CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*

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A concept map of Churchman’s general systems approach (update)

Below concept map is a representation of the present author’s understanding of Churchman’s general systems approach, mostly based on the description of the nine categories in ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ (Churchman 1979, 79-100). Reading a concept map of this nature is not something most people are used to. It looks like a plate of spaghetti. Some of the arrows are black and represent the general structure of S, which is any particular activity of humans, in organizations or otherwise, conceived as a system. Other arrows are light grey. They represent aspects of S, the importance of which is easier to understand once the general structure is in place. The first explanation will be done chunk by chunk, later to be followed by ‘inter-chunk’ clarifications. The four chunks in a way describe what soft systems thinking is about: using a general systems approach for planning the management of change to add value. And all this within certain limits: later on I will add a fifth, ‘constraints chunk’ for the remaining three categories left out of below concept map to avoid overwhelming the reader.

A good place to start is in the planning chunk. The systems approach is based on the idea that human activity is best conceived as a system. The concept of ‘system’ is complex, because humans and organizational settings are very diverse and complex themselves. The general systems approach applies to all human activity, both individual and social in all sorts of organizational settings, understood broadly, from family to state, from ideology to business, and from school to parliament. The conceptualization of such a human activity system is done by one or more persons in the role of a designer and is called a plan. It can and must be called a plan, because human activity is characterized by serving a purpose. This is a key link to the value chunk, but we will first deal with management. The inverted comma’s around ‘system’ indicate that there is no such thing as a perfect conceptualization. All meaning, structure or pattern is provisional and subject to debate. So we do wise to ask: What should be the purpose of the system? Who should the client be? And so on and so forth (Churchman 1977, 3).

The management chunk is about the management of the system components, which are subsystems that make up the system and that are designed to cluster activities geared to achieving cluster-specific system objectives. The system is open so it operates in an environment, which is beyond the control of the decision-maker, but may contain environmental factors that cannot be ignored. The boundary of the level of control is a design question as is the level of performance of the system. The components coproduce measures of performance, both enabled and constrained by the environment. These measures or indicators are used by the decision-maker to decide whether things go according to plan. If they do not, the decision-maker may allocate more or fewer resources (including human resources), stop or scale down the plan, or send a designer back to the drawing table. Most of the time, decision-makers prefer the first option, especially in the form of small, incremental steps.

The next chunk is the one dealing with change, the transformation chunk. The intended change is described in terms of objectives, both short-term and long-term. The objectives are established by the designer. They usually reflect some kind of ideal. Ideals can only be pursued in an approximate manner. This is most readily understood by looking at so-called input-output models, which is a common approach to systems of all kinds. In go people and money and out come products or services. Or, when we look at engines: in goes fuel and out comes mechanical energy. The ideal is that the energy value of the fuel is equivalent to the value of the mechanical output energy. This raises the question of efficiency. Churchman gives a description of the input-output model in Chapter 5 of The Systems Approach (1968, 61-78). Another question is that of trade-off between ideals. Because input-output models are relatively simple, they can be very useful in the early stages of system design. They are not very good in handling uncertainties.

This brings us to the fourth or value chunk. Churchman developed his general systems approach to increase the likelihood that human activity will produce some good of some kind. The Wall Street Crash of 1929, the ensuing Great Depression, and the Second World War made him acutely aware of the absence or deficiencies of guarantees in administration, economics and diplomacy that in the end the human condition will improve. Another problem is that of implementation. It is one thing to design interesting plans that address serious issues, but quite another to convince decision-makers that it should be executed. Some of the most frequent reasons for non-implementation are political, strategic, bureaucratic, cultural, or social  in nature. To ensure implementation, the designer must in some way activate the decision-maker.

It is important to note that among the nine categories, there are three so-called role categories: the client, the designer, and the decision-maker. In the words of Nelson (2003, 465), one of Churchman’s students, this “focus on people as the scaffolding of a system” differentiates the general systems approach from any other approach. Normally, people are “merely a set in a classification of elements,” but in the systems approach the emphasis is shifted to the functions served by people in a system. In Churchman’s “model one or more individuals can fill a particular role, or the same person can fill different roles at the same time.” This can be represented by a map. An example is the benefit-cost map for the “client” category to trace out where the benefits and costs go. In a business, customers enjoy the benefits of a service or product, but there are other clients, too: workers who receive a salary, manager who receive a higher salary and a bundle of perks, while shareholders receive dividends or higher share prices. The production of an influence map for decision-makers follows the same principles. The idea of role categories is one example of the ways in which the systems approach illustrates the pragmatist tradition “that – very broadly – understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it” (Legg and Hookway, 2019).

