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

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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

5.10 Contextualising any particular systems approach

The capacity to put any systems approach into context is based on the ability of a practitioner to appreciate their own traditions of understanding and to make connections with the history of particular systems methods or methodologies, or to formulate their own. Above all, there is a need to learn from using them and to achieve outcomes that are agreed by those involved as worthwhile. This is a level of systems practice to which you can aspire.

At the beginning of Part 3, Section 5 I posed four questions that I asked you to consider as you worked through it:

  • 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?

Like so much in systems practice, there are no definitive answers to these questions other than ‘it will depend on the context and your own abilities in that context’. What I hope is clear is that an aware systems practitioner does not force a method on to a context, a ‘real world’ situation, to which it is not suited.

Your ability to contextualise a systems approach, of juggling the C ball, will be aided if you don't shoot first and ask questions later! Because most systems practice is carried out in some institutional setting your ability to contextualise an approach will also be helped if you appreciate it is not only people who have epistemologies but institutions as well. All institutions hold conceptions of what counts as legitimate knowledge, which determines how individuals are able to claim what they know. These epistemologies are built into institutional structures and practices. Don Schön (1995) cites the example of the typical elementary school that is organised around school knowledge – knowledge contained in the curriculum, the lesson, the module, in the promotion procedures for teachers, the practices of teachers, the organisation of rooms and so on. All of these things enter into the idea of ‘school knowledge’.


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