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Systems (the academic area of study)

Systems thinking in practice

Systems approaches/methods/tools

Social learning and social learning systems

On being a systems practitioner

Systems thinking in research practice

This page has been prompted by a neighbour of mine who texted me today (26 April 2013) to ask if I have any recommendations on books on Systems for a friend who is interested.  “Lots” I thought – but then I realised the question is not that simple to answer – what sort of level?  for what purpose? which particular tradition or lineage?

So here is an attempt to put my recommendations in order.  Most are, of course, all linked to the Open University because that is the ‘tradition’ I have learnt from.   But that perspective is what I can ‘eclectic’ – it deliberately recognises, celebrates and embraces the diversity of the systems world.

I think first of all I want to make a very ‘rough’ distinction between reading about Systems (the academic area of study) and reading about Systems thinking in practice (more of an an ‘applied’ perspective).

Systems (the academic area of study)

There have been a number of different influences or lineages that have informed contemporary Systems science – each linked with different ‘gurus’.

So  you could start out with any book that gives accounts of holism; general systems theory; operations research; complexity sciences; cybernetics; learning systems.  There are lots of books for example about complexity applied to different fields of endeavour – such as management or policy making.

However, my recommendation for a good overview of the ‘history’ through biographical accounts of some of the key founders of systems thinking is:

Ramage M and Shipp K (2009) Systems Thinkers, London, Springer/Open University

Systems Thinkers presents a biographical history of the field of systems thinking, by examining the life and work of thirty of its major thinkers. It discusses each thinker’s key contributions, the way this contribution was expressed in practice and the relationship between their life and ideas. This discussion is supported by an extract from the thinker’s own writing, to give a flavour of their work and to give readers a sense of which thinkers are most relevant to their own interests.

Systems thinking is necessarily interdisciplinary, so that the thinkers selected come from a wide range of areas – biology, management, physiology, anthropology, chemistry, public policy, sociology and environmental studies among others. Some are core innovators in systems ideas; some have been primarily practitioners who also advanced and popularised systems ideas; others are well-known figures who drew heavily upon systems thinking although it was not their primary discipline. A significant aim of the book is to broaden and deepen the reader’s interest in systems writers, providing an appetising “taster” for each of the 30 thinkers, so that the reader is encouraged to go on to study the published works of the thinkers themselves.

For contents info go to

Systems thinking in practice

This is where it gets interesting for me.

Systems approaches/methods/tools

The academic lineages and traditions of systems have led to the development of a number of frameworks of ideas and associated approaches/methods/tools that can be used – individually or by a group – to make sense of and then purposefully improve messy situations.  The ideas and approaches/methods can be utilised in ‘formal’ studies for example a research project or an evaluation.  They can also be used by people in organisations – as we inquire into ‘problems’ or ‘issues’; take action; and reflect on what if any change has emerged.

As a way of ‘whetting’ the appetite, you could try and get hold of:

Open University (1999) Systems thinking and practice: A primer (T551)

Open University (1999) Systems thinking and practice: Diagramming (T552)

Between these two books, you can get to grips of some of the fundamental ideas of systems thinking and the main ‘tool of the trade’ diagramming.  Diagramming is to systems thinking what graphs are to statistics.

They are both available at but occasionally you see them going through E-bay.  There is however a free and more interactive way of covering the material in these books – through Open Learn – go to and search for T551 and T552.  If you enjoy that then look for the units titled Managing complexity: a systems approach which takes it all a little further.

Still interested…

There are a number of more full-blown systems approaches – drawing on different systems lineages – and therefore each with their own bookshelf to go along with them.

For a grounding and overview of five key systems approaches (systems dynamics; viable system model; strategic options development and analysis; soft systems methodology; critical systems heuristics) I would recommend:

Reynolds M and Holwell S (eds) (2010) Systems approaches to managing change: a practical guide, London, Springer/Open University

In a world of increasing complexity, instant information availability and constant flux, systems approaches provide the opportunity of a tangible anchor of purpose and iterative learning. The five approaches outlined in the book offer a range of interchangeable tools with rigorous frameworks of application tried and tested in the ‘real world’. The frameworks of each approach form a powerful toolkit to explore the dynamics of how societies emerge, how organisations create viability, how to facilitate chains of argument through causal mapping, how to embrace a multiplicity of perspectives identifying purposeful activity and how to look for the bigger picture across multiple disciplines.

Systems Approaches offers an excellent first introduction for those seeking to understand what ‘systems thinking’ is all about as well as why the tools discussed herein should be applied to management and professional practice. This book provides a practical guide, and the chapters stand alone in explaining and developing each approach.

More info – inc the intro and one of the chapters available for download –  at

Although I haven’t read it myself, I know other systems practitioners who think highly of:

Williams, B and Hummelbrunner R (2010) Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner’s Toolkit, Stanford University Press

More info and a glance at the contents page at

These two books are both designed to give an overview of more than one systems approach.  Once you’ve found one that appeals to you, you are then more informed to search for books that go into more detail into that approach e.g. Checkland’s own books on soft systems methodology.

