Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.2.1 Some definitions

To follow this four stage model I need to say what we meant by first and second order processes.

First-order processes assume data describes a ‘system’ as if it was an objective set of operations functioning independently of its historical and social creation and, change takes place in terms of identifiable objects with well-defined properties. A first-order understanding is gained by accepting that there are general rules that apply to situations in terms of those objects and properties. By applying the rules logically to the situation of concern one can draw conclusions about how something has come about and/or what should be done. Here learning and action are based on the belief in a single reality – a ‘real world’ – which can be approached and known objectively. First-order understandings have been characterised by a reliance on a high level of disciplinary knowledge (more recently, multi disciplinary knowledge) and a ‘fix’ mentality – expose the breakdown and attempt to fix it. In first-order R&D, the problem is clearly defined, the solution is a technological one, and the barriers to adopting the solution are placed fairly and squarely with the end-user community. A practitioner practising in first-order ‘mode’ is minimally aware of how the context actively shapes any experience and especially how the act of observation and participation determines the actual experience. The attitude to knowledge is predominately one of believing in the possibility of an ‘objective’ knowing of the world. This tradition is characterised by concerned intervention, the definition of clear goals, the naming of the problem, and the proposal of a rational solution.

Second-order processes utilise data that takes as its starting point first-order data such as descriptions of physical, biological, and psychological events with specific reference to a person’s experience (past, present and imagined) of gathering, and working with, the said data. Thus in order to achieve second-order change it is necessary to step outside the usual frame of reference and take a meta-perspective. This perspective seeks to avoid being either subjective (particular to the individual) or objective (independent of the individual) and recognising that the objects of our actions and perceptions are not independent of the very actions/perceptions that we make. Problems and improvements are both generated in the conversations that take place between the key stakeholders and do not arise, or exist, outside of such engagements. Second-order R&D is built on the understanding that human beings determine the world that they experience. Second-order systems practice is characterised by the experience of ‘awareness’ of being the agent in generating key distinctions (e.g., what is the situation under study (the system of interest); what is focused on and what is marginalised; what is the ‘problem’ or ‘opportunity’ and what might be an ‘improvement’) and especially, that the objects and events that we perceive are only knowable through the action of the person perceiving – the ‘observer’.

SAQ 7 The four stages in the design of an ‘inquiring system’

List the four stages employed by Russell and Ison in their design of an ‘inquiring system’.


  1. Bringing the system of interest into existence (i.e., naming the system of interest)

  2. Evaluating the effectiveness of the system of interest as a vehicle to elicit useful understanding (and acceptance) of the social and cultural context

  3. Generation of a joint decision-making process (a ‘problem-determined system of interest’) involving all key stakeholders

  4. Evaluating the effectiveness of the decisions made (i.e., how has the action taken been judged by stakeholders?)

Stage 1: Bringing the system of interest into existence (i.e., naming the system of interest)

TasksFirst-order processesSkillsPotential pitfalls
Agreeing on the essential participants (the key stakeholders)Invite relevant parties to state their interest in a particular event/experienceAbility to identify parties with a particular stake in an outcome (e.g., resource providers; users of outcome; producers of outcome)To equally involve stakeholder groups that historically have exercised little influence on how particular decisions are made
A ‘system of interest’ is generated which has been determined by the main issues of concern to the key stakeholdersThe ‘system of interest’ is determined by the perceptions stakeholders have of the ‘problem’ not the problem being determined by the ‘system’ i.e. narrowly focused experts or bureaucraciesGroup process skills coupled with outcome-oriented skillsThat preconceived ideas of what constitutes the ‘problem’ will hinder a reframing of what constitutes an actionable problem
Collection of sufficient empirical data so as to establish the existence of specified events/experiencesGeneration of patterns of data over timeAbility to recognise the key categories of data required and requisite skills to collect and quantify dataThat easily quantifiable data will be judged as being superior to less easily quantifiable data (e.g., value statements; emotional responses)
Determining the boundaries of the ‘system of interest’ (conceptual; geographical etc)To incorporate data from the bio-physical domain and the psycho-social domain in determining system boundariesAbility to successfully invite participants to offer narrative data via social technologies (e.g., semi-structured interviews; focus groups)To favour the generation of a dominant bio-physical system over a ‘human activity system’

Stage 2: Evaluating the effectiveness of the system of interest as a vehicle to elicit useful understanding (and acceptance) of the social and cultural context

TasksSecond-order processesSkillsPotential pitfalls
Judgements on adequacy of data to contextual demandsAwareness of how data were generated and psychological and sociological driving forces at work (e.g., operation of dominant mythologies; historical underpinnings)Ability to see different world-views as expressions of prior and differing life experience‘Experts’ and others with social status tending to impose their conceptual models and boundaries on other parties
Seek additional contextual data if necessaryArticulate the meaning-making linkage between first-order and second-order data: the latter giving meaning to the formerAbility to elicit contextual information and to appreciate the shaping function of dominant mythologies: how meaning is made by reference, often outside of awareness, to organising constructs such as institutional or cultural ‘stories’Desire to establish a hierarchy of knowledge ‘types’: one kind of knowledge being judged as superior (more useful) than any other type
Seek legitimation of match between an existing worldview and the history of how such a view was formedEach individual is responsible for the world that she/he ‘constructs’ and each set of knowledge is valid for that person precisely because he/she has constructed itAbility to work with a multiverse of world-views rather than aspiring for a common or universal viewThat the researcher(s) will subtly try to influence the proceedings by asserting a dominant position representing their own point of view
Achieve ‘two-way’ conversation, or ‘dialogue’ in which individuals speak from their respective positionsEach expression to be accepted as a contribution of value to the eventual outcome (an outcome which is yet to be named)To actively listen and respect (but not necessarily agree) with others. Skills to confidently present one’s position.Some people are unable to accept that there may be different ‘truths’ representing different worldviews

Stage 3: Generation of a joint decision-making process (a ‘problem-determined system of interest’) involving all key stakeholders.