Five grey spaghetti arrows have not been explained yet. Let us start with the concept map proposition “transformation defines purpose”. This means that the purpose of an activity (or “why”) can be usefully clarified by stating how the purpose is planned to be realized. In other words, by stating the objectives. The next proposition is “client is standard for measures of performance”. Adequate measures of performance or indicators are often very difficult to design in a way that the decision-maker can use them in his management. The indicators must measure the increase in value as experienced by the client. The measures must also integrate the objectives in such a way to enable the decision-maker to stay on track to completion of the transition. This is summarized in the the next proposition, where the “decision-maker adaptively manages components.”  The final two propositions centre around the concept of mission: “plan contributes to mission” and “mission guides decision-maker.” The mission of an organization for which a decision-maker is responsible is a “statement of purpose: what the organization seeks to achieve over the long term. [… It] offers a pointer to the overall direction in which strategy will take the organization” (Grant 2008, 21). Mission statements are not always very clear, but they can be derived from the objectives of the plans the decision-maker chooses to implement.

A simple way of operationalizing the general systems approach is described in “Value Distribution Assessment Of Geothermal Development In Lake County, Ca” (Churchman, Nelson and Eacret, 1977). Nine basic questions do the job: (1) Who should the client be? (2) What should be the goals of the system? (3) Should there be a measure of performance for the system? (4) Who should the decision-makers be? (5) What components of the system should the decision-makers control? (6) What should the environment of the system be? (7) Who should be the planners of change in the system? (8) How should plans be implemented? (9) What should be the design of the control of the implemented
plan? Note that these questions are in the “should” or “ought” mode. For the sake of comparison they could also be asked in the “is” mode. Instead of these 9 questions, one could also turn the 27 propositional statements of the concept map into 27 “is” and 27 “ought” questions.  Considering that each question can be rephrased in many different ways, the total number of questions for one’s inquiry may easily exceed 100. These are not random questions, they are strongly inter-related and must also be considered in their inter-relatedness. That’s the power of Churchman’s general systems approach. It makes me think of Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative. Enjoy but don’t get lost.

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Dialectical Systems Learning

During the past month or so I have been ruminating over my post of May 10, 2019, which was about my latest effort to come to a better understanding of the workings of a systems approach described in a workbook that I am co-writer of. Wicked Solutions, as it is called, uses three operable systems concepts to explain systems thinking in a nutshell and encourages learners to apply them directly on a ‘wicked’ problem of their own so as to gain a direct, hands-on experience of their usefulness. The three concepts are: inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. Last week I had a discussion with two members of staff of Australia’s Southern Cross University, Ken Doust and Andrew Swan, who has used Wicked Solutions in one of his courses. They had several critical observations that set me thinking. One idea was to focus the dialectical systems approach of Wicked Solutions around problem/solution trees to get a handle on engineering cases. When I told a close friend about it, he was so readily and overwhelmingly enthusiastic that I set to work integrating the idea into the insights gained in my previous post, all the while trying to keep things simple (as opposed to the spaghetti dragon of last time). So here it is:

(This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners)

Principles and methods     Churchman used to insist on the proper use of principles, rather than on the use of some method. This is probable one of the reasons why his dialectical systems approach, although brilliant, never caught on. It could be argued (as I did in my last post) that the learning cycle of Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology is in fact a method that applies a good many of Churchman’s principles. This would imply that Churchman’s principles can and perhaps even must be used to fully understand Checkland’s method. (In fact, the idea of the principles-method dichotomy emerged while reading about the Darwin-Wallace controversy in the book ‘Krakatoa’ of Simon Winchester, a reading suggestion by Ken: thanks again!). This is not unimportant, because Wicked Solutions is to some extent based on both, either directly or indirectly.

Human activity models        … is the term used by Checkland to distinguish interventions from social systems, which he calls ‘human activity systems’. It occurred to me that human activity models can take many forms. One of the most common forms is that of linear management (see my post of 2013). The problem/solution tree approach is an adaptation of that form. The good thing about that approach, from a training perspective, is that it runs the risk of imposing early limits on the problem/solution space (see another post of 2013). Both Churchman’s principle of non-separability and his environmental fallacy refer to this risk. This means that the problem/solution tree approach can be used as an excellent starting point to show the benefits of the systems approach, to explain the epistemological nature rich picturing, to emphasize the need for stakeholder engagement as a way to apply the principles of deception-perception and make sure that assumptions that restrain the scope of a more systemic solution are brought to light.