Now I can’t move on without mentioning:

Armson, R (2011) Growing wings on the way: systems thinking for messy situations, Axminster, Triarchy Press

This was published after I’d covered a lot of the in-depth theory but for those new to ‘doing’ systems thinking, Ros predominantly draws on soft systems methodology takes away a lot of the ‘theory’ and takes the reader on a great journey into the land of systems thinking.  More info at

 Social learning and social learning systems

The systemic tradition of systems thinking places great emphasis on the human content of the situation and on learning.  Systems academics have therefore drawn on – and contributed to the development of – discussions on social learning.  The emphasis is on  learning (changes in understanding, doing or being) through interaction with others – rather than ‘being taught’.  Social learning is particularly important when thinking about systemic change – like social change or organisational development.

That takes me to:

Blackmore, C (Ed) (2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, London, Springer/Open University

Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice is a collection of classical and contemporary writing associated with learning and systemic change in contexts ranging from cities, to rural development to education to nursing to water management to public policy. It is likely to be of interest to anyone trying to understand how to think systemically and to act and interact effectively in situations experienced as complex, messy and changing. While mainly concerned with professional praxis, where theory and practice inform each other, there is much here that can apply at a personal level.

This book offers conceptual tools and suggestions for new ways of being and acting in the world in relation to each other, that arise from both old and new understandings of communities, learning and systems. Starting with twentieth century insights into social learning, learning systems and appreciative systems from Donald Schön and Sir Geoffrey Vickers, the book goes on to consider the contemporary traditions of critical social learning systems and communities of practice, pioneered by Richard Bawden and Etienne Wenger and their colleagues. A synthesis of the ideas raised, written by the editor, concludes this reader. The theory and practice of social learning systems and communities of practice appear to have much to offer in influencing and managing systemic change for a better world.

More info at

On being a systems practitioner

It’s kind of easy to think of ‘theory of Systems’ and ‘systems approaches’ in isolation from each other.  But being a systems practitioner is more than whipping out a particular diagramming technique when you need it or saying the word ’emergent’.  Systems practice is also concerned with the dynamic of ‘practice’ itself; with reflective practice; with epistemological choices; with praxis (theory informed action); and with a continuous inquiry driven approach to the world – if you get there, it is a way of ‘being’ and a way of ‘doing’.

This is where I recommend the book I found really hard to read, I struggled, I read things twice or three times and I know people who hated it.  BUT ultimately I’ve got the most from this book, I refer to it most of all and it has very much influenced who I am, what I do and how I do it.

Ison, R (2010) Systems Practice: How to act in a climate-change world, London, Springer/Open University

It is now accepted that humans are changing the climate of the Earth and this is the most compelling amongst a long litany of reasons as to why, collectively, we have to change our ways of thinking and acting. Most people now recognise that we have to be capable of adapting quickly as new and uncertain circumstances emerge: this capability will need to exist at personal, group, community, regional, national and international levels, all at the same time.

Systems Practice is structured into four parts. Part I introduces the societal need to move towards a more systemic and adaptive governance against the backdrop of human-induced climate change. Part II unpacks what is involved in systems practice by means of a juggler metaphor; examining situations where systems thinking offers useful understanding and opportunities for change. Part III identifies the main factors that constrain the uptake of systems practice and makes the case for innovation in practice by means of systemic inquiry, systemic action research and systemic intervention. The book concludes with Part IV, which critically examines how systems practice is, or might be, utilised at different levels from the personal to the societal.

The development of our capabilities to think and act systemically is an urgent priority and Systems Practice aims to show how to do systems thinking and translate that thinking into praxis (theory informed practical action) which will be welcomed by those managing in situations of complexity and uncertainty across all domains of professional and personal concern.

More at including a Chapter 1 download.

Systems thinking in research practice

Some people come to systems thinking wondering if it can help them in a research process.  In particular, systems thinking has a lot of lineages in common with action research.  These are chapters/articles aimed at the research community that give an overview of the background to systems thinking and link it to action research.

Flood, R.L. (2001) The relationship of ‘systems thinking’ to action research

appears as Chapter 10 in Reason P and Bradbury H (eds) (2006) The handbook of action research, Concise Paperback Student Edition, London, Sage Publications

as far as I can tell the identical article is in Systemic Practice and Action Research, August 2010, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 269-284 (subscribers only)

This article investigates the relationship of systems thinking to action research by reviewing the main developments in systems thinking and relating these to action research. There are two main lines of thought in systems thinking that lead to wholly different conceptions about action research. The first (systems thinking) advocates thinking about real social systems that it assumes exist in the world. The second (systemic thinking) supposes only that the social construction of the world is systemic. Greater emphasis is placed on systemic thinking consistent with its greater importance to contemporary action research. The article concludes that systemic thinking when taken to its practical conclusion from a critical perspective offers to action research a somewhat unique liberating praxis. Concern that any liberating praxis could remain hollow is addressed through a certain kind of ‘spiritual’ awareness that is suggested by wholeness.

another chapter giving a different systems thinkers’ perspective of the same issue is

Ison, R. L. (2008). Systems thinking and practice for action research. In: Reason, Peter W. and Bradbury, Hilary eds. The Sage Handbook of Action Research Participative Inquiry and Practice (2nd edition). London, UK: Sage Publications, pp. 139–158. Available at

This chapter offers some grounding in systems thinking and practice for doing action research. There are different traditions within systems thinking and practice which, if appreciated, can become part of the repertoire for practice by action researchers. After exploring some of these lineages the differences between systemic and systematic thinking and practice are elucidated – these are the two adjectives that come from the word ‘system’, but they describe quite different understandings and practices. These differences are associated with epistemological awareness and distinguishing systemic action research from action research. Finally, some advantages for action research practice from engaging with systems thinking and practice are discussed.

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