Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.4 Design of a learning system based on SSM

I now want to provide you with a further opportunity to develop your systems practice using SSM to design an inquiry process. The specific context will be a local government area familiar to you (a UK County or Council, a French Commune, a Swiss Canton an Australian Shire or Council etc.). This exercise will be a simulation designed to develop your experience in the use of SSM in the context of sustainable development. If you engage with this simulation then what you learn about SSM will also be applicable to other domains you experience as complex.

At the end of this section I am going to ask you to complete an activity based on this simulation. The situation is one in which the administrators of a local government area wish to introduce a strategy for managing sustainable development. For the purpose of this simulation I am going to cast you in the role of someone who has expertise in systems practice who has been engaged to provide advice on how the council should proceed. However, your role is not as a paid consultant or advisor in the typical management consultant sense, because you work for a charitable non-government organisation (NGO). The NGO that pays your salary specialises in helping organisations to develop participatory approaches for managing sustainable development. Your organisation’s primary ethos is to foster local democracy, of the type attempted in some LA21 projects.

Rather than specifying your role as I have, I had initially considered giving you a choice of roles from which to engage with this simulation. (In the end I did not do this because I felt it made the simulation too difficult). However, consider for a moment what the effect might have been if I had given you a choice. The roles I had in mind were:

  • consultant or adviser to the local authority (local government)
  • an activist in the local community concerned about issues to do with sustainable development
  • the sustainable development officer employed by the local authority.

In the following activity imagine I had given you freedom to choose from these roles. I am asking this question because the role you have, or adopt, in any engagement with a complex situation will have implications for your systems practice. The idea I am trying to get across is that what evolves in any engagement with complexity is sensitive to ‘initial starting conditions’, thus circumscribing what is possible. Personal circumstances also contribute to perspective. The role you have and how you are perceived by others constitute part of the ‘initial starting conditions’. For me the start of any inquiry is a small ‘p’ political process. This is what the stream of cultural analysis (Figure 11) comprising Analyses 1, 2 and 3 in SSM practice is designed to illuminate. Analysis 1 is particularly relevant to the simulation I am asking you to undertake and the points I have raised about roles.

Activity 6 Appreciating the effect of roles on systems practice

Consider the possible implications for your systems practice of the choice of roles that I considered offering you for the simulation you will attempt. Do this in terms of the stream of cultural inquiry described in the Checkland and Scholes reading. Pay particular attention to the material on the ‘analysis of the intervention’ (Analysis 1) described on pages 183–184.

I suggest you make some brief notes, or construct a spray or other suitable diagram in your learning journal. If you have limited experience of your local authority’s involvement in sustainable development use this activity as an opportunity to ring them up and find out if they have a strategy. You might like to ask if anyone in your local authority would be capable of describing how people in the three roles had been involved in the past.


I considered allowing you to choose one of the following roles:

  • consultant or adviser to the local authority;
  • an activist in the local community concerned about issues to do with sustainable development; or
  • the sustainable development officer employed by the local authority.

The following table shows some of the important issues raised by these differing roles in terms of the stream of cultural inquiry.

Table 3

Questions associated with the cultural stream of analysis?Consultant Community ActivistSustainable Development Officer (SDO)
Who is given the role ‘client’?May be easy – person who hires or commissionsMay be more difficult to define – perhaps activist themselvesMay be more difficult to answer –perhaps SDO themselves or their boss
Who can the possible ‘problem owners’ be taken to be May be consultant amongst others.May be activist among others May be SDO among others
What might ‘a system to do the study look like? (Analysis One)Probably straight forwardMay be difficult because of access and other issuesMay raise issues of power, resources, time, staff availability, conflict with other groups in ways that challenge the SDO’s capacity to manage the process as well as have a major stake in it.
What might a ‘social system’ analysis reveal? (Analysis Two)Coming from the outside the consultant may be able to ask ‘dumb’ questions and gain fresh insights or give voice to concerns that have been suppressedActivist may not have access to the local authority in ways that enable the analysis to be as rich as might be conducted from another role; on the other hand they may be able to facilitate formation of a locally powerful coalition of interests.SDO may have a patch to protect, or be too immersed in the context to imagine the possibilities. Or they may be able to facilitate a coalition of interested parties in and outside the local authority.
What might a ‘political system’ analysis reveal? (Analysis Three)Depending on terms of reference this should be possible to conduct;May not be meaningful in terms of scope and depth if Local Authority is in the system of interest – again because of access issuesShould be possible. Care would be needed in doing it.

