Pre-amble – I have had this blog written for a while but kept it to a limited audience whilst I thought about it more and waited for my result. I now have my result – a very welcome Distinction – but even with that great news, looking back at it all my thoughts about the experience remain. So here they are….
At the end of TU812, I said that I was going on to ‘do’ T847 as part of my ongoing trajectory as a systems practitioner. It’s ‘done’ now, the project is in so I have found myself thinking about whether or not the experience helped me develop my systems thinking in practice.
The question is – how did my T847 experience contribute as a ‘subsystem’ of a learning system intended to develop my mastery in systems thinking in practice?
I am thinking about it in terms of Ison’s design turn – the module was designed as a system to… (that is what the module aims covered) but I am now looking at it in terms of how it was enacted and experienced…Of course, I can only reflect on that from the perspective of my own experience.
My first reaction on reading the materials was that it didn’t feel very systemsy – I found that hard to articulate in the beginning so it was only later that I realised that the language and style of the module materials made me feel as if I was in a world where:
- systematic thinking and action was more valued then systemic thinking and action
- positivist/modernist ways of seeing the world were more valued than post-modernist (which has great implications for the way ‘research’ is understood)
- the C-ball was there but was not balanced by the B-ball and M-ball. So it felt like a set of instructions to get a job done, rather than a prompt for thinking and learning.
- there was more concern for Content of research, then any feel for research praxis.
As a ‘customer’ of the OU, I was quite angry about this. T847 is a compulsory module to get the MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) and it was written in the full knowledge that STiP people would be using it as part of that learning journey. The sort of ‘world’ described above is in my workplace and elsewhere and I always find myself kicking at the boundaries of the established paradigm there. After flourishing in the environments of TU811/812, I really didn’t want to be in an environment that didn’t feel ‘nourishing’.
Nevertheless, I continued on with the course but those first impressions lasted – I did not ever feel as if the course was ‘enabling’ me to develop my systems thinking in practice – by providing the right conditions.
I did learn and develop but the vast majority of that came from self-driven work outside the module materials – I could achieve that because
- I had a tight e-mail group of other students to get through it with, and
- I was in the fortunate position of being able to to put in way over the expected hours for a 30 point module.
The main crunch points came when I had to ‘shoe-horn’ the learning from this self-driven work back into the TMAs and EMAs. With the TMAs I managed okay – I pushed further with the EMA, and it only remains to be seen how that goes down in the marking process. In the end I decided it was more important to do a piece of work that I could feel really proud of, than to feel as if I was chasing marks.
The interesting thing was that it seemed acceptable to ‘go outside the box’ – the implicit message from course team/tutor was – if you want to do it another way you can, just make sure you explain why you took the approach you did. That is fine in theory but when it comes to tight word counts it is really hard to fit in “I did not want to do A because A implies y, so I decided to do B because B is more suitable to my approach..”. Why did I have to work so much harder than the people who were just happy to do A?
This word count thing reminds me of a paper by Lakoff during which he says:
Have you ever wondered why conservatives can communicate easily in a few words, while liberals take paragraphs? The reason is that conservatives have spent decades, day after day building up frames in people’s brains, and building a better communication system to get their ideas out in public. Progressives have not done that. As a result they have a hard time building up the appropriate system of frames from scratch. And if they make the mistake of thinking that words are frames, they will assume that all they need are the right words or slogans.(Lakoff, 2010 page 73)
If I replace the words ‘conservatives’ with modernist/systematic/conventional practitioners and ‘liberals/progressives’ with systems practitioners, I can see why it takes so many words to communicate our ideas.
Oops – that was a bit of a distraction really.
Perhaps I should break down what T847 is and why it seemed so at odds with my needs as a developing systems practitioner – then perhaps I can offer ideas about how the experience could be improved for others taking the module because of a similar learning trajectory to mine.
T847 is a PROJECT
As my final EMA said:
Projects and conventional project management tools create the conditions for an “over-reliance on systematic, rather than systemic thinking” (Ison 2010b, p.227). This creates a tension for a practitioner who must complete a research project to tight deadlines, but is doing it as a contribution to ongoing development of systems thinking in practice.
Let’s face it – there is a deadline and by that time you have to have developed a ‘product’ – a report about the work you have done. With OU taught modules the time-lines are all pretty much laid out for you – you know that if you progress through the materials you will get to the end on time. With a research module, there are voids that you have to fill in all by yourself – with your own reading; with field work; with analysis of data. So you are in fact ‘doing a project’ and ‘managing’ it – planning your time, managing your time, managing other’s input. That bit I get – GANTT charts and risk logs are tools to help with that, and for that sort of purpose I will use them.