Five steps       … are all that is needed for dialectical learning: rich picturing, framing of stakes, boundary debate, model selection, and feasibility analysis. Framing of stakes and boundary debate (or critique) are missing in Checkland’s SSM activity pattern that reflect the steps in his SSM inquiring/learning cycle. When I say they are missing, that does not mean that they must be necessarily included. It is just that for learners it is easier to have them included. It has the additional advantage that the learners can be assessed for following these steps. In Wicked Solutions the last steps of model selection and feasibility analysis are lacking. There, too, it does not mean that they had to be included. Most of the systemic process can be carried out in the first three steps. But some learners will think it unsatisfactory that these steps are lacking (as I did myself). The framing step is Bob William’s idea, whereas the boundary debate in the form of critical heuristics is Werner Ulrich’s contribution. Critical heuristics is often carried out on its own or prior to SSM.

Inquiry and design       It may be useful to look at the 5-step process from the angles of inquiry and design. Churchman and his principles are at the inquiry end of the process, while Checkland and his method is more on the design end. The actual conceptual design of novel solutions takes place somewhere in the middle. The last steps are just a clarification of what has been found in the earlier steps. This clarification is more apt to a methodological approach, whereas the development of novel concepts is a much more suited to an open-minded, principles-driven approach. The marriage of Churchman’s principles with Checkland’s method seems rather obvious. Checkland circumvented this ‘problem’ by insisting on ‘rich picturing’ as the first step, a step that was sorely missing with Churchman.

Principles and concepts       Churchman’s principles are scattered among his books and papers. He attempted to summarize them in his categorical framework, which is applying the principle of categorical assurance (where categories are about the  lack of inter- and intra-categorical assurance) as described in Edgar Singer’s ‘Experience and Reflection’, which was posthumously edited by Churchman in the period between his years devoted to the development of operations research and his last 16 or 17 years before his retirement devoted to the development of his systems approach. Bob Williams was the instigator of a meeting in 2004 in Berkeley to simplify systems concepts in a way that non-specialists could handle them more readily. These concepts were inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. He has successfully applied them in a book that provides an overview of a wide range of systems methods, for which he received the American Evaluation Association’s Paul F Lazarsfeld Evaluation Theory Award (for Bob’s books, click here). It is fairly easy to explain Churchman’s principles in terms of the three basic Berkeley concepts. This will prepare them for Bob’s introductions to other sections of the systems field, including that of systemic evaluation design, thus turning the various writings in a neat whole. And the development of assuring, synergetic ‘wholes’ is what systems thinking is all about.

Problem/solution trees    The end result of learner’s following the dialectical systems learning approach (still to be fully described) will be one or more alternative problem/solution trees. There are various ways of processing these trees into more refined models, using other approaches. One of the other criticisms of the two Australians was that Wicked Solutions lacked guidelines for stakeholder selection and engagement. There is probably no short answer. Two things spring to mind: 1. SSM has quite a body of practice that has been described in articles and books, some of them indicating how stakeholders were organized and encouraged to co-operate. 2. the Royal Tropical Institute has had considerable success applying a method called RAAKS, which is to some extent based on SSM principles, but which provides a considerable range of tools to enable stakeholder collaboration.

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Soft systems methodology revisited

Combining Checkland and Churchman for systems learning

This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners.

Systems concepts baffling     Over the past years I have been trying to get a better understanding of the workings of a systems approach described in a workbook that I am co-writer of. Wicked Solutions, as it is called, uses three operable systems concepts to explain systems thinking in a nutshell and get learners to apply them directly on a ‘wicked’ problem of their own so as to gain a direct, hands-on experience of their usefulness. The three concepts are: inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries (as in ‘boundary critique’), see also here. It may seem silly that I don’t understand the workings of a systems approach that I have used and written about myself, but I may well be in very good company.

John Poulter      …., in his talk about a closely related systems approach, explains that “what I realized was that I have been using SSM since I was a schoolboy but I’d never been able to explain to anybody what I was doing when I was analyzing their problems there and it was thanks very much to Peter [Checkland]’s articulation of SSM that at long last I was able to explain to not only to other people but myself what I was actually doing, what process I was following, the stage I’d got to, what I’d learned, and what was to come next and so on.” (online video fragment here). What this implies is that many people, including management consultants, use systems principles naturally, but they don’t realise that they are doing so in a fairly unstructured way, lacking the necessary rigour.

