Recently I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between systems thinking in practice and research. This isn’t a new stream of thought, I have been mulling it over for a long time and in some ways lots of posts I have done circle around this very issue.
It’s a dilemma that started when I did my capstone module for MSc Systems Thinking in Practice because I needed to do a piece of research that was relevant to my discipline. In one way or another I have continued to grapple with this throughout my PhD – although I wasn’t doing a PhD in Systems Thinking in Practice, I did want to ensure that what I did was authentic to me as a systems thinking practitioner (a PhD with systems thining in practice). Recently though, I think that this inquiry has gained more prominence. Now that I support MSc students on their capstone modules, I need to be able to advise students whether the research they are designing is appropriate or not.
Checkland (1985, 1991) introduces a model of the elements in any piece of research. He highlights that a researcher:
- declares the intellectual framework or Framework of Ideas (F) that they are using, and
- applies these ideas in a methodology (M) to
- an area of application or real world situation (A)
- and in doing so learns something about F, M and/or A
Those familiar with the work of Ison (2017) will see some similiarities here with the PFMS heuristic that Ison proposes as a way of reflecting on all practices (not just research). This is because Ison’s work builds on Checkland. In addition to the use of S, rather than A. The main changes Ison has made is (a) to place the practitioner (P) as central to practice and (b) to present the relationship between the four elements (P, F, M, S) as a relational dynamic rather than this more linear logic. (In a previous post I have used these ideas from Checkland and Ison to consider ways of conceptualising the relationship between practitioner and situation).
Elsewhere, McKay and Marshall (2001, 2007) have also developed Checkland’s original ideas. They use it to conceptualise the dual elements of action research – it’s concern for change as well as it’s concern for research. I won’t go into it here, but I have found their work really valuable and would recommend it to systems thinkers and action researchers.
Here, though I just want to use Checkland’s ‘framework of ideas'(!) about the elements of research to think about what could constitute ‘STiP’ research.
Systems thinking in practice as the object of research
‘Systems thinking in practice’ could be the A. So here STiP is the object of study or the phenomenom that is being researched. Studying this helps us understand the current ‘state’ of systems thinking in practice in a particular professional domain and to understand why it is the way it is (in order to perhaps think about how to make change happen). This would appear in the articulation of the research aims/research question. The research questions that spring to my mind would be things like:
- What is/are the case(s) for developing systems thinking in [industry/professional domain]?
- What are the experiences of systems thinking practitioners in [professional domain]?
- What enables and constrains the use of systems thinking approaches in [industry/professional domain]?
- What are the attitudes of [professional group] to systems thinking in practice?
- How can systems thinking in practice be developed in [industry/professional practice]?
- To what extent has [systems approach] been used in [professional domain/research area]?
This means that the research learns something about Systems thinking in practice (A) – in other words it makes a contribution to knowledge about ‘systems thinking in practice’.
I realise here that I have given examples of what might be called applied STiP research, rather than basic or theoretical research which would be more focused on developing Systems theory. I do this deliberately because I don’t think enough research is done and published where systems thinking in practice is the object of study.
Systems ideas and approaches as the way of doing the research
Systems theory could form the basis of the Framework of Ideas (F). There is a caveat here because Systems has many lineages. Therefore, the researcher would need to declare which particular lineage they are drawing on in any piece of research.
Checkland (1985) makes the point that “all practical action is theory-laden” (p. 758) even though often we are not aware of it. In social research literature more generally, there is lots of discussion about the the role that theory (and related words like concepts, models) play in research. Blaikie and Priest (2019, Chap. 7) [I am currently reading this book and it is my new favourite for reading about research design!!!] provide a useful overview of the different perspectives on the way in which theory informs empirical research and vice versa. In my own research experiences I have predominantly used systems ideas in what they refer to as the sensitizing tradition – they have provided me with clues on what to look for (e.g. emergence, rather than linear cause/effect).
