A question of purpose

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I have been grappling with the issue of purpose in my relation to my research.  I am not the only one as there has been a discussion about it on my course forum.

My own post in that thread shows my dilemma:

When I am tired after a day’s work, it is very easy to see T847 as “a system to get my final academic credit points by means of an academically sound research project in order to get my MSc”.  When I am in that mode I just think ‘just pick anything and get on and do it’.

Then I remember why I am doing the MSc – it is not for the ‘letters’ – it is because I really value (and enjoy) Systems thinking in practice (systemic and systematic).  So then I see T847 as “a system to practice ‘systems thinking in practice’ by means of integrating systems practice and research practice in order to further develop my skills, competence and confidence as a systems practitioner”.  This makes me think a lot about ensuring the research paradigm, theory of research and research process has a good ‘fit’ with STiP – particularly the systemic side of systems because that is where I want to develop the most.

Then I think about the context in which I am doing the work – and my ethical responsibilities to not ‘use’ up people’s valuable time only for my own gain.  And I also think about the changes we are trying to make at work – coping with public sector cuts, the Health and Social care bill and new drivers around social determinants of health – and think how much the research could be a valued intervention at this time.  That’s when [….] I start connecting T847 with the issue of change and intervention – for me that is about the value of systems thinking and practice itself to the work we have to do.

And, all throughout I think about the time constraints there are for this work – I know I can’t change the world – but I don’t want to mess with it just for the sake of an M.

Then today, one of my fellow students posted the link to a journal article by Ulrich (2001).  The article is about the issue of research competence in systemic research.  One of the sources of orientation that Ulrich has found invaluable is the ‘quest for improvement’ – for him competent research is constituted in part by the difference it should make.  He encourages his readers to have a clear idea of the domain of practice that they wish to improve as well as the the type of improvement that is required.

The domain of practice I am concerned with is “working in partnership to improve wellbeing and health (and reduce inequalities) at a UK local authority level”.  As such, it is a bit of an eclectic domain of practice – drawn from public health; social policy; management; leadership; community development – and others depending on the backgrounds of the individual’s involved.  That is the domain I want to improve.  At a very general level I think one of the ways to ‘improve’ it is through increasing the use of systems thinking and practice.  This is a claim supported by academic authors – see the WHO study and the papers of David Hunter from Durham University and also this study which so far I have only skimmed.

I’d like to draw out three particular subsets of people who make up the ‘clients’ that would have views on what it is for practice to be improved in this domain.

Firstly, there are the ‘facilitators/coordinators’ i.e. people in similar roles to myself – including my immediate colleagues but also a wider network of practitioners in the UK.  We have a particular focus – to care about the ‘quality of the partnership working’ as well as a key enabling role – ranging from designing and facilitating large-scale events to making sure the simple logistics of a ‘meeting’ are sorted.  Partnership life is messy and confusing and we often feel like we don’t know ‘how’ to act to improve it.  I get a sense that what we all need are ‘new’ ways of ‘reading’ situations and acting to improve them and ways of helping partners to do the same.  The HOW keeps coming up.  We want to improve our competence in ‘facilitating/enabling/coordinating’ – and for me systems praxis is at least part of the answer.  My colleagues are interested but it is difficult to take time out to ‘learn about’ new ways and the rush of the day to day demands mean new practice ideas often get neglected.   But our practice is also defined by the expectations of the stakeholders…. as explained next….

Secondly, there are a whole range of people who are active participants in the work to improve wellbeing and health.  They are the primary ‘customers’ of the people in roles like mine – people in strategic, management and operational roles from public sector and voluntary and community sector (and to lesser extent businesses) and ‘citizens’ themselves who come together in various combinations to do something together (hopefully collective purposeful activity).  They all have a set of practices too – how they act and behave when they are working beyond the boundaries of their organisation and/or profession and/or community.  Individually and collectively, we (people in roles like mine) are expected to meet their expectations in terms of ‘setting the stage’ that will enable them to work together in partnership.

Different participants will have different views on how partnership working should be done and what constitutes ‘good’ partnership working – as in other areas of social life, there is a dominant view – a partnership as a structural entity aka a committee (made up of senior people) who make big decisions and then send others off to ‘implement’.

However, I find it most helpful to think of partnership working as a ‘social process’ constituted of a flux of events and ideas (after Checkland).  The inevitable differences of interests and power makes it an inherently political process.  The ‘ought’ is that through this process participants (or sub-groups of participants) take collective purposeful action together – action with the purpose of improving wellbeing and health.  Through this lens, I see lots of partnership working that is completely ‘under the radar’ of the official activity happening in committees.  And it is through this lens, I can see emerging examples of use of dialogue based, deliberative processes and loads of opportunities for improving and promoting that through systems thinking in practice.

Thirdly, there are the people that we are doing all this for – the people who live in the geographical areas where we do what we do.  As ‘whole of society’ ways of working takes off, more and more of them will be involved as ‘active participants’ but there will always be people who aren’t.  The question then is how we (first group and second group) can act in their interests.

So here’s my dilemma – those of us with ‘facilitation’ roles (the first group) would like to change what we do when we do what we do.  We want to because we think it opens up new possibilities for improving wellbeing and health of the people of Newcastle (the third group).  But any changes must be ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of the participants (the second group) – some participants are more senior than ourselves so any changes involve us taking risks and the feeling that we are putting ourselves out on a limb.