Soft systems methodology     Now I didn’t hit on the video with Poulter by accident. I was actually attempting to get a better overview of the main ‘systems approaches’ developed so far, which led me to a blog post of my own about soft systems methodology (SSM), which I had written in 2012. It was based on my reading of Chapter 5 of ‘Systems approaches to managing change: a practical guide’. Chapter 5 was actually a summary of a book by Checkland and Poulter ‘Learning for Action: a short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use for practitioners.’ This chapter 5 is available online (e.g. here or here), and was summarized by me in the blog post of 2012 (not a very neat concept map, but then again the squarish concept maps are unforgivable sins against Checkland’s fried-egg preference). The fried-egg diagram that really got me fired up was Fig. 5.9, which I transformed into concept map C below. In my opinion the diagram is a good representation of soft systems approaches generally, which was just what I needed (but that’s for a next post).

Wicked Solutions      It occurred to me that by combining three fried-egg diagrams of Checkland and Poulter with a concept map of my own I could describe SSM on one page, which may help to make it a bit less “intellectually challenging” (quote from here). From there I made two major modifications: 1. I made the systems concepts of perspectives, inter-relationships and boundaries explicit in the elaboration of SSM activity pattern (concept map D, activity pattern element ‘i. exploration’); and 2. I added an element ‘ii. Dialectics’ in the activity pattern to the existing four (now five) in conjunction with the Wicked Solutions step of ‘stake analysis/framings’. In this way it is possible to show that Wicked Solutions covers the first parts of the SSM learning cycle, which could well serve as a powerful first learning experience for introducing students to systems thinking generally and both Checkland’s SSM and Churchman’s dialectical systems approach specifically. It is important to note that Wicked Solutions stops short of developing ‘conceptual activity models’, which means that it also doesn’t provide at present a model for doing so.

Dialectical systems approach       Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is indicated in concept map D by the concept ‘ii. Dialectics’ only. It is itself quite an elaborate approach as well, just like SSM, be it a bit more open to one’s own insights and preferences. I should add here that Wicked Solutions doesn’t use the classical Churchman approach, but a critical derivative developed by Werner Ulrich, a student and admirer of Churchman. Ulrich’s version is commonly known as critical heuristics or critical systems heuristics. The advantage of Ulrich’s version is that it is somewhat easier to use. The disadvantage is that it ignores a number of important insights of Churchman, although this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially where systems novices are concerned. There is more about Churchman’s dialectical systems approach here and elsewhere in the same blog. In the above framework Churchman seems to play a minor role, but this may be deceptive. To explain what Checkland is doing, it may be easiest to use Churchman’s original insights. I prefer to look at them as complementary and mutually explanatory (but that too is a good subject for a future blog post; I realize that I am promising a lot now).

Concept map explanation          I did not as yet provide a full explanation of the above concept map. Here it is: The LUMAS model is an overarching model that applies to all methodologies that seek to improve real-world problematical situations, in this case SSM. The model describes both the development of formal and informal methodologies as well as the learning process of its application, which is action-oriented, because of the complexity and dynamics of real-life situations. Different users may have different appreciations of a methodology, i.e. the application may differ for each user. In the case of soft systems, there are multiple users in multiple roles, from stakeholders or actors, planners and decision-makers or owners to customers. The SSM activity pattern h(bottom) is an elaboration of the more general SSM inquiring cycle (middle left). Churchman’s dialectical systems approach (ii. Dialectics) could be considered both an activity pattern and an inquiring cycle. In the form of critical heuristics it has been used many times as an important first stage in applying SSM. In a certain way Churchman (dialectics) and Checkland (SSM) are mutually explanatory and complementary. A  powerful first learning experience can be gained by introducing students just to elements i and ii of the activity pattern (see ‘Wicked Solutions’, Williams & Van ‘t Hof), using key ideas of both. SSM activity pattern (adapted): The central question to be debated is whether alternatives are likely to improve the problematical situation or not. To answer this question systemically 7 steps need to be followed, numbered in orange: 1. Rich picturing an acceptable representation of the problematical situation, the “is”. 2. Framing the problem and/or solution space. 3. Inquiring dialectically into  the “is” and suggestions of possible alternatives, “ought’s”, in the light of the key question, using systemic criteria or some other meaningful forms of systemic inquiry, based on Churchman’s framework of interdependent categories for judging purposeful activity systems. 4. Designing conceptual models of possible interventions using ideas generated in step 3.  5. Debating to compare the conceptual models designed in step 4.  6. Examining social, cultural and political feasibility and adjusting conceptual models to find mutual agreement. 7. Deciding on implementation or agreement or understanding. An image of the concept map with text can be downloaded from here. More explanations are available from Chapter 5 ‘Soft systems methodology’ by Checkland and Poulter (2010) and ‘Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective’ by Checkland (2000).

