Areas of practice and situations of interest

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Please note: if you are studying TU811 the contents of this blog should not be favoured above a detailed reading of the module material and assessment information and advice from your tutor.

 The OU module TU811 Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change introduces the concepts ‘area of practice’ and ‘situation of interest’.  I studied this module in 2010 and I now have the privilege of being an associate lecturer on that same module.  The other evening I told my group of students that – with hindsight – I didn’t really ‘get’ the concept of ‘area of practice’ when I did the module and tried to explain why.

The module materials (Open University, 2012, p25) talk of five criteria that can help you choose an area of practice.  I like to reframe these into a little ‘checklist’:

  • Is it of sufficient interest to you?
  • Does it have an associated central element of practical change?
  • Does it have an appropriate scope – neither too narrow or too broad?
  • Does it invite different viewpoints?
  • Are there possibilities of unforeseen change?

As it is an academic course, there is also a sixth un-stated criterion – is it a feasible area for completion of the assignments and final project?

Looking back, the criterion I didn’t really take on board was the second one.  I named my area of practice ‘partnership working for wellbeing and health’ which I see now doesn’t have any kind of word in it signalling any sort of change – a sense of transformation, something requiring strategic thinking.  I’d state ‘partnership development’ now, but as I describe below I’d probably have a slightly different area of practice altogether.

A situation of interest however is a more specific and current concern – something that is associated with that area of practice.

On the module, students are invited to consider their area of practice right from the beginning.  They use assignments to iterate and develop that a little but in essence all the assignments and the final project are associated with that area of practice.  They select recent news articles for the ‘situation of interest’ they use for each of the three assignments but tend to home in more on their own immediate workplace/context/role for their final project.

So if I was doing the module now – reaping the benefit of hindsight – I think I’d frame my area of practice as “urban health development”.

  • It is of interest to me because of my professional role.  And as a city-dweller, I am also personally interested in how the urban landscape helps/hinders my wellbeing and good health. There are some health development issues that are in common between urban and rural communities but in general the urban environment concentrates extremes.
  • It does signal change and therefore the need for strategic thinking through the word ‘development’, I suppose I could use the word ‘improvement’ interchangeably.
  • It has a good scope, there are a huge range of urban environments and issues and these vary across the world e.g. there will be both similarities and differences faced by the rapid growing cities in countries of the South compared to those of the North.
  • It does invite different viewpoints. For a start the word ‘health’ is a bit of a contested term sometimes associated with lack of disease (or disease risk) and other times more akin to the word wellbeing.  Also others see the ‘success’ of urban development in different ways perhaps focussing more on economic growth or sustainability.
  • There are also possibilities of unforeseen change. There are many actors involved in doing things that influence urban life from businesses decisions as to where in the world to locate a factory to government policies to the actions and practices of citizens themselves.  These create a dynamic situation, something that people in my area of practice do not control and can only hope to intervene in.

What situations of interest could I select for an assignment now?  Looking on-line over the weekend…

Current concerns about urban air quality – Covered in this Guardian article and various others.  I can imagine how a systems dynamic analysis on this would reveal some interesting insights – not least because diesel engines are a ‘fix that failed’ as concerns for the ozone layer led to the demand to reduce carbon emissions from petrol engines.

Current concerns about childhood mental health – covered in this Guardian article and others.  I think I would find it helpful exploring this through Viable System Model.  What would a viable system for ‘happy childhoods’ look like?  Interesting tension there between creating conditions/environment for happy childhoods and organising services that help individual children who already have mental health problems.

Current concerns about UK obesity – Covered in this Guardian article  and various others.  Given the article gives insights into different peoples’ views of what could and should be done, it would be interesting to use Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA) to explore this.  The tension of personal responsibility vs societal responsibility and perspectives of the role of the food industry is likely to come out of this.

Current concerns about ageing society and health – covered in this Guardian article Perhaps something that would be amenable to a Soft System Methodology approach.  The issue of Worldviews – people seeing ageing as a ‘challenge’, rather than an opportunity and when people do see it as an opportunity they see it as a potential source of economic growth!  All interesting stuff.

Current concerns about integrating health and care – the irony is that this has been a concern for as long as I have been in this ‘business’ but the latest government solution to this is Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) and they are attracting some media coverage (e.g.  ).  I think I’d enjoy using Critical Systems Heuristics to analyse how the ‘boundary’ is being drawn around health and care ‘system’ and what stakes people have within that.  Which of course re-introduces the notion of partnership development that I had as my original area of practice.


So as I have gone through these situations of interest, I see that the nature of the news articles is such that I haven’t only focussed on health concerns relating only to urban dwellers.  So for the sake of the assignments, I might have tweaked the way I frame my area of practice to ‘population health development’ even though my own interest is primarily urban focussed.


But the key thing is there is plenty of choice.  I’ve identified five but if I was doing the module now I’d only need to use three of them, one in each assignment.  Then my final project I’d be focussing on a current concern in my own particular work context.



The Open University (2012), TU811 Thinking Strategically: systems tools for managing change.  Study Guide., Second Edition, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

2 thoughts on “Areas of practice and situations of interest

  1. Hi Helen, thanks for your insights regarding a suitable area of practice for the module. I am considering doing TU811, but have been troubled by this very issue, particularly as I am retired and haven’t got anything work related I can use as a basis for this. I frequently find the OUs description of modules woolly and indirect, so your discourse has helped shed some light on things for me.

  2. Hi Jim
    Glad you found this helpful. I am not here to ‘push’ you into a decision but I can assure you that students without work (e.g. retired or currently on a career break) do take TU811. ‘Area of practice’ could also refer to something linked to personal life/interests e.g. sustainable management.
    All the best

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