Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

15 Part 3: 5 Contextualising systems approaches

5.1 Introduction

In this section, I shall explore the features of the contextualising (systems-methods) ball – the C ball. I will make a distinction between systemic and systematic thinking and action and I will argue that the aware systems practitioner has more choices than the practitioner who is not aware.

An aware practitioner is able to contextualise a diverse array of methods at their disposal creating an opportunity for a greater range of advantageous changes in the ‘real world’ situation. This section explores how this comes about.

Systems is a subject that provides a language for talking about other subjects. This will be exemplified as you encounter complexity in the domains of ‘information systems’, organisations, learning for sustainable development, and in your own practice. This adaptability has led some to describe Systems as a meta-discipline or trans-discipline. The challenge for the systems practitioner is to be able to engage in double learning – learning about the domain and learning about the approach to the domain as well as juggling the other balls in Figure 21. This is a lot to manage. It's like trying to learn a language at the same time as trying to learn what is said in the language. Fortunately, there is a rich tradition of systems scholarship to support you in meeting this challenge (Figure 24). You can draw on this as a basis for developing your capacities as a systems practitioner. The more aware you are of this history and the more it becomes part of your own tradition – just as in my example of Smilla and the history of the Inuit people – the greater will be your ability to embody particular Systems distinctions in your practice.

Our focus in this unit is on the thinking that enables you to use relevant tools, techniques and methods in the right context for effecting action. In this section, I am first going to describe what I mean by a systems approach and how this relates to purposeful behaviour on the part of the practitioner. Then I will distinguish between tools, techniques, method and methodology. With these distinctions in mind, I am going to provide a brief synopsis of some of the systems approaches you will encounter in this unit. I will also refer to some that will not be featured. The process I will use is to ask, ‘What experiences did individuals or groups have that led them to develop particular systems approaches for managing complexity?’

Finally, I want to consider what is involved in contextualising any approach in a given ‘real world’ situation and to invite you to do the same. To do this I will ask you to keep in mind a number of questions as you work through the section:

  • Is it the method or how it is used that is important?

  • How are learning and action built in?

  • Who is, or could be, involved in the approach?

  • What could be said about the politics of intervention in a ‘real world’ situation?