Abstracts and concept maps compared

Summarizing ‘Why few organizations adopt systems thinking’

This blogpost allows you to kill two crows with one stone: (1) learn the practical difference between an abstract and a concept map; and (2) get first-hand knowledge of a fundamental, systemic problem of systems thinking. Both abstracts and concept models summarize information or knowledge, but do so in a slightly different way. A good abstract answers two questions: ‘What is it about?’ (indicative) and ‘What’s the point?’ (informative), and all that in less than 200 words (or about 1000 characters). For tips see Cremmins (1982). A concept map models knowledge by mapping the linkages between bits of information in a meaningful way. To compare concept mapping with abstracting, I use an article by Ackoff on the mechanisms that militate against the use of systems thinking in business and government. What I suggest is that you first read the article (2000 words, click link at ackoffcenter.blogs.com), then the abstract (below; <200 word), and finally the concept map (further down; 60 words). But any other order will do, so read on straight away, if you like.

Article      Ackoff, R. L. (2006). Why few organizations adopt systems thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 23(5), 705–708. Retrieved from ackoffcenter.blogs.com

Abstract     This article answers the question: ‘If systems thinking is so good, why don’t more organizations use it?’ Ackoff identifies two important reasons. The general reason (1) is that mistakes are generally (in education, management, government) considered a bad thing, while mistakes should be considered opportunities for learning. There are two types of mistakes, errors of commission and errors of omission. The failure of organizations is almost always due to something not done, so errors of omission are generally the more important. But little attention is paid to them. Ackoff suggests that learning from errors of omission can be ‘learned’ by keeping a record of all decisions of importance, whether to do something or not (e.g. systems thinking): (a) indicating expected effects and assumptions; (b) checking for deviations; and (c) deciding corrective actions. The specific reason (2) is that very few managers have any knowledge of systems thinking. Systems thinkers communicate in jargon. It is time for a journal addressed to potential users with managers on its editorial board to make sure every article also answers the ‘so what’ question, i.e. how it will affect the behaviour or thinking of the reader. (Abstract CSL4D)

Concept map      To stay viable, organizations need to innovate, i.e. adopt transforming ideas (1). But where do these ideas come from? Organizations are run by managers (2). If managers make mistakes they are punished. So, managers will try to avoid mistakes, but not all of them. Mistakes come in two varieties (3): errors of commission and errors of omission. If organizations are not of the learning type, they don’t care much about errors of omission. As a result managers don’t mind either. Instead they will make every effort to avoid errors of commission. For this they will follow the well-trodden path. Ackoff - failure to adopt systems thinkingIf an organization wants to come up with transforming ideas (4), it must identify transforming options and assess their worth, e.g. using probes (5). Now, probes carry the risk of making an error of commission. So the organization must be willing to take that risk, i.e. to become a learning organization (6). This means that it must be willing to learn from mistakes (errors of commission) and must avoid encouraging managers to make errors of omission (of doing/making things better). For both tasks, organizations can adopt systems thinking (e.g. systems approach, viable systems model, soft systems methodology), which has been specifically developed to help organizations learn about transforming (truly innovative) options. To get organizations on the right track, Ackoff suggests that they keep records of all key decisions, whether to do something or not (7). Also, there is a need for a journal on practical systems thinking without superfluous jargon.

What’s the difference?        Perhaps the main difference is that a concept map has a certain systemic insightfulness about it, and an ‘unfolding’ quality that facilitates learning, i.e. the emergence of new knowledge. E.g. it follows directly from the concept map that if an organization wants to learn how to do ‘organizational learning’, it will have to stop punishing those errors of commission that are the result of probing transforming options and it must start punishing – or at least discouraging – errors of omission. On the other hand, it is the same systemicity that make it difficult (but certainly not impossible, in a larger concept map) to position the two recommendations made by Ackoff, viz. keeping decision records and producing a practical systems journal by and for managers. A piece of text such as an abstract gives much more freedom to add that type of information. I like both, abstracts and concept maps.

Article      Ackoff, R. L. (2006). Why few organizations adopt systems thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 23(5), 705–708. Retrieved from ackoffcenter.blogs.com

P.S. As an accessible and practical introduction to systems thinking I suggest you consider reading Wicked Solutions. For more information, see also these blog posts or go directly to:

  • Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. (2014). Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from http://gum.co/wicked

About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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