I was less comfortable with the way the module materials framed the way in which you specified/evaluated your ‘project’ – it asked for aims/objectives; stakeholder analysis; resource breakdowns; etc etc. And you needed to do this early on before you’d even learned about different research approaches.
There are so many other ways this could have been done. Critical systems heuristics, for example, provides a great way of defining purpose; stakeholdings; measures of improvement; helping the ethical judgements you are making. Although I did that ‘behind the scenes’, I did not include it in my final EMA. I know other students did, but it had to be put in an appendix and the key points drawn out into the main project structure – following the ‘set headings’. Why couldn’t CSH be used in it’s own right? Similarly, those who have covered TU870 as one of their optional modules could want to draw on the log-frame or other tools used in projects in the development field that move beyond ‘conventional’ views of project management.
For me, the saviour was the ‘discovery’ of a whole set of materials about ‘new ways’ of thinking about projects. Mark Winter, who wrote with Checkland on SSM(c) and SSM(p) now researches project management. I first happened across his work when I wrote this blog last summer – I am so pleased I did that inquiry because it was the thinking that I did then and the materials that I found as a result of following up on references, that helped me through. I won’t go into it here – it is a whole post in itself, maybe I will do one soon.
So I think one way that T847 would have been a better experience for me is if it ‘enabled’ the use of systems ideas and methods in the way it asks you to specify the project. The module materials could encompass a diverse range of possibilities and the TMA/EMA could allow more flexibility in terms of framing (along with appropriate word counts). I also think that T847 should deliberately introduce students to the more contemporary writing about project management that contests the conventional views and resonates more with systems thinking so that you think differently about what you do when you do ‘projects’. I don’t think it should be left to chance and a lot of extra study hours for students to come across helpful materials – if we realise that it would be helpful to look in the first place!
T847 involves RESEARCH
I think of this from three perspectives – there is the content of your research, the process of your research and the praxis of your research.
With respect to the content – the topic of your research – the good news was that anything goes on T847. As long as you can make a connection with the STiP discipline and claim that you are contributing to that body of literature it seems you can pick anything you like. The only parameters I can think of that come into play are:
- that you are doing something of the right ‘size’ – too big and you won’t get it done in time or in the word count; too small and you won’t have an appropriate amount of material to do well on the EMA.
- you are really interested in it – you will live and breathe it for 6 months
- it has enough ‘appeal’ to the stakeholders that need to agree to participate – normally your boss(es) and colleague(s) to make it feasible, rather than politically difficult.
In my presentation, there was a vast range of topics been covered by the STiP students. No issues there.
With respect to the process – the module worked to quite a standard ‘research’ process – literature review; design research; get data; analyse data; write up what you found. It was linear in terms of the way you experienced it but at the end for the EMA you had the opportunity to wrap it all up and iterate between the sections of your final report. However, it seemed to me that the process embedded a very conventional view of what knowledge ‘generation’ is – something given to the world by a researcher as a result of all their investigations. Although action research and more collaborative approaches were mentioned and I manage to touch on that in what I did, the structure didn’t really ‘enable’ inquiry driven approaches developing practical knowing – where you work with others to understand/do and your ‘thesis’ is a report on the learning and change – rather than a report on what ‘you’ have found and ‘you’ conclude.
Maybe T847 itself couldn’t have done this but I really wanted to learn about and experience action research; its various approaches and have the opportunity to facilitate action research – because
- (a) it is that type of research that I think we would find useful as practitioners in organisations (as opposed to feeling as if you are being inducted into an academic career!);
- (b) it seems to ‘fit’ with the post-modernist stance of Systems; and
- (c) it would follow on nicely from social learning systems material in TU812.
If I was given the opportunity to dream up an OU module, that is what it would be – T8xx Developing your action research praxis.
Which takes me nicely onto praxis – From the outset, I knew that I wanted my research praxis to be consistent with Systems. I think of this on two levels – first of all I wanted to be concerned about my praxis (theory informed action) per se and secondly I wanted the theories to be informing what I did to be consistent with Systems and systemic approaches. Immediately, that position put me in the world of ‘post-modern’ paradigms and research approaches associated with it – naturalistic; interpretivist and so on.
In order to develop my research praxis, I needed a language of research that would give me both conceptual and methodological insights. The module materials did not provide me with enough of that, neither did they provide me with enough of a direct springboard to go and look elsewhere. For my theory-informed-action approach, the material on paradigms and research approaches came far too late – after you had done your project plan and already set yourself on a course of action (as the Leonardo Da Vinci quote says at the top of the left bar of this blog site – it was like setting sail without any compass and map and by the time a compass and map were offered options were closed off).