Systems approaches could be the Methodology (M) of the research. Here, systems approaches are re-framed as research methodologies. They provide ways to generate data and/or to analyse it. Diagrams in particular are also used to display findings, either for the researcher’s own use or to communicate to others. This focus is perhaps most evident in the methodological handbook produced for health systems research (de Savigny, Blanchet and Adam, 2017)
Whilst it has been useful to separate out F and M here, it is important to re-emphasise that Checkland highlights that the F are applied through M. In other words, F and M have to be congruent with each other. So, if F incorporates the idea that effects arise as a result of interacting variables (emergence), then it would be incongruent to use an M that just ‘measures’ and studies the relationship between two variables. This means that when you design research you don’t consider F and M independently of each other – you iterate between them – two elements of a whole.
There also needs to be consistency with the way in which A is selected and framed. This is perhaps where Ison’s relational dynamic focus is more helpful. If F and M are going to be ‘systemsy’ in some way, then the A (or situation) needs to be framed in a way that means it is appropriate to research it in a ‘systemsy’ way. So whilst ‘systemsy’ research would be appropriate for some research problems (ones where interacting elements; multiple perspectives etc) it would be inappropriate for other research problems.
In using ‘systemsy’ F and M, the research helps learn something about those F and M. For example it learns about how useful F and M can be in a research domain where it has not yet been used very much. The knowledge contribution is not only about insights into the chosen A, it is about how the particular lineage/methods can add to knowledge in say educational research or management research or sustainability research.
Systems ideas and approaches as a way of designing and planning research
I am going to move now to a different idea of Checkland’s – that of SSM(p) (Checkland and Poulter, 2020). SSM(p) draws attention to the fact that SSM can be used to design how to investigate or study a situation (the p is for process). It contrasts with SSM(c) which uses SSM to look at the content of a situation.
I would claim that other systems ideas and approaches can also be utilised in ‘p’ mode. In designing (and re-iterating the design of) my research I have gone beyond rich pictures, PQR, CATWOE and purposeful models to also embrace CSH to check boundary judgements. I have also used cognitive mapping as a way of looking at methodological options.
What’s interesting here is that it is often only the tip of the iceberg of this work that has ended up in the products of my research e.g. research proposals and thesis. Systems ideas and approaches can help us to be coherent in our research design and develop our research approaches but we don’t always put that on display for the rest of the world to see.
In their book on designing social research, Blaikie and Priest (2019) [yes, back to my new favourite book again!] make a distinction between a research design and a research proposal. They highlight that a research design is a product that arises from documenting key choices in a research design. It is a document that is developed by a researcher/research team for their own private use. In contrast, a research proposal is usually written to gain legitimacy for, (ethical) approval of and/or funding for a research project. A research proposal does cover some of the same elements as a research design but it is written for a different audience and often to a template that the researcher cannot control.
I think this distinction is helpful – there may be many ways in which we use systems ideas and approaches in designing our research that don’t always go into a proposal and also don’t make our final thesis/dissertation.
For this reason, I think using systems ideas and approaches as a way of designing and planning research isn’t sufficient on its own to constitute ‘STiP’ research
(unless, this is turned into the object of study somehow – ‘what use do systems thinking practitioners make of systems ideas and approaches in designing and planning research?’ – now that would be interesting!)
A systems thinking practitioner as the researcher
Finally, like Ison, I want to bring back in the practitioner (P) – in this case, the researcher or informed investigator.
If P identifies as a systems thinking practitioner and draws on Systems as part of their traditions of understanding, then it is highly likely that they will find their way through the messiness of research with systems ideas and approaches. Moreover, systems thinking practitioners have developed a concern for authenticity, positionality and practices like reflexivity which are all seen as important in some traditions of research too. This means that even if P selects an A, F and M that are not ‘systemsy’ they may still be doing silent systems practice.
This improves the quality of reearch, but in my opinion would not be sufficient on its own to constitute ‘STiP’ research. (unless, as above it is turned into the object of study somehow.)
So where this leads me is to some sort of position that ‘STiP research’ is one where:
- STiP is the object of study (A) and makes a contribution in terms of knowledge about systems thinking in practice, and/or
- Systems ideas (F) and approaches (M) are used as the way of doing the research and makes a contribution in terms of knowledge about the utility of systems ideas and approaches in different areas of study
The quality of that research can be enhanced by:
- using systems ideas and approaches to design and plan the research
- drawing on traditions of systems thinking to navigate, and reflect on, the research process
but in themselves these qualitative elements are not sufficient to constitute ‘STiP research’
I’m interested in whether others agree? Over to you?