Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.3.1 SS-method as a learning system

As indicated in Mike Haynes’ piece, SSM is now regarded by those who developed it as an organised learning system. It is concerned with taking purposeful action in human activity situations that are experienced as ‘very complex, problematical, mysterious’ (Checkland, 1999, p. A10). What is constantly emphasised is that the word ‘system’ is no longer applied to the world, but instead to the process of inquiry for dealing with the world which, it is assumed, can be organised as a learning system. The activity sequence model which is used to describe this late 1990’s version of SSM, and which is a further elaboration of Figure 11, is shown in Figure 13.

Figure 13 An activity sequence model of the inquiring/learning cycle of SSM in the late 1990s (Checkland, 1999, p. A9)

For Checkland, Figure 13 is a model of a learning system. Anyone participating in the activities described by the model in Figure 12 would be participating in an inquiring or learning process. If they participated for one or more iterations they would be described as completing an inquiring or learning cycle. It is only possible for a claim to be made that an SS-methodology ‘learning system’ has been experienced through participation in the cycle of activities in which the thinking and techniques of SS-methodology are enacted. An implication of this logic is that a ‘learning system’ can only ever be said to exist after its enactment, that is on reflection. It is of course possible to refer to a model of a ‘learning system’ at any time recognising that it is just that – a model. For Checkland the type of learning that would result from participation in the process of inquiry orchestrated by SSM is changes in participants’ appreciative settings. This idea of appreciative settings is based on the work of British industrialist and systems thinker, Sir Geoffrey Vickers (e.g. see Dando and Blunden, 1994). At this point it is only important to know that changes in appreciation include changes in judgements about value and fact. It is the enactment of these changes that is accepted by Checkland as evidence of learning (i.e. new or emergent purposeful activity).

Systems thinking is for me a way of orchestrating particular conversations concerned with the properties of a whole (distinguished by one or more observers) and particularly the nature and qualities of relationships between system components and a system’s environment as part of a process of inquiry. The word orchestra comes from the Greek – to dance. Orchestrating means to combine harmoniously, carefully direct or coordinate. Conversation comes from the Latin, con versare – meaning ‘to turn together’. Thus for me, systems practice is practice in which the result from communication (as conversation) is the emergence of new qualities in the communicating or participating partners.

SAQ 19 Exploring the meaning of inquiry

In what senses is the term ‘inquiry’ used in Figure 13?


It seems to me that ‘inquire’ is used in at least two ways but with the same meaning. The higher-order way is to describe the overall cycle depicted by the figure as an inquiring cycle. It is thus synonymous with the action learning or research cycle that has been introduced already in the course. What is particular about the SSM process of inquiry however is that a specific mode of inquiring is orchestrated within the overall process by using the models of purposeful activity systems as a means to question or challenge the perceived ‘real-world’ situation. It is this process that is one of the main triggers of new appreciations of the situation (you may remember Checkland’s reference to changes in appreciation as being the form of learning that arises from participating in the SSM process). In a sense SS-methodology is doubly systemic – in use it has the possibility of being a learning system that makes use of systems models.

What do the concepts ‘learning system’ and ‘process of inquiry’ mean in practical terms and in relation to multiple stake-holder contexts – one of my main concerns in this unit? To answer this question I would like you to reflect on how the course so far has been designed to develop your systems practice and how, if at all, your values, beliefs and circumstances have aided or constrained your engagement with the course. The way the course team has set out to make systems practice practical for you is to enable you to ‘select’ and characterise a system of interest. Churchman (1971) observes that ‘selection’ of a ‘system’ is a ‘design choice’. Whether or not something is a system is a choice of the designer or designers. The act of finding a system or systems of interest in a situation of perceived complexity can in itself be a very powerful learning experience for those involved. It is also at the heart of SSM – that is, developing models of relevant, purposeful-activity systems each based on a declared world view (see Figure 13). However SSM when enacted as methodology, is a more sophisticated form of practice because the whole process is designed to be a learning or action-research system.

Developing your abilities in systems thinking and practice will enable you to respond to particular needs and opportunities in the sustainable development domain – and to focus on the situation rather than on the method because at the end of the day it is usually the problem or opportunity situation that calls out for ‘improvement’ and the unreflective use of method may do more harm than good. The skills you develop are likely to be equally relevant to other domains – such as IT projects and inter-organisational change or implementing the modernisation agenda in the UK public sector. You will have the opportunity in your project to move towards more sophisticated forms of practice but it is important that you understand the thinking that underpins any method so that you can ultimately gain more dexterity in your own practice.

Skip Your course resources

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371