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Systemic evaluation design

Currently Bob Williams is preparing the second edition of his workbook on ‘Using systems concepts in evaluation design’ (available as a pdf for only 5$ from https://gumroad.com/l/evaldesign). It describes a practical systems approach to evaluation design. As Churchman explains in chapter 1 of “The systems approach” (available here), his dialectical systems approach was designed to first of all think about the function of systems, human systems such as organizations, policies and projects in particular, to reflect on their “overall objective and then to begin to describe the system in terms of this overall objective.” You may not be aware of it, but this is as revolutionary an idea today as it was more than half a century ago. It applies as much to systemic design as to systemic evaluation. The main take-away is that one cannot decide on an evaluation method without first looking into half a dozen systemic considerations. So buy that book. (This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners)

The key question         … (when we talk about evaluation) is: what exactly does it seek to achieve? In the case of evaluation this question must be asked twice: about the intervention (the so-called ‘evaluand’) and about the evaluation itself. Bob is one of the first to come up with a method to answer both questions systemically. I will try to describe this method as succinctly as possible by using a concept map, which is the bunch of spaghetti you see below. In the future, whenever you will eat spaghetti again, you will think back to this post. It’s not difficult.

The purpose      … of any intervention is to maximize value (to a client or beneficiary or customer) in terms of merit (intrinsic value), worth (relative value) or significance (meaningfulness, see also here), so evaluation is the attempt to assess how well the intervention is doing this. All three forms of value are important, but worth is particularly useful, because it expresses the notion of constraints or cost. This notion is considered again when we talk about the evaluation criteria, below. The emphasis on purpose is what forces us to consider systems thinking as the best way to go. Purpose is what makes us humans tick, even though we must figure out what the purpose of our actions is. But once we think we know what it is, there are many possible arrangements (or systems) for realizing it. Or we may decide to reconsider its importance and completely ignore it. Making arrangements requires a planner. Deciding what to do requires a decision-maker. So when we have a purpose, we have three roles: client, decision-maker and planner.

The evaluation client        Sometimes the three roles coincide in a single individual. Normally, when we talk of societal or organizational complexity they are highly differentiated. In systems thinking they are mixed up: a client may also be a planner (that’s when we speak of participation), or a decision-maker may be a client (she often benefits, i.e. enjoys some sort of value or quality ). This idea of roles, one of Churchman’s main contributions, can be applied to systemic evaluation. Conventionally, the evaluation client is the decision-maker of both the intervention and the evaluation. In systemic evaluation the evaluation client is the intervention as a whole, including the client and the planner.

Systems concepts         In October 2005, a group of evaluators (see contributors to Bob Williams’ ‘Systems concepts in evaluation’) convened at Berkeley University (which is exactly where C. West Churchman had done most of his work from the 1960s onward, in his case on the 6th floor of Barrows Hall) to figure out a way to explain systems thinking to uninitiated evaluators and decision-makers in simple terms without sacrificing its core principles and effectiveness. After two days in the pressure cooker they came out with the core concepts of inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. What was new was not the concepts, but the idea that these three concepts are sufficient and necessary to explain systems thinking. I have played around with the concepts for a few years and my conclusion is that no explanation of effective systems thinking is complete without referring to all three of them (see e.g. here, here or here), leaving semantics aside.

Bob’s genius      … lies in the direct operationalization of these three concepts. People can actually use them without fully understanding how and why it works. Bob’s last two books were on systemic intervention design (Wicked solutions, co-written with me) and its complement, on systemic evaluation. By working the books (they are workbooks) one gets a direct understanding of the importance and application of the main principles. The main steps in the evaluation book follow the three basic concepts (2) exactly in that order: inter-relationships (to be mapped, 3), perspectives (to be framed, 4), and boundaries (to be critiqued: 5, 6 and 7).

Scope and focus   A basic systems principle is that of non-separability, which means that it is always a good idea to look at the larger picture, especially in complex problem situations. These are much more common than we sometimes admit. Scope and focus are boundary issues that can be addressed once we have framed the problem situation, i.e. broadly demarcated the problem and/or solution space. Scope (5a) is all that needs to be considered, focus (5a) is where we think most attention should go. The purpose (5b) of the evaluation must be broadly determined early on. Typical purpose categories are demonstration, improvement, and learning. For a purpose to be achieved it is necessary to prepare for the consequences (5c) of evaluation in terms of politics, ethics and/or practice (5d).

