Thursday, December 20, 2007

The further transformation of Higher Education?

US newspaper The New York Times has announced plans to provide distance education and higher education course content. In the case of its distance education initiative, The Times will be providing technology and marketing for a range of high quality non-credit courses taught by college and university professors. Whilst tuition rates will be set by the colleges and universities, in some cases with in-state and out-of-state rates, funds from tuition revenue will be split (with the precise formula varying) between the institutions and The Times. A number of higher education institutions, including New York, Northern Kentucky and Stanford Universities are already committed to using the new technologies, and several others are in negotiations to start doing so. Given that some of the online courses will make use of The Times’ content, the newspaper’s enterprises could help some colleges to establish or expand distance education provision whilst reducing academic reliance on printed texts. Academics at institutions that subscribe to The Times’ service will be able to use such packages alongside their own content to develop customised course Web pages.

I wonder what the quality of the learning environment will be?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Can the new Rudd government genuinely learn from the Blair years - or will it duplicate the same mistakes?

It is surprising how easily governments and their agencies destroy relational capital. In our research we have come to understand relational capital as the glue the holds all the other forms of capital together. So, for example, as Simon Caulkin points out, the UK Treasury has 'singled out five 'levers' of productivity - competition, innovation, enterprise, investment and skills - and subjected each to major programmes of reform'. No doubt their prime focus is on economic and just perhaps, social capital. Despite the Stern report, natural capital still takes a back seat! For the treasury 'best practice' is the glue but it does not work!

The concepts of 'productivity, and 'best practice' are both problematic. As Caulkin outlines, ' not primarily about inputs but the messy, complex, human process of turning them into usable outputs - i.e, management [I would say an active process], not economics'. Hence the need for capability in systemic praxis - practice which builds, sustains and facilitates relational capital through social learning.

Caulkin bases his article on Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM) 'which suggests that [UK] ministers' views of management are naive. Broadly, the government thinks that improving company performance is about supply-side economics and best practice'. Best practice is a misnomer because practice that is best can only ever be contextual - so it has to be reinvented all of the time as contexts change. Which is not to say that we cannot learn from what others do - but then it becomes best praxis - taking the thinking and applying it to your own context!
Simon Caulkin's diagnosis: the real British disease - call it management dyslexia

On Sunday November 25 2007, Simon Caulkin in the Observer wrote:

'The real British disease is the unerring talent for putting together entities that are less than the sum of their parts. The comical inability to think in systems terms - call it management dyslexia - was on dazzling display last week, all over the front and back pages.' Read on!

Public - private partnerships. Are they systemically desirable?

My experience of PPP's in the Blair years in Britain make me highly suspicious of PPPs. George Monbiot captures many of my concerns. What I am keen to understand is whether they are systemically desirable, or not, and what purpose could legitimately be assigned to them from the perspective of good governance? It is not easy to discern the answers to these questions. My understanding from the British situation was that they were a convenient means to do business with the private sector as well as being a device to keep debt out of the calculations that determine credit ratings for a country or state (i.e., Moodys!).

I am thus interested to see that there is significant dissent with the Victorian Labor Party following a push by the new premier to use PPPs to build new schools as well as the new desalination plant and associated pipeline. It is easy to see this policy shift as 'copy cat' tactics but are those responsible for pushing them the same people as pushed them when Blair was in power? What learning has occurred with whom about their effectiveness in Britain? I hope the growing dissent in Victoria will allow these questions to be explored and thus bring greater transparency to the role of PPPs.
Victoria's green report card in the red

In Victoria it is obvious to even the casual observer that the 'environment' has taken backstage to economic development in the recent switch of Premiers and the subsequent Ministerial and Ministry reshuffle. This is apparent in the new ministerial arrangements for water. Tim Holding, one of the new Brumby 'kitchen cabinet', is now responsible rather than the Environment Minister as was the case before. Insiders point to how decisions are now made - as with the scrapping of environmental flows on the Yarra, which some sources suggest was a decision handed to Gavin Jennings.

An Envirowatch report released yesterday outlines where the government is keeping its environmental promises (10%), on target to keeping them (40%), at risk (46%) and broken (4%). What is missing from the report is the recent decision taken by Premier Brumby to reverse ALP policy and release GMO canola. I anticipate on-going agitation to change this decision.
'Like Latin, Ricardian economics is dead'

All explanations arise in social relations - as Sir Geoffrey Vickers argued they give rise to our standards of fact and value and our ‘relationship maintaining or breaking’. Moreover all explanations arise this way but some are conserved over longer time frames than others. Explanations also ‘enter our bloodstream’ as we live our lives – throughout our biological and social development. Maynard Keynes’ oft quoted remark that in his experience those who claimed to be practical men (sic) were usually victims of some theory 30 years out of date is a variation on this point.