They (second group) also want to question “will these new ways work?”.  And this raises a dilemma I mentioned in my last post – we think systems thinking is part of the answer to improving wellbeing and health, but we don’t ‘know’ that, and unless we try it how can we see if it is, and, how can we see if it is if we insist on expecting measurable differences in very short timescales.

So how can the research as part of my MSc be part of the answer for this high level improvement to practice I want to make.  I think I would like to use it to help ‘bring to the fore’ and value existing examples of practices involving dialogue, inquiry, multi-stakeholder deliberations, and theory-informed practice.  I want to do this by helping a selected group of participants reflect on their own experiences, rather than ‘choosing’ case studies myself and simply presenting them.  If participants value examples in their own experience that ‘fit this mould’ then maybe they will value the need for that type of working to be fostered and strengthened (rather than left to chance). And, I want to see if I can do this ‘upwards’ – amongst the most senior (gulp).

So, let’s try and define that a little more:

a system to….assist a selected group of participants to value their own experiences of working in ‘systems mode’ (need to think of a better term than that)

by means of…a research project drawing on the Appreciative Inquiry method*

in order to…promote a shift to valuing, fostering and strengthening that mode of working

What feels good about this is the fact that it allows for a discrete set of data generation/analysis etc for my T847 project but it also opens up for ongoing work and improvement – I can see how it would follow through into ‘normal’ life – in itself it opens up possibilities.  There is a risk that the research shows people ‘value’ the ‘old way’ but that would be learning more in itself.

* The wikipedia article gives a quick overview on AI – but I have some literature on it too.  It belongs to the ‘action research’ family of approaches.


Ulrich, W., 2001. The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18(1), pp.3-28. http://wulrich.com/downloads/ulrich_2001a.pdf [accessed 18 November 2011]

6 thoughts on “A question of purpose

  1. Dearest Helen
    I am loving the way this is going. That Ulrich article really helped to unblock my thoughts as well, which i need to work on – hopefully this morning before everyone wakes up – and get in crystal form. It really feels to me the way you have approached it now that you have got something that is right-sized and feasible in the tiny wee time we have available.
    I would check the ideas/events concept – for me that was Vickers, though it was probably both authors.
    In my work, we use Appreciative Inquiry a lot. I find the link with Appreciative Systems sometimes quite tenuous, as the ‘appreciate’ can be interpreted with the other sense of “wow, that’s great”. In fact it is for this reason, we use it at work “build on the positive rather than trying to fix the negative”. We only work in an emotion of optimism =). I mentioned this rather briefly in my blog in the last course http://learn.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/view.php?user=481504&tag=appreciative+inquiry. There is a link there to a consulting company who i thought combined the two kinds of approach.

  2. oh and I forgot to say that the images that came into my mind when you were saying “will these new ways work?” were:

    1. the graph from the beginning of TU811, where there is time on one axis and improvement i think on the other and strategy tries to move the blob a bit further on

    2. the figure from Bakewell and Garbutt (that i have refered to several times in my blog) which came – i think – from TU870 Capacities but maybe TU872, anyway, the one on “feeling your way to the future” where there are all wiggly lines but heading generally more or less towards your envisioned future. It was introduced to us once as part of emergent strategy.

    I think one of the joys of Systems Thinking is it allows you – indeed encourages you – to express that uncertainty openly and be responsible in making explicit what you are doing and why so if there are then no outcomes or negative outcomes, it is traceable and open to analysis.

    • Hi Arwen
      I could not find the Bakewell and Garbutt reference in TU870 or 872 but found an explanation that sounds similiar in this document they wrote for SIDA On the use and abuse of the log frame – see page 25.

      Also are you referring to the diag at start of TU812 – which shows axis of extent of systemically desirable change (y) and extent of culturally feasible change (x) – with a blob? (course guide page 15).

      I am happy with an evolutionary, learning approach because it is more consistent with lots we read in Systems about working in conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability. I think the difficulty is that the people who are asking “will it work?” are asking the question with a positivist, modernist mindset and expect a response that fits with their views of ‘valid’ claim.



  3. Hi Helen
    Yet again you prove the worth of your INTJ reflective nature. I kinda just push on with my highly viusal ESTJ style and get there without all the background rationale wheres you provide all the reflective deeper thought that then takes me back into how I got there – and gives me the academic framing. Thanks again – you’ve summed up in words what I can only do in (internal) pictures and then ‘bull in a china shop’ action. Brilliant. I have a PPt on appreciative inquiry that I will send you, but I can’t access here (is on my work server) or recall the author but when I was exploring in TU812 I found it helpful – you might too.

    I think when you assess the risks for your project as need on the course you will find, as I do, that getting engagement form the right people for the duration of the short research will be key – but if you can help them buy-in to the benefits of the work it should be ok. Have you also led/facilitate AI before as this cold also be a challenge for you to ponder and is a risk. I have the same channelge with leading collaborative inquiry (a new skill for me) I plan for my project – but a risk worth taking I think.


    • Hi David
      thanks for your comments – yes anything you have on AI would be helpful. I do have some experience of using AI as part of a multi-agency piece of work – see this article – but as you can see it was quite a while ago. We also use the framing of AI as part of workshop design locally. This means that it won’t be completely ‘alien’ to local stakeholders which helps with cultural feasibility.
      thanks again for your comments

  4. Oh well done, Helen, tracking those down from my poor description. They are exactly the images that came to mind. Love those. I use the Bakewell and Garbutt a lot. And their phrase “holding the theory loosely”.. Enough to guide you but not so much as to blind you.

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