Learning, thinking and doing
Learning, thinking and doing

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Learning, thinking and doing

4.2 New ways of thinking and acting: systems practice

There are a wide variety of concepts and theories relating to management and managing. This course is centred on the ideas and techniques that we believe define systems thinking, but it also draws upon concepts and theories from other areas where these are deemed to be useful. On top of this we see systems practice as requiring a readiness to use the experiential model of learning set out by Kolb, bringing theory and practice together in a meaningful way.

It may be helpful to set out what we are not trying to do.

First we are not trying to provide a recipe book or a 'how to do it' manual when faced by this or that situation. The situations you face are varied and complicated. If they are not to be simplistic, any such principles are likely to be pretty vague and general, like 'Look before you leap' and 'Procrastination is the thief of time'. The trouble isn't in understanding such principles – it's in knowing when and how to apply them, and in knowing what to do when they conflict. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of problem that some of the early writers on management ran into. Searching for universal principles they suggested that, in the interest of control, no one should supervise more than a limited number of staff; and further, that the number of levels in an organisation should not exceed another, quite limited, number (quite what the numbers were was a matter of controversy). Put these principles together and the implication is that organisations should be kept fairly modest in size. This suggestion is not without merit – but not much help if you happen to be managing in an organisation well over the limit!

Similar problems arise with techniques; learning the technique is usually easy compared with recognising when and how to apply it. The fact is that managing is not the sort of thing that can be reduced to the application of a limited set of principles and procedures. In some respects it's like the work of a skilled craftsman. The competence that, say, a cabinet-maker brings to his or her work is not, primarily, a set of techniques and principles. Rather it is an informal craft knowledge, a body of 'know-how' that enables him or her to recognise the easy or elegant way round a snag, to know when something isn't going to work, to anticipate problems, to work with an economy of effort, as the work progresses. A book on cabinet making may give some useful tips and rules of thumb. But reading it won't make you a cabinet-maker. Learning in our terms is not only learning what to do, but trying it out and reviewing how well you actually performed so that you can adjust what you do next time.

One aspect of learning that is touched upon in Reading 3 is that of learning new 'ways of thinking' about a subject area or issue. Situations can be viewed in many different ways, and some of those ways will be much more fruitful than others. But for various reasons, including our previous training and experience and our own anxiety about the situation, it is very easy to get 'locked in' to a particular way of thinking about a problem. On such occasions, or as a preventive measure when entering unfamiliar territory, it is important to know how to set about, quite deliberately, thinking around the problem, exploring different 'angles', trying out different boundaries. An important part of this is the ability to explore and take seriously the points of view of the other people involved, trying out their perspectives and incorporating their insights. All these features characterise 'systems thinking', although they are not exclusive to it. And it is systems thinking that is a major part of this course. However, thinking differently is no help if you do not use that to act differently as well, so we expect you to practice what you learn in your own organisation as well as in your assignments.

I have repeatedly emphasised the importance of relating the material being studied to your own experience. You may still be thinking that the subject is primary and that your experience is merely an adjunct to it, providing some further illustrations from time to time. If anything, the reverse is true. For this course considers reflection on practice as in the Kolb model of learning to be the basic ingredient in the development of thinking and managing skills. The course therefore supports and enhances reflection on practice, in this case both study practice and systems practice. Only in this manner can the course help you to develop your own way of being competent at managing and becoming a systems practitioner.


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