Perhaps if I try a little example here to illustrate what I am trying to say. In the first block of the course you have to do a ‘literature review’ – the result of which needed to be in our first TMA. If I take ‘do literature review’ as a WHAT, there seemed to be very little to help us determine the WHY (other than because you have to write it in your TMA) or the HOW. The HOW got covered by my tutor helpfully circulating the pdf of a booklet on Literature review used in T802. But the WHY – the purpose – remained something really difficult to grasp. It was only later on (too late) when I found a chapter in a book by Maxwell (2005) that I could conceptually understand what it was I was supposed to have been doing at that time.
It felt the same thing at other ‘stages’ of the research process – I needed theory to inform what I was doing when I was ‘generating data’; when I was ‘analysing data’. All of these ‘stages’ are verbs, they are practices, I needed to break down my practice, not just in terms of transactional steps but in terms of understanding my understanding – what is it I do when I do what I do?
The module materials did not provide this – I got through by buying books(on top of course fees I’d already spent); benefiting from what other students in my email group learned from books they bought; reading the ‘visible’ pages of books on Amazon look inside and Google books; and by searching on-line. Many of the ‘products’ of those inquiries are written into posts I have done in recent months. I have no idea whether I came across good reliable sources or not but when they resonated with what I felt I was doing I had to rely on them. We had access to the great Sage Research Methods On-line – it was hard finding material from scratch in there but once I had a bit of lingo to do some searches, I used that as a source of cross-reference, if the term was in there then it gave it a degree of reliability. I know the module materials couldn’t have covered every possible option for every possible student, but some better ‘grounding’ would have been helpful – it could have saved lots of dead-ends.
The aspect that jarred for me most of all is the way in which ‘research terms’ (e.g. validity; reliability; triangulation; causality) were first introduced and then used in the materials (and assessment guidance) as if they were
- already familiar to everyone
- fixed, definitive concepts that are not contested.
- would apply regardless of the paradigm and research approach choices you used.
It was making time to look into these terms in different reference materials (the end product of that process is in this blog) that helped me through. Once I did that I had enough confidence to shape my own understanding of research quality issues – on my own terms. I didn’t expect the module materials to simply present all this to me – but I do think they should have deliberately prompted such an inquiry.
I think I could go on about ‘how I found my way through’ for hours but maybe there is another post to come [now written – it is here] on the specifics of ‘what I wish I had known at the beginning’ along with the key books/materials I depended on.
T847 is for learning and development
As an OU student, I obviously had expectations of T847 as a learning system. I knew that it was going to be different to modules that I had done before because it was a research module rather than a taught module. I knew that I would have to do more self-driven work in respect of the content of my research, but I hadn’t expected to do so much independent work on ‘research into projects’ and ‘research into research’ as I outlined above. In a way, you needed to ‘braid’ the learning about all three – your topic; your project; your research – and jump in between them – the module seemed to be a bit more chunked.
I was particularly disappointed that the module did not create the conditions for social learning. As a cohort of students from four different disciplines and therefore traditions of understanding, we could have been an amazing mix of ‘contested’ meanings and really helped each other grow.
There was some space given to tutor group (within discipline) interactions through specific wikis but they did not work at all – the technology was annoying and with small tutor groups (6 people) it only takes a small proportion to be unwilling/unable to engage to make it non-viable. The wikis were supposed to be where we shared the content of our work – as if each of us would develop an intense interest in everyone else’s passion – but it wasn’t the content that was our common interest, it was the process and the praxis.
The main forum was quiet and ended up turning into some sort of message board, rather than a forum. A few tried in the early stages but it all petered out when active, critical inquiry wasn’t being nurtured by the course team/tutors.
If my choices are ‘typical’ then students resorted to email – outside of the moderated environment – excluding the opportunity for lurkers and tutor input in the process.
It made me think about TU811/812 that had such lively forums and what it was about the module materials that enabled that to happen. I think one of the ‘design features’ that T847 could learn from is having activities that are interactive
If I simply take my issues about the word VALIDITY as an example. It would have been really helpful if there had been an activity that said something along the lines of:
“Validity is a term used frequently in the world of research. What do you understand by it? What do you think the fit is with your research? If it doesn’t fit what alternatives are there? Discuss your views with others on the forum and comment on the strengths and weaknesses in different arguments. Remember to include references and links that other students may find helpful”
That way the student body could have developed knowledge from and with each other – using the diverse range of backgrounds we were from. And it would have been a great way to uncover the ‘blind-spots’ and assumptions in our individual way’s of thinking.