Evaluation, narrowly speaking        …. requires the collection of data using a method or methodology to see how an intervention performs. Standards must be set to compare the data with, but standards for what? Standards are the concrete expressions of more abstract criteria (6b) for assessing interventions. In Bob’s scheme these criteria are selected (6a) from eight categories, which are roughly derived from Werner Ulrich’s twelve critical systems categories (see the end of this post), which in turn are derived from Churchman’s twelve dialectical systems categories (see here). The questions to be answered are e.g. What standards could we apply to be sure that the intervention makes efficient use of the resources and doesn’t overlook certain environmental constraints (environmental in the sense circumstances), and so on and so forth.

Feasibility      … (7a) is mostly about the interrelated aspects of the allocation of sufficient resources and the selection of an adequate methodology for collecting and processing the necessary data (7b). Resources is a broad term and includes evaluators. There are more inter-relationships in the whole process. If we do not know what standards to apply, we cannot decide on the selection of a methodology. One must also consider the scope, focus, purpose and consequences. An important question is how to engage different perspectives in the whole process, since stakeholders playing the client and the planner roles in the interventions are also the clients of the evaluation. Sensible solutions will need to be devised in order to address these systemic issues. If not, the usefulness of evaluation will be very limited.

The evaluative mindset      … is perhaps best explained in this July 2018 video of Robin Miller (during the Out With It pre-meeting at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam)., who had the original idea for the Berkeley evaluation meeting (Williams 2007). Miller favours good qualitative studies over poor or premature quantitative, experimental ones. That fits very well with the systems approach advocated in this post. Miller lists eight reasons for evaluating: (a) to learn (including about undesired, unintended consequences); (b) to surface assumptions by multi-perspectival teams (e.g. about why we think certain interventions are good); (c) to help establish a compelling base of evidence for future interventions and policies that are actually implemented; (d) to use interventions to reflect what one values in them and what are one’s own values (significance); (e) to contribute to certain outcomes to occur (contribution rather than cause-effect attribution); (f) to discover and document needs; (g) to counter historical distortions in the base of evidence; and (h) to create an equal playing field in terms of the base of evidence when we talk about what is a meaningful, scalable, feasible intervention or intervention and one that responds to community needs, values and concerns.

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Systems thinking in three steps

Systems thinking is generally considered difficult, both to learn and to explain what it is about. Here is the latest of my efforts in this blog to make it simple. At the end is a concept map. It is self-explanatory, but only if you read the table above it very carefully. This post could be considered a follow-up to the previous one. It has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners. 

systems learning cycleThe three steps        …. are: (1) recognizing that some problems are socially and organizationally complex; (2) acquiring some basic knowledge of systems thinking, social systems thinking in particular; and (3) selecting one or more systems approaches to address the complex problem, at first arguably a generic systems method such as Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. The numbering is arbitrary: the three form what could be called the systems learning cycle, in which the three steps are interdependent. So, one needs some idea about social systems thinking in order to recognize the characteristics of socially and organizationally complex problems as requiring social systems thinking. And there is hardly a point in recognizing such complexity without having some confidence that specific systems approaches could be of some use. In practice one will need to go through the learning cycle a couple of times, before it all starts making good sense. (N.B.: I am convinced that the highly generic, dialectical systems approach of Churchman (1968, 1971, 1979) is a very good starting point for both learning and problem solving purposes).

Complex problems 101              Warren Weaver (1948, link in references below) was the first to recognize the need for a new class of problems, which he called ‘problems of organized complexity’. Their key characteristic is the fact that “they are interrelated into an organic whole,” which means that they cannot be analysed in their system-holistic essence quantitatively. Now more than 70 years ago he insisted that mankind must find some way of handling these problems, because “the future of the world depends on many of them.” About ten years later, in 1957, Herbert Simon, who was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics, identified what he called ‘ill structured’ problems.” “In short, well-structured problems are those that can be formulated explicitly and quantitatively, and that can then be solved by known and feasible computational techniques” (or algorithms), whereas ill structured problems cannot. He went on to speculate that computers could be programmed to develop enough artificial intelligence (AI) to be able to handle ill structured problems better than any human decision-makers and managers. Since then, AI developed much slower than expected, so another 60 or so years later, Stephen Hawking agreed with Simon, in theory (!), but also warned that artificial intelligence could pose an existential threat to mankind (Russell et al. 2015). If it is true that artificial intelligence is the solution to mankind’s complex problems, then its application actually would seem to present a new, highly complex problem of its own.