TasksProcessesSkillsPotential pitfalls
All participants (stakeholders) are encouraged to fully address their concerns and aspirationsAmbiguity and uncertainty reflect the non absolutist understandings associated with every positionTo reflect back to the participants how each position has an ‘appropriateness’ for a specified intellectual domain. Outside that domain appropriateness diminishes rapidlyMatters which can be held as ‘certain’ in one domain can be generalised across other domains
Respective concerns and aspirations are mirrored back to participants showing understanding of respective positionA publicly sanctioned reflexive process allows for both confirmation and public acknowledgmentFacilitation skills sufficient to reflect what has been contributed, and how it has been said, without introducing any new material or altering the emotional milieuPeople not recognising and/or accepting their own blind spots
The ‘problem’, and thus a desirable outcome, is namedThe problem is within the action domain of this group. This group has ‘ownership’ of the problem and of the eventual outcomeSkills of analysis and synthesis such that the nominated problem expresses some of the key needs of the stakeholdersThat the responsibility for actioning the problem will be projected to parties outside of the task group
The decision (not necessarily agreed with by all) is madeThe agreement is that all parties have been able to present their positions in a fair and full manner. Acceptance to proceed is not contingent on full agreement on the final positionThat an intellectual and emotional climate is achieved in which all participants can see the merits of differing points of view and are able to ‘let go’ of preferred positionsThat a stakeholder abandons the decision-making process rather than be seen to be compromising

Stage 4: Evaluating the effectiveness of the decisions made (i.e., how has the action taken been judged by stakeholders?)

TasksProcessesSkillsPotential pitfalls
Collective judgements of how well the generated problem represented key needs of all stakeholdersThis is a measure of internal effectiveness of the process and of subsequent commitment to the implementation of the decisionAbility to openly listen to participants’ ‘second thoughts’ without showing excessive defensivenessRisk of jeopardising the whole process because the outcomes were judged as being less than perfect
Assessment of increased readiness to address, in a similar manner, other needs and concernsA second-order system coupled with a first-order system facilitates learning-to-learn by the participants and, increasingly, is embedded in the culture of the organisationsAbility to demonstrate the second-order outcomes and to present them as reusable building blocksA tendency to disparage second-order outcomes visa-vis first-order ones
Estimate how transparent (open to public scrutiny) the decision-making process has beenA transparent process allows participants to accept a decision (because the process has been experienced as being fair and equitable) even when they do not fully agree with itAbility to balance those who bring with them institutional and/or social ‘power’ with those traditionally less endowedThat a climate of mutual acceptance cannot be achieved: where differential ‘power’ has not been accepted
Evaluate the ease of implementation of the decisions madeOrganisations tend to conserve their status quo, especially the desire to maintain the patterning of key relationshipsSkills to articulate the structural variables, both constraints and enabling factors, which influence implementationAn institution might find it preferable to shift the entire debate to a totally different arena rather than implement an ‘upsetting’ decision

In the material that follows I want to extend your appreciation of how SS-method might be used in your own practice, that is how you might use it in a ‘process design’ sense. I will use Vignette 5 as an example of systems practice based on SS-method in a degraded river catchment in rural Thailand to make some teaching points. At the end of the vignette I will ask you to use it as a basis to complete a ‘simulated design’ using SS-method. This will involve developing a brief to advise how a local government authority charged with introducing a strategy for managing sustainable development might proceed. Both of these situations involve many individuals, organisations and interest groups and may also be characterised by conflict.

At the end of this unit I will ask you to:

  1. consider how this unit changed how you engage with or think about sustainable development
  2. draw some connections between systems practice in this domain with other domains
  3. briefly explore how different modes of systems practice might be developed in your project
  4. reflect on what further work you might need to do to become confident in designing an ‘inquiring system’ as part of your systems practice.

Before doing this however, complete the following activity which asks you to identify some of the range of potential stakeholders in the local government area in which you currently reside.

Activity 5 Identifying stakeholders in sustainable development

Suggest some possible stakeholders in a sustainable development strategy and implementation in the local government area where you reside. You might like to think of your answer in terms of both roles and occupations.


For the purpose of this section I am assuming that there are many roles an individual might occupy in a local government area, e.g. as a citizen, consumer, employer or employee, parent, supplier, ratepayer. There is also likely to be a diverse array of occupations, ethnic groups and people of different income and education represented. Such a diversity of backgrounds and experience suggests that it might be difficult for people to reach agreement on what sustainable development is, yet alone how to manage it and whether any action taken resulted in any improvement. When aggregated this suggests a great diversity of interests and potential stakeholders in ‘sustainable development’ in any local government area. So how might a systems practitioner design a process, or processes, to engage with sustainable development that has the potential to be experienced as ‘enabling’ by members of a diverse local government community? This is a question I will work with you in answering below. But first I want to describe how Peter Checkland’s (early 1980s) seven stage SS-method has been further developed through a process of reflection on experience involving action research.

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