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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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1 Who uses systems thinking?

Before turning to the question ‘Who uses systems thinking?’ read these words from some past systems students on what systems thinking has meant to them in practice:

Box 1 What systems thinking means to past systems students

Frances Chapman: ‘Systems thinking is important for me because it helps extend my apparently natural way of thinking, providing tools for handling the complexity more adequately and helping deepen understanding; particularly regarding interactions – where once I would have known they were there but remained unsure of quite how some were operating and affecting the basic ‘central’ scenario. Also, by understanding more of the complexity I find this aspect helps me to retain an open mind on most topics, aids reducing prejudice and helps me work to what I feel may be a more balanced viewpoint.’

John Robles: ‘It [systems thinking] allows me to tackle problems not only in a scientific way but in a holistic way which demonstrates a caring approach to all persons at all levels connected with the problem or system(s) involved.’

Paul Warren: ‘Systems thinking is important for me because it provides a formal recognised framework to explain organisational events, and other happenings, which hitherto had to be explained by vague notions of “common sense”.’

Sarah Smith: ‘Systems thinking is important for me because it has given me a new and better way to view complex situations, both in organisations and personally.’

Bob Saunders: ‘I recognise the need to take a holistic view of situations in my field of expertise – project management. So many projects fail because consideration of the human element is omitted, or badly covered by the project manager. “Systems” has helped me to grapple with the complexities.’

The question ‘Who uses systems thinking?’ depends where you are in the world and what search terms you use. A quick internet search on ‘systems thinking’ in the UK inevitably has a UK-centric look to it as it highlights The Association for Project Management [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , NESTA, Forum for the Future, and Oxfam among others. Further afield, in the US, there is the Waters Center for Systems Thinking, the Institute for Systemic Leadership, and the Donella Meadows Institute. While it also picks up several educational institutions, book publishers and reports such as this one from the World Health Organization.

On top of this, systems thinking is used in UK policy making at both local and national government, has influenced the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the Circular Economy and is thought to be an important facet of the Sustainable Development Goal 17 that deals with bringing the work on all other 16 goals together as part of a global partnership.

This looks impressive but a similar search on ‘systems practitioner’ tends to throw up items such as ‘systems safety practitioner’ or ‘systems security certified practitioner’ both of which are dealing with computer networks. This highlights both a strength and a weakness. Systems thinking is increasingly being used in practice across many domains and sectors of the economy as it can be applied to any complex situation but at the same time there is no professional body or explicit and widely understood conception of a systems practitioner as there might be for, say, a computer engineer or a professional health worker (in both cases there will be specialists as well as generalists). While there several are national and international bodies supporting systems thinking research such as the International Federation for Systems Research, the nearest practitioner example is the Systems Thinking Practitioner occupational standard approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in the UK in 2020. So, systems thinking and systems practice are here to stay, but why is it becoming so important for so many?

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Figure 1 Which systems person do you want?