Wicked problems          In 1972 (and 1973), Horst Rittel described in detail what he had called wicked problems in one of the weekly seminars of C. West Churchman at Berkeley in 1967. It was to admit that the use of computer technology to manipulate large numbers of variables in order to solve social problems such as urban renewal, environmental protection, the global food system, health services, and the prison and law enforcement systems had led to very disappointing results. Rittel lists eleven characteristics in 1972 and ten in 1973 and shows why these characteristics prevent the successful application of computer technology. This does not mean that computers cannot be very useful in some subordinate way, but they will never be able to crack the hard, wicked core of wicked problems in a convincingly satisfactory way. The ten differences between wicked and tame problems are summarized below in two forms: first a table, then a concept map. I let them speak for themselves.

tame and wicked problems characteristics - tabletame and wicked problems - concept map

References     

  • Churchman, C. W. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Retrieved here or here.
  • Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York, London: Basic Books. Retrieved here or here (chapter abstracts) or here (summaries).
  • Churchman, C. West (1971). The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization. New York, London: Basic Books. Retrieved here.
  • Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169. Retrieved here.
  • Rittel, H. (1972) On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and Second Generations’, Bedriftsøkonomen nr. 8 – 1972, 390-396. Retrieved here.
  • Russel, S. et al. (2015) Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence, AI Magazine (Winter 2015), 105-114. Retrieved here.
  • Simon, H. & Newell, A. (1958). Heuristic Problem Solving: The Next Advance in Operations Research. Operations Research, 6(1), 1-10. Retrieved here.
  • Weaver, W. (1948) Science and Complexity, American Scientist, 36: 536. Retrieved here.

This was a short explanation of the first step (or the second, if you like) in the systems learning cycle. In a previous post I gave a description of the second step to explain the need for social or soft systems thinking. In the next post I will discuss the dialectical systems approach. A simple, dialectical method for learning how to handle inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries (see concept map) can be found in Wicked Solutions. You can support my work (of writing an even more convincing sequel, of which this post is a part) by buying Wicked Solutions at Amazon.com. You will support me even more if you buy at Lulu’s. There is also a PDF at Gumroad for only $12. Your thinking will never be the same.

 

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Definitions of systems and systems thinking

There are no simple definitions of systems and systems thinking (Monat & Gannon 2015) that are sufficiently rich to clarify what they are essentially about. So instead, I will offer a circumscriptive definition in three parts and add a small concept map to go with it. This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners. 

Systems thinking       …. is the selection and application of more or less general systems methods or systemic problem solving tools to examine, debate, model, and modify systems structures, which underlie systems behavior. Systems thinking serves to identify and improve or understand the system behavior of a broad range of open systems.

Open systems      … consist of sets of at least two parts, elements, components or subsystems that are characterized by at least one interrelationship. The distinction between an open system and its environment is conceptualized by the system boundary. Open systems interact with their environment by receiving input and generating output.

Social systems    ….are open systems involving human actors (in roles as client/beneficiary, decision-maker, planner, see my ‘Concept map of Churchman’s categorical scheme for the inquiring system of a dialectical systems approach‘), who often have diverging, partially perceptive perspectives, which – in combination – may help them perceive non-linear systems behavior more fully. All humans are capable of systems thinking to varying degrees. Systems methods can amplify more mundane forms of systems thinking.

Non-linear patterns      … are what need to be changed in the case of (wicked) problems. These patterns are formed by inter-relationships connecting the various parts or subsystems. A well-known set of non-linear patterns is formed by Senge’s (or Kim’s) systems archetypes. In social systems these inter-relationships are intricately linked to the values of the actors involved. Aspects defining the problem situation include processes, world views, purposes, uncertainties, conflicts, and motivations. Some of the aspects are qualitative rather than quantitative.

Key operational concepts     …. are inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. Inter-relationships and perspectives need to be mapped. Different perspectives must be combined to map them properly. Once a sufficiently comprehensive map is available the boundary of the system can be debated to rank inter-relationships and perspectives in terms of relevance with a view to understanding and changing the non-linear patterns. A simple method for learning how to handle inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries can be found in Wicked Solutions.

You can support my work (of writing an even more convincing sequel, of which this post is a part) by buying Wicked Solutions at Amazon.com. You will support me even more if you buy at Lulu’s. There is also a PDF at Gumroad for only $12. Your thinking will never be the same.

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The capability approach to social system design

This is my third and probably last consecutive blog post on the capability approach in about one-and-a-half week (here are 1 and 2). The capability approach was first articulated by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in the 1980s. He has collaborated closely with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has provided the most influential version of a capability theory of justice. For more information see Thomas Well’s article on Sen’s Capability Approach. What interests me is the conceptual relationships between individualist foundation of the capability approach, freedom, development and the systems approach, especially C. West Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. I will make use of Nussbaum’s understanding of Aristotle’s ethics.

