Today, I had reason to re-visit Checkland’s 30 year retrospective and was reminded of his discussion of what it is to ‘use’ SSM. It gave me some additional insights that I think are quite helpful to what I describe above.

He distinguishes two forms of SSM ‘use’ – prescriptive and internalised SSM or mode 1 and mode 2.

– Mode 1 use is methodology-driven. SSM is treated as an external recipe and can be used in quite a procedural way

– Mode 2 use is situation-driven. SSM is more of an internalised model. It’s use is much more iterative and interactive

When I talked about how I use my knowledge of systems approaches, I would say they approximate mode 2 use – they are internalised and I draw on them in interaction with the situation. I suspect therefore my ‘use’ of systems would be hard to research (unless a first person inquiry).

(It’s interesting too that Checkland’s cites the OU’s work in teaching SSM as part of the experiences informing this distinction).

Reference

Checkland, P. (1999) Systems thinking, Systems practice: includes a 30-year retrospective, Wiley: Chichester, UK

Yes, those of us aiming to build capabilities to act systemically need to think about the real world conditions that people encounter rather than imagined perfect settings for practice.

The fields of participatory research and participatory development and action research have had similar concerns. In 15 years of community development practice, I’ve never found that the ideal scenario of a participatory research project to exist. What I’ve tried to do is improve things by being participatory ‘a little bit and a little bit more’ (to coin a phrase from Mama Panya – a character in one of the books we have been reading the girls at the moment).

In systems – it’s a question of how can we bring more ‘systemicity’ into our existing practice context. If we think of practice as a verb phrase then this makes a lot of sense because we are talking about the qualities of doing, which can be multiple and are always situated.

At the Open University we’ve been playing around with a conceptual framework that distinguishes ‘systemic sensibilities’, ‘systems literacy’ and ‘systems thinking in practice capability’. We’re still unfolding this framework to see how it might be useful in guiding our Masters level teaching and work on Systems Thinking Practitioner apprenticeship standard. In so doing I’ve started looking at it in the light of another meta-discipline – one where novice practitioners often get scared (and scarred) by early experiences such that they shy away from using its elegant insights in practice (sound familiar?) – mathematics.

In the field of maths there is the notion of ‘number sense’. Number sense is described as:

“a student’s ability to work with numbers flexibly and fluidly….giving meaning to numbers – that is, knowing about how they relate to each other and their relative magnitudes….the effect of mathematical operations on numbers, such as whether multiplication of a given number by another would make the number bigger or smaller. Having a sense of number is vital for the understanding of numerical aspects of the world.” (TESS-India, nd)

It is seen to be a holistic construct that arose out of desire to balance a skills-based approach with one that connected with real-world situations and was “concerned with the development of a wide range of understandings, skills and attitudes about number that extend beyond those generally associated with numeracy and encompass everyday uses” (Dunphy 2006).

I’m fascinated by how number sense seems to be framed around having a positive attitude or ‘friendliness’ towards numbers. I love the idea of getting the girls to become friends with numbers and then setting them lose on ever more complex situations. It highlights the emotional disposition that we have towards systems thinking – it only benefits the ‘high priests’ good if most people are terrified of getting it wrong. Highly complicated systems methods, like complicated maths operations (and religious rituals), can be of use but probably only for a small subset of the population of potential users. For most of us, most of the time a good ‘what, why, how’ or a sketchy system dynamics diagram along with an inquiring attitude would make a significant difference to our ability to go on systemically with whatever it is that we’re already doing – whether that’s evaluation of complex development programmes or dealing with the landlord breathing down your neck.

The material invites some interesting angles for deepening my own understanding of how to build capacity for systems thinking in practice. For example, in terms of this framework, I wonder if ‘number sense’ can be related to a combination of systemic sensibility and systems literacy, whilst systems thinking in practice capability is like being able to use maths in day-to-day situations that you encounter (eg at the shops, when confronted by a Wonga ad, working out betting odds) – when your number sense is performed in a situated particular…I know how to calculate how much interest I will have to pay and can decide whether to take a £300 loan.

Indeed, I find the underlying conceptual framework of systems thinking to be a kind of parallel to the conceptual framework of mathematics in that these are liberating but highly structured frames that help us engage with the complexity of situations. We can admire and marvel at the beauty of mathematical rules and underlying principles etc. but for most people most of the time – whether down at the shops or in the CERN lab – it comes down to how the frameworks can support effective practice in the open messiness of our living together – ‘a little bit and a little bit more’!

References

Dunphy, Elizabeth (2006). An exploration of young children’s number sense on entry to primary school in Ireland. EdD thesis The Open University.

Tess-India (nd) Using number games: developing number sense. TESS-India and Open University available at http://www.open.edu/openlearncreate/pluginfile.php/134923/mod_resource/content/3/EM01_AIE_Final.pdf

Other source

Chamberlin, M. and Chamberlin, R. (2005) Mama Panya’s Pancakes: A Village Tale from Kenya. Barefoot Books

On the point of adaptation: I’ve seen two recent examples of these during the conference:

1) the approach described in the book: Bamberger, M et al (2016) Dealing with complexity in development evaluation, a practical approach.