It would be so easy to have had activities like that on all of the ‘generic’ – ‘do a project’ and ‘doing research’ – material. In my view, much of the core module materials could have been designed that way – along with some key references to get people going. I accept that not everyone contributes to such interactive learning, but I don’t think that is a problem, lurkers do benefit in their own way. And even those who don’t contribute often get prompted to do the inquiry anyway. Plus of course, tutors could get involved as ‘prompts’ to the dialogue – I am sure they all had different understandings of these contested concepts too.
Length of the course
I know that the OU Systems team were concerned that a 30 point module would simply not be long enough and I understand that they have now announced that it is possible to do the 60 point T802 to finish the Masters instead of an elective module and T847. So would having a year have helped me?
In some ways ‘yes’, I think doing a research project of any length involves learning about ‘doing a project’ and ‘doing research’. Getting to grips with all that is the same on a 30 point and a 60 point – regardless of the the length of the research project, you still need the quality of praxis and for that you still need the same initial learning curve – so you can make good choices about the approaches to take.
Having said that, as I have described above, I think that T847 could have been designed in a way that really enabled and sped up this ‘knowledge building’ rather than students developing this independently. If this had been the case then I think doing a short, sharp piece of research would have been sufficient.
If I think back across my whole MSc, I don’t think I would be prepared to ‘forfeit’ one of my elective modules and the knowledge I gained from that in order to do ‘more’ research work. In fact, I would have had less of a basis on which to build the content of my research. So there is a bit of give and take there.
In addition, I am also not sure whether my research topic would have been right for me to have done ‘more fieldwork’ – with qualitative research you do reach a bit of a saturation point, more data doesn’t necessarily give you more insights.
There is also an issue of learning trajectory – I never saw myself ‘becoming a researcher’ through the process, my motivation was more about ‘learn enough about research practice to build some of the principles into my systems practice’. For me a 60 point course would have over-egged it.
I don’t know the T802 materials at all. However, I know that they are not ‘new’ and there were not written in the knowledge that STiP students would engage with them. That gives me a gut feeling that the same issues of language will be in those course materials too. In the end, the ‘world’ of T847 was a place I was glad to go into and get out of quickly – not sure I’d have wanted to be there for a whole year.
Other ways of ending the MSc STiP?
I know the OU systems team are a bit stuck between a rock and a hard thing. They haven’t got enough volume to warrant another STiP specific module and so are dependent on sharing the final module with other Masters qualifications. I was surprised that T847 as a ‘mixed discipline’ module was not developed by a ‘mixed discipline’ course team.
But so far we’ve stayed in the world of ‘T’ modules, what about elsewhere…
In some ways it is a shame that the Social sciences school are closing down their postgraduate programme because some of the research tools learned in ‘investigating a social world’ would be really helpful to STiP people – who can engage with organisations or communities as social worlds. I know that (what seemed at the time as) the diversion that I did into D843 Discourse Analysis was one of the main orientations that I had to research, and I am so glad that I had it as background to T847 – it gave me some footings to work from.
I was interested to see the Health and Social Care school are changing the way you end the MSc in Advancing Professional Practice from research based courses (which informed the development of T847!) to a more practiced based orientation. The new module is K829 Transforming Professional Practice and seems to have the right emphasis on Practice which would be a nice way to end a Systems Thinking in PRACTICE award. Perhaps that idea could inform other potential options for STiP trajectories. (It’s a shame that the Health and social care school developed this module in isolation – reading the info about the module it would have taken so little to have written it in a way that applied to people in other disciplines).
I also go back to my dream module I mentioned earlier – something that really gets into action research theory and practice would be one of the best ends to the MSc STiP.
That’s why for me, the learning journey hasn’t ‘ended’ and I am going back to all the book chapters and articles I had to ignore in order to get through T847. Whilst on the one hand I am okay about that – the real disappointment is that I have lost the opportunity to use the ‘excuse’ that I am doing a formal course to do something in the workplace – the best, best thing about ‘doing T847’ is that it gave me the leverage to have access and permissions to do something at work, that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise, another way of using subterfuge to introduce STiP into my organisation!