Social systems        …. can be anything, from a family to an enterprise, a project, a nation, a world region, or even an individual on his own, considering the complexities of the human subconscious. Churchman uses the term social systems a lot, most of the time in the short form ‘systems’ as in ‘the systems approach’ or ‘inquiring systems’. Aristotle was thinking mostly of the Hellenic city-state, the polis, as it had evolved from the 8th century BC onward (pdf with transcript of lecture on Nicomachean ethics here). In most of Sen’s research the social system corresponds to the nation state, especially in Asia and Africa.

Capability deprivation    … is the way in which Sen describes poverty. Nussbaum’s list of 10 central human capabilities is described here. So a landless farmer in India lacks control over his environment, he also suffers of poor health, especially poor reproductive health if most of his children die or suffer of growth retardation. Sen stresses the need to abolish ‘unfreedoms’ such   as   poverty,   famine,   starvation,   undernourishment,   tyranny,   poor   economic opportunities, systematic social deprivation,  neglect  of  public  facilities,  intolerance,  and  over-activity of repressive states. That’s quite something else than just having a low income. In the adjacent concept map I grouped Nussbaum’s list of capabilities in three categories: health (with three capabilities), reason (with two capabilities), and sense-making as in ‘making sense of one’s life or behavior in relation to certain choices’ (five capabilities).

Sensemaking     The five sense-making capabilities in my categorization are imagination/thought, emotions, affiliation, nature/other species, and play. They are social-emotional-creative in nature and seem to be loosely associated with developing an understanding of oneself as a self-actualizing human in relation to the middle layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the ‘pyramid’). In a previous post I linked the concept “sense of meaning” to 5 of the 10 capabilities. It is clear, though, that it is not self-evident to map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities, let alone to add a term like sensemaking to indicate the subset of capabilities that are not mostly physical (health) or rational (practical reason, management/control) in nature. That’s a lot of caveats, all for the sake of simplification to enable a better understanding.

Teleology      Self-actualization in the Maslowian sense may correspond roughly with a sense of one’s inner telos in the Aristotelian sense, which may guide one to leading a more full and complete life. Aristotle’s ethics are based on a teleological philosophy, which claims that the things around us have natural ends or purposes (sing.: telos), which are expressed or represented by their proper functioning. Health is a precondition for following one’s telos, while reason, especially practical reason, is one’s main tool, mostly by means of deliberation. Churchman argues that generally it is much easier to understand humans in teleological terms than by using mechanical categories (Systems approach and its enemies, p. 39).

Development   … is the core aim of international co-operation. The concept of development is not always well explained or understood. Development is in the first place associated with the creation of social systems (systems with people in them, see above). In the case of an agricultural development system in the South this may include a broad range of subsystems, including a natural ecosystem, an irrigation and drainage system, an agricultural mechanization system, an agricultural research system, a farmer communication system, an agricultural extension system etc. At a higher level there may be a political system, an administrative system, a health system, an education system, an economic system. All of these systems must work together synergistically for the best result. Development is also the managed increase in freedoms and capabilities to allow people to create more development in sense 1. Some freedoms and capabilities are in themselves gratifying and therefore worthy of development. That’s meaning 3.

Deliberation     …. Is a relatively slow process of weighing and examining pros and cons (and systemic inter-relationships using stakeholder perspectives) in decision-making. It assumes that Nussbaum’s 10 capabilities are sufficiently operational, especially when it comes to fathoming the inner telos of the key stakeholders and the rational understanding of the social systems concerned. Fathoming the inner telos is a whole-person issue with many dimensions, including personal and interpersonal ones related to credibility, validity, probability (or uncertainty), realism (idealism/materialism), trust, honesty, faith, expertise, motivation, attitudes, intentions, world views, personal growth and so on.

Design       People design themselves and the systems they live in. They have done so for the past 3 to 5 million years (see here). It is relatively fast non-evolutionary change that takes place on an evolutionary foundation. Design principles must take into account both the biological and psychological (so social) capabilities. The capability approach exhibits some of these principles, but so does the systems approach. The first is more people-oriented, the second more systems oriented. They are both generally applicable to problem situations such as development problems. There seems to be no particular difficulty that might prevent their combined application. In the case of the systems approach one can use the capability approach to look at the position of the beneficiary or client category. In the case of the capability approach one can use the dialectical systems approach to structure the deliberation. Try it, e.g. using a simple version of the dialectical systems approach as explained in Wicked Solutions.

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