Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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Mastering systems thinking in practice

3.4 Identifying systems of interest

Activity 1 will help you to begin identifying systems of interest.

If you have difficulty seeing what is required at any step, you can refer to my attempts to answer the questions in the ‘comment’ but you will get more from them if you follow the instructions through to the end before you refer to my answers.

Activity 1 Identifying systems of interest in a complex situation

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes for this activity.

Identify a complex situation or recognised system involving people which you find puzzling, awkward or unpredictable. Describe it briefly and then answer the following questions:

  1. Why does it present you with a problem?
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  1. Whose purposes does this system serve?
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  1. What is the system for? Write at least five answers to this question and any ideas or insights which it gives you.
It is a system for …Ideas and insights
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  1. Do the answers you have written give you any ideas about changing the behaviour of the system?
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Comment

Here are my answers to the questions, by way of an example.

The complex situation I have chosen is the ‘higher education system’.

  1. Why does it present you with a problem?

    I find this puzzling at the moment, even though I work in a university, since there seems to be so many changes afoot as higher education policy and practice is also being discussed and debated around the world. This extends to what is the role and mission of universities; who pays for higher education; will massive open online courses make universities obsolete; how is research evaluated; how is teaching evaluated; and so on.

  2. Whose purposes does this system serve?

    Well it does serve students and their teachers. It serves the government in that it contributes to a highly educated workforce and undertakes basic research. It also brings in export income from international students and reputation for the host country. It also serves companies in providing well educated employees and again research findings they can exploit. It serves the wider public by contributing ideas and debate around important issues. Through open educational resources such as this badged open course it provides benefits to anyone who can access them. In other words there are lots of groups who can be seen as stakeholders in the higher education system.

  3. What is the system for?

    Here are five possibilities (out of many) I came up with.

    • a.A system for delaying school leavers from entering the job market. This is not a planned or designed system but it is a consequence of the higher education system. Delayed entry to the job market has further consequences such as pay levels, years taken to build up a pension, the possibility that some students never enter the job market. So taking this perspective starts to raise questions that may need to be addressed by policy makers.
    • b.A system for providing employment for researchers. This is more of a planned system in that funders of research and universities both have to take account of the careers and prospects of university employees who may be on research-only contracts as well as those on both teaching and research contracts. However many researchers are also employed in industry so this is also about the mobility of researchers and collaboration between universities and industry.
    • c.A system for creating media stars. Radio, television and the internet all provide means for experts in certain subjects to either be employed to present or appear on programmes or to gain ‘fame’ (if not fortune) by blogging or having their lectures recorded and put online by their university. These stars may then attract students to their university or attract people to embark on higher education who may not have done so without the inspiration of that star.
    • d.A system for supporting book publishers. Textbooks for university students are a big market, more so in some countries than others. Many of those textbooks are written by university academics and few get rich on the royalties they are paid as most books do not sell in large numbers; and it is academics who recommend the textbooks their students should read. So there is a mutually beneficial but some might say pernicious market where book publishers benefit the most.
    • e.A system for boosting the local economy. Universities can often be the largest employer in some host cities or towns and so the more successful they are in attracting students and research grants the more that will feed into the local economy. Local authorities are often very keen to support their existing university and lobby to have one established in their city/town because of the benefits it can bring.
  4. Do the answers you have written give you any ideas about changing the behaviour of the system?

    Naming these different purposes has certainly highlighted different perspectives on a complex situation. I have not gone into such detail that it is easy to identify ways to change the behaviour of each system of interest. But for b. I could note that many of those on research contracts have their employment tied to external grant funding. When the grant money runs out so does their employment unless there is another grant. This means researchers can be changing jobs and employers very frequently. Perhaps funders and universities need to ensure such contracts are never less than, say, three years in duration to give more stability to those researchers. Further, for system d. perhaps governments need to intervene a bit in this market place by paying for/subsidising a guaranteed number of textbooks in core subjects that means textbooks are not too costly but that authors and publishers still get reasonable income from them.

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