Learning, thinking and doing
Learning, thinking and doing

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Learning, thinking and doing

4 Introduction

(Please refer to Reading 4: Learning to act: managing and systems practice, by Andy Lane) This course teaches some aspects of systems thinking and practice. But what does it mean to be a systems practitioner, and is it different to being a manager? This reading attempts to answer those questions.

First, I believe a good systems practitioner will be more competent at handling complex situations, more capable of managing their working and domestic lives, and more able to learn not only how to learn but also how to act more effectively by using systemic concepts and techniques. Two keywords in that description are learning and managing. The importance of learning and in particular the experiential learning model of Kolb has been discussed in the three previous readings in this course. The importance of managing needs further explanation.

The trouble with the term managing is that it has come to be associated with the work of those whose job title includes the designation 'Manager' or 'Director' or 'Executive'; somebody with identifiable seniority. As a result many people think that managing is something a bit different, special even – and certainly not what they do. This feeling occurs even when the person's work is very varied and involves a range of contacts with other people. For example, as an academic I spend a large proportion of my time trying to get things done with and through other people. But I certainly don't think of myself as a manager. Part of the misunderstanding comes from the idea that managing is all about controlling people and their activities through the application of financial and other resources. At one time, managers saw this as their primary task. As time has moved on, managers have seen that their role includes a much wider brief; getting things done through other people and enabling people to solve the problems confronting them and to seek better ways of working.

In this sense the work of managers has moved much closer to the role of anyone working effectively in an organisation of any description. But the confusion lingers on, that only managers do any managing. Curiously enough, this feeling even extends to many of those who do have the title 'manager'; they believe their job lacks many of the important characteristics of 'real' management. For example, middle managers often think that those above them are the ones with genuinely managerial jobs. Yet I have been told that the controllers of one European multi-national talk with frustration of 'the establishment' who really manage the enterprise – the great swathe of corporate managers on whom they depend. So it seems that 'managers' and 'management' are commonly other people.

Another reason why managing is a troublesome term is that the term manager is applied to an astonishing diversity of different sorts of work.

Empirical studies have demonstrated that people called managers (and controllers, directors and so on) fulfil a very wide range of roles with correspondingly varied patterns of working relationships. As a result, any particular management role will not include many of the aspects that are commonly associated with the term. For example, those involved in the control of day-to-day operations may have little involvement in planning and strategy, while those who function as 'contacts' or liaison personnel may have few if any subordinates to 'manage'.

Nevertheless, what is called management does have some common features. It is characterised by a harsh pace, by the variety, brevity, and fragmentation of the activities undertaken, and by the need to deal with other people, often in meetings of one sort or another. Clearly, this is not a description of assembly line work. On the other hand (and this is the key point) it's pretty obvious that to a greater or lesser extent these characteristics occur in the work of an enormous number of people in organisations of all descriptions – far, far more than have the title 'manager'.

If one thinks in these terms then it follows that much, perhaps most, working activities within – and outside – organisations involves a significant managing component. This view is in line with the much broader everyday use of the term (by which we simply mean 'coping'), for example, 'How are you managing?' On this basis, an engineer in a project team, a shop steward, a play-group organiser, a tax inspector, a teacher and a hotel receptionist, people who are definitely not Managers (with a capital M), all do a great deal of managing. It follows that although the amount of managing involved in people's work varies, it is seldom entirely absent, and is usually quite an important part of the job – even though most people don't usually think of their work in these terms. This is the meaning of managing in this course.

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