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There are times in a journey that it seems appropriate to take stock, look back, look forward and decide where to go next and how.  Now is one of those times.  I have now finished TU812 so I am leaving behind a learning system that someone else has structured and guided me through.  Now, I am on my own.  I need to be my own guide for a while.

In the past, I viewed the times when I was studying an OU module as a time of learning and the in-between times as times of embedding and consolidating.  I think that this is a reasonable approach given that you get so much thrown at you in a module it is hard to stand back from it all and see its value at the time.  But, the distinction should not really be of times when I ‘learn’ and times when I ‘do’, because in taking on board a disposition of small ‘r’ researcher, I am always learning just that some of it involves learning from the academic/intellectual endeavours and some of it involves learning from practice and experience.

I recognise now that the learning I value most from my history of being an OU student is when the academic/intellectual is immediately relevant to my practice.  And the learning that I most value from practice and experience is where I have used concepts/tools from academic/intellectual fields as an integral part of reflection and planning of actions.  In other words, it works best when I am braiding the two.

OU courses have always given me the space to approach this in a rigorous and staged way – and through the process of assignments and examined work, you can get a real idea of how well you are doing this.  But to use Schon’s metaphor – this is the high ground – a place where intellectual rigour and academic standards are important.  The trick seems to be how you take the skills, knowledge and tools that you gather on the high ground into the swampy lowland of issues of concern.

I suppose this is where the discipline of Systems is different, it may operate as an intellectual discipline but it aims to give you the skills, knowledge and tools that are appropriate for the swamp, rather than skills, knowledge and tools that are appropriate for the high ground.  In studying Systems, I have actually had to practice going through the swampy lowland from one shore of high ground to another – little islands of security to take stock before wading some more.

In real life, it’s easy to get bogged down in the swamp – time pressures; multiple demands; and no real sense of where you are going and what you may need along the way.  So in going on a self-guided journey I need to carry with me those ideas, tools and concepts I have gathered in my Systems studies and I need to travel with awareness of all of the choices that those ideas, tools and concepts give me.  And, remember that the course materials and text books offers shores of sanity if I need them.

(My mind has found a parallel in computer games!  I am not an Xbox user but I did once play Sonic the hedgehog enough to get through to the end 🙂 .  The experienced player of a game knows where to find the super-powers his or her character needs to get through the most difficult parts of the game.  So they learn through experience to collect the ‘jump high’ power, three or four screens before the character will need to do an extra high jump.)

The other big difference is feedback – as a formal student you get a mark, it is very tangible and practically real time compared with the time lag in the real world. In the swamp, the map changes as you go through it, at times the compass just spins around,  and sometimes you realise that you have just ignored and gone past something that was significant just because you did not know to value it at the time.  Evaluating your own journey and accepting the difficulties of ‘valuing’ and time lag are part and parcel of journeying in the swamp.

It is tempting to assume that a swampy journey is a lonely journey.  But it is not.  Part of what I carry with me is the heritage of the Systems discipline and all the people that contributed to its development – like a set of different voices that are with you.  (Not in the sense of schizophrenia but drawing on Bakhtin‘s idea of language being populated with other voices).  Not only that but I’ll also go legs of this journey with other people – people from my different communities and networks.  This requires me to be clear enough about my intent to be able to say ‘I am thinking of going in this direction, anyone else heading that way-ish’ and being able to form a group to journey with for a while.

So what does all this mean for me, at this junction I am at now.  Going back to my motivation for studying Systems – getting enough confidence both to improve my own practice but also to introduce to others – this is all about brokering a relationship between two communities that to date I have kept separate – the community of people doing Systems and the community of people striving to improve wellbeing and health.  It is about how I draw together those two communities so they learn from each other’s understandings and practices.

At work, this is about those day to day interactions.  I’ve already made what I see to be a desirable (and hope to be feasible) move by sharing my end of module project – a Briefing Paper on opening up possibilities to improve capabilities for managing systemic change for purpose of improving health and wellbeing – with my manager.  He has agreed to read it and we have an hour scheduled to talk about it!  In some ways, I am testing the ground – making an intervention to see whether it leads to productive conversation and any ripple effects.  It is the first time ever, I have explicitly introduced a product of my academic/intellectual life into my work life – although many other things have been diluted down and introduced in a more disguised way.  Let’s see what that intervention changes and learn from it. Step by step in a swamp!

The challenge in keeping in touch with the systems communities is ensuring I create the time and space to do so.  Out of necessity I think this needs to be from ‘domestic time’, rather than ‘work time’.  It also will have to be predominantly electronic.  I already have a small community of key people to work with on issues of common concern, particularly introducing systems thinking and practice into the public sector and policy world.  That’ll help a lot.


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