Managing systemic change

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Seems weird that since November I have been studying a course with “Managing systemic change” as the module title and I now start questioning whether I know what it is or not?  I think in part it is because I am trying to connect up how ‘social learning’ fits into ‘managing systemic change’.

There have been a couple of forum threads on what we understand by managing systemic change but each time I think I grasp it, it goes away again.

So, here are my gathered up thoughts:

– Starting with CHANGE – we have to accept that change is inevitable – it is going on around us all the time.  Our intent really is to shape or nudge that change in a certain direction.  What we need to learn to do is “influence change in a positive way in relation to particular purposes” (Open University, 2010, 12).

– Adding on SYSTEMIC to get SYSTEMIC CHANGE – “usually applies to change of a perceived system, or sub-system, as a whole rather than its constituent parts” (Blackmore, 2010, 201).  Remember, we are using system as an epistemic device, rather than thinking of it as having ontological status.

– and now the full-blown MANAGING SYSTEMIC CHANGE – the managing bit is not about prediction or control, it is best to think of it as a practice.  This is about “managing change in ways that strive to avoid systemic failure and associated unintended consequence” (Open University, 2010, 15).  The practice of managing is carried out by individuals or groups, and that practice can be enhanced by the use of systems thinking and practice (which encompasses both the systemic and the systematic).  And back to Blackmore (2010, 201)

The idea of managing […] is mainly about appreciating situations with others, recognising what actions are [systemically] desirable and [culturally] feasible and for whom , and getting organised, in order to affect or respond to change in a positive way (Blackmore, 2010, 201)

So where does learning come in.  Blackmore (2010, xiii) cites Bateson as saying “The word ‘learning’ undoubtedly denotes change of some kind.  To say what kind of change is a delicate matter”.  We also have Schon saying “a social system learns whenever it acquires new capacity for behaviour” (in Blackmore, 2010, 6).  So learning is a form of change.  But it gets kind of circular here because change actually requires learning – in managing systemic change you need to appreciate (aka learn about) a situation and “what is systemically desirable emerges out of a process of inquiry” (Open University, 2010, 15).  So are change and learning two sides of the same coin – or potentially they are in a relational dynamic – mutually constructing each other.  They are kind of inseparable really, I suppose.


Schön, D.A. (1973) Beyond the stable state pp.30, 116 – 179. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton and Company INC, New York reprinted as Chapter 1 in Blackmore, C. (Ed) (2010) Social learning systems and communities of practice, The Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London  pp. 5 – 16

Blackmore, C. (2009) Managing systemic change: future roles for social learning systems and communities of practice?, in Blackmore, C. (Ed) (2010) Social learning systems and communities of practice, The Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London pp. 201-217

The Open University (2010) “TU812 Managing systemic change: inquiry, action and interaction. Study Guide” The Open University, Milton Keynes.

3 thoughts on “Managing systemic change

  1. Hi Helen, I had a similar grapple with the idea and elements of managing systemic change on my blog a week or so ago. have you had a look at that? Might work as a springboard?
    Best – Arwen

  2. Thanks Arwen – I had a good look at your blog. Interesting that we are taking stock of similar issues.

    In reading your posts, I developed a new distinction in my head about ‘learning’ – when we concentrate on “critical social learning system” and “community of practice” there is a tendency to think of structures, of entities and all the risks of reification. But actually a lot of learning happens through a process over time – a process of appreciation or a process of inquiry or a process of understanding. I think I have been focussing too much on ‘structures’ and not enough about the ‘process’ side.

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