And

2) UN Women (2018) Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender equality, environments and marginalized voices (ISE4GEMs): a new approach for the SDG era (authors/eds: Anne Stephens, Ellen D. Lewis, and Shravanti Reddy).

Both approaches are adaptations intended for practitioners. The 2nd one is based on systems approaches of familiar flavours: notably boundary analysis (Part 7) and deeply steeped in Critical systems approaches. (Wonderful example actually). Problem is: when translated into such a practical guide and tool, it inevitably ends up as a rather complicated process. This is counter acted through some practical tools (roadmaps, process guides, visualizations), but there is no turning away from the fact that a full approach is very complicated, and has a lot in it! For a practitioner, it is hard to envisage that someone would faithfully implement a whole process like that in its entirety. I think it’s inevitable for practitioners to ‘cut corners’, and take a selective approach, picking and choosing from it and customize it to their own circumstances and situations. At least it offers some entry points for practitioners into what is effectively a ‘systemic inquiry’ process, without having to take in a whole lot of heavy theory – but then, it’s also difficult to leave theory out of it altogether. It seems to be a difficult balancing act…

The 1st approach is an example for what happens when ‘reductionist’ approach wins out, even where the attempt is to ‘deal with complexity’ (in development evaluation). Whilst the motivation is laudable, the result (to my mind) is quite reductionist in style and approach. Doesn’t strike me as systemic at all, nor complexity-sensitive, but rather an attempt to tackle complexity with approaches more suited for ‘complicatedness’. The step-by-step process suggests to first use ‘complexity theory’ to understand the situation as a whole, then to identify specific policies / elements and to evaluate those with normal methods… later, to reassemble them, to get back to the big picture again… (well, metaphors that came to my mind went between Humpty-Dumpty and the Cartesian Duck…). But it exposes the tension between a (claimed) recognition of complexity, and still tackling the situations with lots and lots of (at least, mixed!) methods. Reasons provided why this is the case mentioned that this was necessary, taking into account the organisational ‘path dependencies’ – i.e. therefore the approach provided needed to be familiar and comfortable for users in order to have a chance to be adopted… (that strikes me at least as an interesting path of inquiry, to look into these path dependencies a bit more perhaps when it comes to promoting systems approaches / etc uptake?

The rest of the conference has also shown a continued dominance of what you so aptly call ‘analyticentricity’. It’s rampant! Methods, methods, methods, everywhere, as usual. Although at least it is also a little comforting that there is growing (hopefully) recognition of the role of the evaluator (practitioner) and the act of evaluating, and what that involves, and ethical ways of doing so when engaging in such a practice. There are signs of reflexivity! But practice lags behind…

Sorry for long and meandering response, Helen. … I think I need to start blogging myself, to get some more coherence to my thoughts. Your blog continues to be a main inspiration!

]]>Thanks for your interest in the blog. Action research has a number of intellectual influences in common with systems thinking, particularly linked back to the work of Argyris, Schon and Lewin, so there are many reasons to be fascinated with it.

If – and only if – you have time outside of your current OU studies, it is worth reading the Coghlan and Brannick book as it considers the practicalities of AR and not just the theoretical basis. It is now in a newer edition and the book has a website with short videos of David Coghlan. Sage handbook is much ‘heavier’. An early edition of it has a chapter by Ray Ison on Systems thinking and action research. You can get that for free at http://oro.open.ac.uk/10576/1/Ison.pdf

I don’t think reading these materials now would add much to your study of the current modules. It’s best to stick to really getting to grips with module materials which is what you are assessed on. Nevertheless if you do have time, it is always worth reading around your interests.

Best of luck

Helen

I am currently doing TU812 and I am also fascinated by Action Research and wondered if it would be useful later when doing T847 or T802 … or even as part of my professional practice at work. I really wish that there was another STiP module at the OU (Action Research, Design and Evaluation all seem like good candidates!)

Since I most likely have a year to go I thought it might be worth reading up on, and experimenting with in the meantime. Would you recommend “Doing action research in your own organisation” or the Sage handbook as a good start? Would these be useful even for EMA/TMAs or are they too ‘heavy’?

]]>i am 21 yrs old and i love businesses and how they work..

what books should i read? how can i test myself and improve??

i learnt my method of thinking, by observing how i learn my regular course study (mechanical engg.)

thanx

]]>Thanks for your comment.

The information I have is that the book will be published ‘in October’. So I suspect it’ll be in stock in the next few weeks.

Regards

Helen ]]>

Thanks for taking the time to say ‘hello’. I hope you are finding TU812 and interesting and helpful course. I found it really challenging to ‘figure our how to express my own view’ – the blogs may look polished as they were published but believe me that were worked and re-worked a lot!

regards

Helen ]]>