Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2 Designing ‘learning systems’ for purposeful action in the domain of sustainable development

In the previous section the focus was on managing systems practice according to three distinctions about power – ‘deciding for’, ‘deciding with’ and ‘enabling deciding by’. It was suggested that each of these possibilities placed different demands on the systems practitioner as juggler – juggling the B, E, C and M balls (discussed further in the unit Managing complexity: a systems approach [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). The question of who learns when systems practice is managed in each of these ways was also posed, because, it was argued, the question of who participates in a learning process affects their capacity to be responsible – to be able to respond purposefully. The rationale for this is my claim, based on experience, that it is much easier managing systems practice in the ‘deciding for mode’ but that ultimately this is a trap in contexts such as sustainable development. It is more challenging to be a systems practitioner in the ‘decide with’ or ‘enabling deciding by’ modes. Practice based on either ‘deciding with’ or ‘enabling deciding by’ involves much more attention to process issues, and other stakeholders are involved, often as co-practitioners or ‘co-researchers’. For example the ‘managing the commons’ issues referred to, where it is not clear who the stakeholders are, is an important context, e.g. Brent Spar. In these and similar situations the task of identifying stakeholders and bringing them together in a decision making or situation-improving project is often very difficult but despite these difficulties experience shows that if key stakeholders are not involved decisions do not stick.

A focus of this part is the systems practitioner as a facilitator of a process design which is ‘enabling for stakeholders’. This is the main subject I want to address by drawing on my own personal experience of process design in the modes of ‘deciding with’ and ‘enabling’ stakeholders to decide. Whilst the ‘deciding for’ option is given short shrift in this section, my colleague Martin Reynolds has pointed out:

... this tendency [i.e. deciding for] is often requisite e.g. (a) where stakeholders are non-human or (b) where stakeholders cannot be involved with decision making either because they have: (i) no capacity, where capacity might be determined by time constraints as well as bio-physical restraints; (ii) no desire to be involved as in scenarios where those affected do not wish to give legitimacy to a process of decision making which they feel is ultimately coercive, e.g. advocates of direct action; or (iii) not yet been identified – e.g. the incipient ‘unforeseen consequences’ in any decision making.

Whilst I value Martin’s perspective my own view is that however much we might try to put ourselves in the shoes of another, or acknowledge other perspectives, it is never the same as having these stakeholders participate. I do recognise that participation is not always possible and that any process which makes us reflect on the stakeholding of others is likely to be much better than not doing it at all. My experience suggests that as with many aspects of systems practice the choices that are made are a function of context, skills and ethics (largely awareness)!

Following Churchman (1971) my concern is with developing practice through a process of ‘designing’ purposeful inquiry. At its simplest ‘inquiry’ is an activity which produces knowledge, but as Churchman argues this is not very helpful unless we ask what ‘produces’ and ‘knowledge’ mean. His definition of ‘produces’ is that it ‘makes a difference’, i.e. it must really matter to someone. In order to test whether it matters one determines whether the absence of the activity would have resulted in something different. However this is not easy to do – the problem is a bit like the driver not sure of where they are going who has to choose which turn to take. Employing a systems approach often takes you down some turns rather than others and it is sometimes hard to distinguish whether this leads to a better place or just a different place. However, for me the aware systems practitioner has more choices at their disposal and is more aware of why certain turns seem better. When practising in a ‘decide with’ or ‘enabling deciding by’ mode it is helpful for both the practitioner and those stakeholders who become involved to have a route map of the process they are beginning. Figure 6 is one possible route map that appeals to me.

Figure 6 A model of a systemic inquiry process that can be used for managing systems practice in different contexts and according to different aspects of power viz deciding for, deciding with or enabling deciding by. When enacted the model can be described as a ‘learning system’ (Source: Adapted from Checkland, 2002)

Activity 4 Seeing the seven step SS-method as an inquiring system

Consider the SS-method used in T306_2 and reconfigure the seven step model in terms of those presented in Figure 6.

Based on your use of SS-Method thus far suggest some implications for practice from what you have learned by carrying out this activity


I have drawn two diagrams for my answer. I started by using the seven-step model of SS-method. (In my two diagrams I have numbered the original seven steps from 1 to 7. What I found different was that Checkland now places greater emphasis on setting up a structured exploration at the beginning (step A in my two new diagrams). He is thus making much more explicit his commitment to enacting SS-method as both an action research process and as an ‘inquiring system’. This suggests to me that an important part of this stage could be to ask the question: who should or ought to participate in this inquiry? Put another way this could be asked as: ‘Who will learn from engaging in an exploration of the situation?

I also have the sense that Checkland now makes less distinction between the so-called ‘real world’ and the ‘conceptual world’ as steps 1 to 7 of the original seven step model now seem to me to fall within the boundary of what he called a ‘make sense of situation ... sub-system’. I found it difficult not to conflate his new activities ‘tease out possible accommodations between different interests’ and ‘define action to change’ (C and D) in my diagram. His reworking seemed to me to imply iteration between steps 5 and 6 in the original model (as well as with earlier stages).

I shall say more about designing purposeful inquiry later in this section. A particular concern I have is to provide you with opportunities to become more aware of different ways of managing your systems practice in relation to the question: who learns?

In my own systems practice I have found the following schema helpful in addressing the question of who learns:

  1. All systems practice requires me to be concerned with my own learning – managing my reflective practice.
  2. By using systems thinking to formulate systems of interest I may help to improve a situation for myself, a client or clients. By doing all of these I might learn about my systems practice and, my clients and I might have new insights into the situation as well. This is an example which often results in ‘deciding for’.
  3. In order that the changes I might be able to facilitate in the process described in point 2 above are more sustainable, it might make sense to ‘design’ my practice in a way that involves ‘giving away’ (or embedding) systems thinking and practice skills so that the stakeholders in the situation can use them in an on-going action-learning manner (i.e. for me to facilitate learning about the process and the situation). This could be ‘deciding with’ or ‘enabling deciding by’.
  4. In some special cases it may make sense to design my practice in a way that enables those with whom I am engaged to develop their skills to ‘give away’ their systems thinking and practice to others (i.e. to facilitate individuals to learn about how they might help others to learn). This is a further elaboration of ‘enabling deciding by’ in that it aims to enable participants to be able to decide on both outcomes and process in the current context but also in future contexts.

Of course the four different ways of managing practice that I present in my schema are not mutually exclusive. Later I shall be presenting a section which exemplifies some of these choices for managing practice in the domain of sustainable development. This section is presented to illuminate some of the issues that are involved in the design of an inquiring process which can produce a ‘learning system’ and to contribute to answering the question: what must occur in order for it to be describable as a learning system? Before moving on, however, I want to reconnect with the domain of sustainable development and your practice of SS-method thus far in the course. I will then say something about what I mean by ‘design’.

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