Imagining myself in any one of these roles my main concern would be with the politics of the intervention. Based on my own experience I would differentiate between studies based on ‘invitation’ and studies based on ‘intervention without an invitation’. For me the power relations and the difficulty of process design change dramatically depending on whether my engagement arises from an invitation or an intervention. This also applies to SSM practice. It is for this reason that I settled on the role of consultant/advisor for the simulation. As a consultant or advisor someone, usually with some authority, invites you to undertake a job to some specification which is to some extent negotiable. The person who issues the invitation or commissions the work is the ‘client’ in that they caused the study to take place. (When you find yourself engaged in the study you may learn that the original person who hired you had to have approval from someone else with more power or authority. So the person who is the client won’t necessarily be static throughout a study).

Checkland and Scholes (1990) point out that there is always an answer to the question: Who is in the role of client?

In my experience, because of issues of power, access, etc. the role of consultant or advisor is a simpler form of practice, at least initially, than that of a local activist or perhaps even an employee such as a Sustainable Development Officer.

Before introducing the simulation let me introduce one other model as a potential sense-making device. This unit has set out to enable you to move more towards using methods as methodology in your systems practice. What happens when a method is used as methodology is described in the following activity sequence called the LUMAS model developed by Checkland (1999) following work with Tsouvalis (1995). LUMAS stands for ‘Learning for a User by a Methodology-informed Approach to a problem Situation’.

In the context of this unit we refer to the on-paper description of a methodology as a method because of the important point that methodology only arises in the use (or doing) of a method in a particular context. This in no way affects the legitimacy of the LUMAS model as a powerful description of the process of enacting aware systems practice.

Figure 14 The LUMAS model: ‘Learning for a User by a Methodology-informed Approach to a problem Situation (Checkland, 1999)

Activity 7 The LUMAS model

How might you modify the LUMAS model in the light of the distinctions made about power – i.e. deciding for, deciding with and enabling deciding by?


The one change in depiction that I would make is to include more images of people in the U ‘sub-system’. This would then depict for me the notion of a community of users of methodology although the process by which they became a community of users is likely to differ with context. This small change has major implications for practice and connects with the emerging literature and interest in ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998). It is central to the question who learns what in the process of conducting a systemic inquiry?

I now want to describe the simulation I am going to ask you to do. I will do it now because I want you to read the material that follows with some awareness of what you will be asked to do. At this stage just read it through and perhaps note the main points you will be asked about. I will repeat the activity in full later in the text so you will not have to refer back to this page. The simulation activity at the end of this section will ask you to do the following:

  • Prepare a set of notes written for your own use as a basis for a future presentation to the management team in your local authority; describe how, from your perspective the council might go about implementing a participative, sustainable development strategy based on SSM (i.e. a process design);
  • In your notes outline your preliminary thinking on the matter using systems ideas and concepts from this unit.

Because this document is written for you, not your future audience, then you are free to use the language of systems thinking introduced to you in this course. I make this point because some systems practitioners find it best not to talk explicitly in systems terms when engaging with their clients – but this is always a judgement the practitioner has to make.

At this stage do not worry if the prospect of this activity leaves you feeling somewhat bewildered. I am not going to ask you to do this activity from scratch. I will provide a number of resources to help you in addition to the two readings you have just completed. I am also going to introduce Vignette 5 describing how a systems practitioner used SSM, as he interpreted it, to design an inquiry process in a multiple-stakeholder situation concerned with sustainable development. I will also provide my own answer to the activity. You may however find it useful to read through the readings and the remaining text in this section twice to fully appreciate what is required. Because I am going to guide you through the design process it is important to follow the sequence as I have set it out. If you do this you will hopefully have a good feel for how SSM could be used in a design sense.

In the following vignette I have used italics to indicate when the systems practitioner, Roger Attwater, who conducted the study is speaking (adapted from Attwater, 1996).

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