This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Systems Practice - Choosing a Side

In this post, I am again going to stress this has not been meant to be a substitute for the actual OpenLearning, Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice course or what I have been referring to as SP UK. This is important because my own opinions are going to come into play here even more so than previously.

The SP UK course defines systems thinking approaches as being either ‘systematic’ or ‘systemic’. It has also established a dichotomy between ontological systems approaches and epistemological systems approaches. Most recently, the divide has been set between hard systems thinking and soft systems thinking, though how depends on who is doing the dividing.  

All three categorizations are combined by the course with systematic, ontological, hard systems thinking on one side and systemic, epistemological, soft systems thinking on the other. 

The course favors soft systems thinking, along with an epistemological approach and a claimed systemic perspective, not only over but seemingly to the exclusion of the harder side of the systems thinking coin, involving an ontological approach and a restricted imposed systematic perspective.   

The systematic perspective, as defined by the course, sees systems as ontological devices which are oriented towards goal seeking, assuming that the world contains systems that can be engineered and assuming system models to be models of that world (ontologies). As a result, systems of systematic ontologies are said to speak solely in the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. The advantage is that this allows for the use of powerful techniques. The disadvantage is that it may lose touch with aspects beyond the logic of the problem situation.

The term “goals” is avoided by the SP UK course due to a claimed propensity by systems engineering and Operations Research (OR) during the 50s and 60s  to define objectives too narrowly. This, as they say, is so last century. I don’t believe we need to be as constrained by it today. It certainly doesn't reflect the work of Donella Meadows. I may have been unfair, due to unfamiliarity, with Sir Vickers in this regard as well as he seems to be put in the ontological camp but works with soft system thinking perspectives.

I can though agree with avoiding the setting of objectives or goals that can be achieved or optimized as being the primary purpose of systems thinking. Goal-oriented behavior can be seen as being unhelpful when dealing with messes.  Instead, there should be a move away from goal-oriented thinking towards thinking in terms of learning. 

The Systemic systems tradition, the course asserts, sees systems as epistemological devices which are oriented to learning. This assumes the world is problematical but can be explored by using the proper system models. It also assumes system models to be intellectual constructs (epistemologies). As a result, according to the course, it talks in the language of ‘issues’ and ‘accommodations’. Its advantage is that it is available to all stakeholders including professional practitioners, keeping in touch with the human component of problem situations. The disadvantage is that it does not produce the final answers meaning that it has to accept that inquiry is never-ending. Those involved in such a process should, I'll also agree, continually learn and develop new understandings about a situation upon which decisions as to what new changes should then be made. 

In my exploration and experimentation with systems thinking, I have leaned towards hard (well, at least leaning towards harder) system thinking but have come to see the need for the inclusion of soft system thinking approaches. Still, though, put myself on the hard systems thinking side, so I have a few issues. 

The first issue is that I haven’t used the word systematic in these pages in the same manner as the SP UK course. The essential dichotomy for me isn’t between systematic and systemic but between complicated and complex.  Systematic and systemic seem to be conflated with complicated and complex respectively by the course. The second issue is that I don’t establish as strict of a dichotomy between ontology and epistemology to the exclusion of one over the other as the course seems to do. Third, I am not willing to accept what seems to be an “it’s its all in our heads, we don’t have to worry if there is actually something out there” model. 

In my view, a system has its own "existence" separate not only from the environment but from the individual components of which it is comprised through emergence. It is my view that it would be impossible to transform what I have called entrenched systems without this perspective. None of this means, however, rescinding George Box's adage of all models are wrong, some models are useful.

The choice of approaches set by SP UK is either a system of interest, as in a systemic process of inquiry as part of a means of understanding a situation experienced as complex or conversely is a system seen as operational parts of a taken-for-granted real world. It is the taken-for-granted real world to which I object to seeing a systematic approach,  in my view, as taking only a complicated, and invariably top-down approach. 

I do agree with taking a systemic approach, involving the use of systems thinking to construct epistemological devices as part of an inquiry process through which to generate fresh and insightful explanations which can trigger new ways of taking purposeful action in the world but there is still an actual ontologically related world out there.  In my view, it is not only physically out there, it is systemically related and has a mathematical foundation and can be dealt with in a systematic manner. Systemic and systematic are not mutually exclusive. 

At the core of managing the complexity of an issue or a situation we are experiencing is the taking of purposeful action. The approach we take is our way of going about taking action required for coping with the complexity of ‘real world’ situations.

In my interpretation, there seem to be two different types of purpose, intended and inherent or what the course refers to as purposeful and purposive. Peter Checkland, credited with coining the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ systems to distinguish two traditions, said that purposeful behavior is that which is willed, involving voluntary action particularly applicable to human activity systems. This is what I would label intentional purpose. 

Purposive is addressed by the course through ‘What would I learn from attributing (externally) purpose to this situation?’ An engineered or even a natural system can exhibit behavior to which purpose can be attributed. This is what I am referring to as inherent purpose or what Donella Meadows termed as function.

The "In reflection, what purpose do I attribute to my own actions in this situation?", could be aimed at intentional but might actually reflect inherent despite espoused declarations to the contrary if defined by institutional fiat.

The SP UK  course asserts then that a key feature of a system defined as purposeful is that people can pursue different behaviors or what the course terms “hows” in different environments towards the same purpose or same “what”. 

The course sees Stafford Beer's: ‘the purpose of a system is what it does (POSIWID)’ as being too constraining and running the risk of objectifying ‘the system’ rather than employing a concept of purpose in the sense of a process of inquiry.  

The SP UK course also credits Peter Checkland with having worked to improve prison management, seeing the purpose of the system as ‘rehabilitating criminals’; ‘training criminals’; and ‘protecting society’.  But when the course goes on to ask yet again, ”What might we learn about the situation if we were to think of a prison as if it were a system to train criminals?”, training criminals’ can take on a double meaning. Are we simply training prisoners to become better criminals or are we providing office space to the heads of criminal gangs? 

What, the SP UK course goes on to ask, if there is no agreement on what is presumed to be a  commonly held system of interest or what purpose it is seen to have an undoubtedly common occurrence. 

People have a general propensity to pursue purposive behavior that assumes both the purpose of a system and setting measures performance of the system without first engaging stakeholders in a dialogue to jointly negotiate a common purpose. Any lack of agreement, or even discussion, about what purpose is being served doesn't serve to limit the number of experts, organizations, agencies, governments, etc who will be engaged in the definition and extraction of targets, principles, indicators and standards, and other performance measures which are then evaluated, monitored and audited, and generally assessed against the presupposed system.

Intended improvements require purposeful action that can be judged by not only those who have the power take the action but should also include those impacted but seldom does. Those actions also, however, need to be tested against the real world environment and examined for any inclination towards unintended consequences. 

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