Understanding the environment: A systems approach
Understanding the environment: A systems approach

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Understanding the environment: A systems approach

1.4 Action learning

Many complex situations we face today are 'wicked'. This term not only has a colloquial meaning, but is also used to capture the particular characteristics of many complex situations. A wicked problem is characterised by an issue that manifests itself only as you try to engage and change it, and in doing so, the problem in turn changes: there is no definite solution that you could aim at; no case history to draw upon; no obviously right or wrong approach to take; and there is no way to anticipate the full consequences of your actions. The best way to tackle a wicked problem is to constantly learn about the changing situation and adapt one's goals, plans and actions accordingly. 'Learning by doing', or action learning, has therefore been the response to dealing with the complex and unpredictable nature of wicked problems.

Action learning is essentially a process that uses positive and negative feedback to either reinforce or change our mental models. The concept of learning as a feedback process is actually a very simple one: we identify a goal we wish to achieve, we develop plans in order to achieve the goal; we act according to those plans; we observe the outcome of our actions and evaluate these against our original goal. If the observations match our intended goal, then our mental models determining future behaviour are reinforced; if the observations don't, then we change our mental models in a way that we hope would make better plans and actions in the future. Most 'scientific' problem-solving approaches propose templates which need to be 'repeatable' in different contexts. However, wicked problems are rarely solved by these standard templates. The best that we can hope for is to apply an action learning process, while at the same time making sure that we record the steps that we have taken so that others can understand our thoughts and behaviours. To ease your engagement with this process (and the recording task which I would like you to put into practice during your engagement with the complex situations presented in this course), I have broken the action learning process down into four distinct phases: planning; acting; observing; and evaluating.

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