Advice to others
As new cohorts of students have already asked them for my view on T847, I can only tell them on the basis of my experience outlined above. I do hope that feedback from the first cohort can be used to improve the T847 experience for others in the future. But I guess these are the ‘tips’ I would offer:
- really know you want to do it – do not just set off thinking “well it would be nice to have the MSc” – you need a real higher purpose in your mind. In the end, for me, it was what I was doing in terms of what I researched and how important I thought that was…combined with my original obsession of wanting to be one of the first to be awarded the MSc
- spend time preparing – thinking about ‘doing a project’ and ‘doing research’ and what that means to you. Read up on these issues as well as material that links to your topic of interest. If you have 6 months ‘off’ before you do T847 don’t see it as a complete break. Get ahead so that you can hit the ground running in the November.
- understand that your tutor will be there as a guide to get you through the module only – they will not necessarily know anything about your research topic or your particular perspective on STiP.
- find a small group of ‘mentors’ – whether that is other students on the MSc with you; a friendly academic; or I guess people like me who have been there. The advice of ‘mentors’ should never ‘overrule’ that of your tutor but they may just have come across a useful paper or concept that unblocks you, rather than you wading through treacle. In a ‘red-brick’ university, these would be the people you meet with for coffee or bump into in the corridor.
- stick to your guns as a systems practitioner – be true to that first and foremost and fit back into module when you have to. In my experience, it was frustrating retro-fitting all the time but I don’t think my TMA grades suffered significantly.
- try not to have any holidays or other ‘disruptions’ that may occur during the 6 months – you really need to be working hard for all of that time and at some points you MUST be in your work place to do your field work.
- Enjoy it and come back and tell me what you have learned as well as what you have researched.
I was just catching up on a paper I’d bookmarked and not got around to reading. The paper is about development of project managers, it talks about a shift from classical research dissertations to practice dissertations in management training (MBAs) and project manager training. I think the whole excerpt is very relevant to my musings here about alternatives ends to the MSc.
An example of this is the development of a reflective practice dissertation for an industry-based masters program in project and program management delivered by the University of Manchester. Originally piloted on an Executive MBA program, the new dissertation is an alternative option to the classical research dissertation, which is not always appropriate for busy managers on part-time programs. In essence, the new dissertation is designed to exploit the significant learning and development opportunities available to people studying on part-time programs, by enabling experienced practitioners to develop their knowledge and capability through a period of more deliberate and more reflective engagement in professional practice. As Brown and Duguid state “learning to be requires more than just information. It requires the ability to engage in the practice in question”. Such opportunities are lost, however, if the only option available is the classical research dissertation. Also, the opportunity to engage more deliberately and more reflectively in one’s own professional practice is highly relevant to professional development programs where the emphasis is essentially on preparing people for the realities of real-world practice than on academic research. This is not to suggest that the classical research dissertation should be marginalised, only that if the core purpose of a project management program is professional development, then this suggests the need for additional dissertation options to allow practitioners to learn and develop through processes of reflective practice and critical reflection. More generally, the concept accords with the increasing emphasis on facilitating reflective learning in higher education.
The practice dissertation (rather than a research dissertation), is rooted in Schön’s epistemology of reflection-in-action, which provides a helpful perspective on what practitioners actually do in practicing their craft. According to Schön, practicing managers and other practitioners constantly have to deal with messy, indeterminate situations, for which there are no “right” answers, and how they deal with these situations is not through the systematic application of textbook theories, but through sophisticated processes of reflection-in-action (e.g., thinking on one’s feet) and reflection-on-action (e.g., thinking back on events and planning the next move, etc.). From this perspective, reflection-in-action is much less a process of applying propositional knowledge and much more a process of appreciating, probing, modeling and experimenting etc using intuition and experience. Very importantly, the concept of “reflection” in Schön’s work is much less a reference to practitioners standing back and learning from experience, and much more a reference to how practitioners actually think about the issues and situations in the messy, indeterminate zones of practice. In this sense, Schön’s image of the reflective practitioner provides a helpful way of understanding what it is that (more reflective) managers and other practitioners actually do in practicing their craft. Like other new fields of study, however, there are (not surprisingly) different ideas about professional practice and there is no assumption here that Schön’s image is all-encompassing, only that it provides a helpful way of making sense of what practitioners actually do in practicing their craft, and (hence) an appropriate foundation upon which to develop a new kind of dissertation for part-time programs in project and program management.
Crawford, L. et al., 2006.
Maxwell, J.A., 2005. Qualitative research design: an interactive approach Second ed., London: Sage Publications.
Ison, R., 2010. Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.
Lakoff, G., 2010. Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment. Environmental Communication: A journal of nature and culture, 4(1), pp.70 – 81.
Crawford, L. et al., 2006. Practitioner development: From trained technicians to reflective practitioners. International Journal of Project Management, 24(8), pp.722–733.