When I studied the OU systems thinking modules, TU811 and TU812 (in that order), I remember getting a little agitated that TU811 used the term ‘situation of interest’ and then TU812 used the term ‘situation of concern’. I did try at the time to understand the difference. Looking back now, I did write a blog about this at the time but mostly I just decided that of all the new language I was coming to terms with it wasn’t worth trying to work that one out.
But recently, I have found myself coming back to this. I think I am mulling it over because I can’t decide which of the two terms to use in my thesis. This is where my thinking is currently taking me.
I would like to start with what the modules have in common. First, the use of the word ‘situation’ to denote something that is characterised with interacting factors, interdependencies, multiple perspectives and potential for conflict. This is what Rittel and Webber called ‘wicked’ and Ackoff called ‘a mess’ (see Ison, 2017 and/or Reynolds and Holwell, 2010). Unlike something you would call a ‘problem’, situations can’t be ‘solved’ but you can act purposefully to improve them in systemically desirable and culturally feasible ways.
Second, looking at google’s dictionary it seems that a ‘concern’ is synonymous with ‘of interest’. ‘Concern’ doesn’t have to mark something that you are anxious or worried about, it can just mark out something that is of interest to you (and/or others). In TU811, I learned to title situations of interests identified in news media with a phrase starting with ‘Current concerns about…’ So in other words, ‘of concern’ and ‘of interest’ are pretty much interchangeable.
Next, when you get into it there are lots of different ‘types’ and ‘scales’ of concerns. Social concerns can be distinguished from organisational concerns or personal concerns. With a social concern we’d expect government to be the primary actor taking action to improve it (policy) whereas with an organisational concern we’d expect the senior managers to be the primary actor owning and taking action (strategy). But these distinctions can be pretty blurry such as when an organisational concern relates to a wider social context (e.g. a university’s concern for survival may be interdependent with wider social concern for funding of higher education). Equally, concerns can have different significance for different people depending on if and how you are involved or affected (e.g. concerns for EU nationals in UK will have different significance if you are personally affected).
Elsewhere, in an article about action research that draws on the work of Checkland, McKay and Marshall (2001) draw a distinction between a ‘real world problem situation’ that is of interest to a researcher (e.g. concerns about lack of knowledge about policy work practice) and the more specific ‘problem situation’ that the researcher engages with in a specific action research project (e.g. a concern for policy work practice in organisation x). The ‘problem situation’ is chosen either because it is an example of the ‘real world problem situation’ or because there is sufficient overlap that it will provide some insights into it. So the ‘problem situation’ is like a case study – a particular instance that helps the researcher learn about the broader ‘real world problem situation’. This distinction helps in thinking about issues of scale but I don’t like the infiltration of the word problem.
But, in spite of all the commonalities, there is a distinction in the way that TU811 treats situations of interest compared to the way TU812 treats situations of concern…
In TU811, it is perfectly possible to adopt a first order stance – using systems approaches to analyse a situation of interest that you stand apart from. You can take the mindset of a consultant asked to advise or make recommendations to someone in government or in an organisation. It is possible to be objective and distant, to lack ownership of and for the situation. I say possible, you don’t have to engage with the situation that way but you can still engage pretty effectively as a systems practitioner if you do.
In comparison, when TU812 talks of situations of concern, they tend to be situations you experience directly – something you are part of. This means a first order stance is more constraining and it is more appropriate to adopt a second order stance. Here your personal engagement with the situation and the other people who are part of it matters. Your emotioning, understandings, actions and interactions can have an influence on whether the situation improves or declines. Your own action and interaction matters.
Ison, R. (2017), Systems practice: how to act Second Edition., Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications. [Used as course text in TU812]
McKay, J. and Marshall, P. (2001), The dual imperatives of action research. Information Technology & People, 14(1), pp.46–59.
Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S. eds. (2010), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A practical guide, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications. [Used as course text in TU811]