How we think influences how we act. There are many ways to think about our complex and challenging world, and many traditions and cultures support these different ways. However, one way, scientific thinking, with its systematic approach to breaking down and analysing problems, has come to dominate. While it has been a successful approach there are many circumstances in which it has not proved very successful. These are situations where there are many different perspectives, where people cannot agree on what is at the heart of the issue, and where the interconnections between people and things are manifold and changes may have unforeseen consequences.
Systems thinking is an approach that complements scientific thinking by addressing these multiple perspectives, examining boundary judgements and modelling interconnections. Systems thinking in practice itself has a long history and has developed from many different disciplinary traditions and used many different techniques and approaches, but all based on viewing complex situations as systems. It is increasingly recognised as being an important skill. For example UNESCO includes systems thinking as one of the key competences for educators in education for sustainable development, OECD recently published a book on Systemic Thinking for Policy Making: The Potential of Systems Analysis for Addressing Global Policy Challenges in the 21st Century, while the UK’s Institute for Apprenticeships has approved a standard for a Systems Thinking Practitioner who ‘supports decision-makers in strategic and leadership roles to understand and address complex and sometimes even ‘wicked’ problems through provision of expert systemic analysis, advice and facilitation’.
We at the OU have been teaching and researching systems thinking in practice for 50 years. Many of our staff and students have played significant roles in many different organisations and in many different settings. We have taught thousands of students and reached hundreds of thousands of learners. Many have found that systems thinking has profoundly changed their lives and the way they work. With the demand for systems thinking growing, we are doing all we can to provide people with opportunities to learn about how it works and what it can do to help. We have created this hub as part of that response, to showcase some of the many teaching resources we have developed over the years.
You can learn more about the history of systems thinking at The Open University in this article.