least people had little time for anything innovative and ‘different’.

But there is a legacy of this work embodied in people like me who experienced the benefits of paying attention to relationships, meaning and connection and have carried that with them since.  I can honestly say that this foundation affected the jobs I have applied for and the way I approach my work.  It affected which modules I chose for my MBA. And, it even meant that the OU course title “TXR248 Experiencing Systems” caught my eye one day – it was that residential school that made me aware that there is a discipline of Systems and such a thing as systems thinking and practice.

And now we have localism – the national performance management regime is being removed – we are to be more accountable to local people.

Is there an opportunity to bring it all back – dust off the round tables…brush up on event design and appreciative inquiry…add that into the newer stuff I am learning…reconnect with the others who are still around…set off a new spark and a new direction.  What a great thought!

*Pratt J, Gordon P and Plamping D (1999,2005) “Working whole systems: putting theory into practice in organisations” King’s Fund, London

Available on Google Books, Amazon and on the Working Whole Systems website

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