Klaus Krippendorff also points out how oppressive certain theories, or more precisely 'theorizing', can be. In this light Martin Fell has written an insightful article pointing out how the conservation of certain economic theories, in this case the theory of comparative advantage explicated by David Ricardo in 1817, is part of 'the terminal disease suffered by economists'! See this image.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Systemic Environmental Decision Making - the need for praxis

The current meeting in Bali to plan beyond the Kyoto agreement, the new directions for Australian policy following election of the Rudd Labor Government and the needs in the UK to ensure that Government commitments to 'sustainability' are honoured, all draw attention to the need for new forms of praxis for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Praxis is theory informed action and is as relevant, or more relevant, than many of the claims for evidence-based practice. At the Open University our course on 'Environmental Decision making: a systems approach' has a focus on praxis which is proving popular. This is one of the core courses in the Masters in Environmental Decision Making.

Policy needs praxis, or perhaps more importantly a praxiology - an understanding of effective action. Effecting action on the back of good policy is where systems-based practice approaches can help. In a climate-change world systemic environmental decision making praxis is needed to engage with and 'improve' complex situations characterised by uncertainty, connectedness and, often, conflict and multiple perspectives. In the world as we now understand it any approach to dealing with wicked problems, or managing 'messes' or effecting 'joined up' or 'whole of government' actions necessarily has to take the environment into account.

As the images show the course has four set books (one for each block of the course) supported by a Techniques book as well as Readings for each block. The course is presented over 23 weeks twice a year. In the coming presentation 123 students are registered. Some of the course materials, which also includes a DVD can be purchased directly from the Open University.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Conversations of the journey

are rewarding when the travelling is in convivial circumstances - in this case a very uncrowded suburban train in Auckland and the venue created by the Australia - New Zealand Systems Society (ANZSYS) conference. It is even more convivial when one is among those who appreciate, and contribute to common concerns and who share similar intellectual lineages. The special case is when the conversation triggers mutual enthusiasm as it did with my (now) colleagues here!! (My thanks to Jack M for the photo).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The best 'gravy train' in town?

The National Programme for IT (NPfIT), Connecting for Health (CfH) must be one of the best ‘gravy trains’ in town?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Climate change in Australia!

In my blogs I made a decision to avoid the recent election campaign - I was engaged right up till the actual start of the official campaign but after that I found my quality of life to be severely undermined if I listened or read too much. There was little to fire the imagination. I realised my own thinking was well outside that of mainstream Australians when, after leaving a Greens event in Melbourne addressed by Bob Brown, I felt his policies were not radical enough! This experience in itself triggers some reflections - is it that Europe is so different or is it merely that the discourse has been so different there for so long I have come to believe it is very different? Of course we started developing Open University course in the 1990s that took climate change seriously and the EU and UK government's attempts at institutionalising sustainability are much better developed than here. For example, last week I attended a meeting hosted jointly by the University of Melbourne and the Ambassadors of Latin American countries. The aim was to talk about and foster collaboration with Australia, the themes for the day being mining, agriculture and foreign relations. What particularly struck me about the day was how much of the discourse was in a 'business as usual' mode even though climate change was mentioned in passing.

The election of a Rudd government is to be welcomed. It is indeed climate change of another form. Climate change marchers (see photo), of whom I was one, now have government with whom they can hopefully be in step!

Of course I have a number of aspirations as well as fears like most others. I sincerely hope that the new government will not take too much from the Blair years - something they have already done in adopting the so-called 'education revolution' and choosing to populate it with new computers. As we know from UK experience computers per se do not enhance learning! At the moment I am toying with offering my agenda for action if for no other reason than all democracies need new insights and a healthy 'critical' community if they are to thrive.

On this point Clive Hamilton offers a well argued analysis of the implications of a Rudd victory for Australia's re-engagement with the international community on the matter of climate change.

The need for action is urgent. I noted on a recent visit to the magnificent Mountain Ash forests in the Yarra Ranges National Park that these trees looked stressed. If they are then this does not bode well.
The systemic impacts of data centralisation along with command and control thinking!

This Observer article makes a powerful case - worthy of citing here in full:

"Ministers will quickly lose their shame over the missing 25 million files and continue to stockpile our most personal secrets. There's no time to crow over the government's loss of 25 million people's details; no time to rejoice at the obvious mortification of Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, his sidekick, Andy Burnham, Jacqui Smith and Harriet Harman. These people will not be deterred by the calamity of last week. They are shameless. In a month or two they will bounce back. The ID card scheme will be relaunched and Jacqui Smith will continue with her plans to demand 53 pieces of information from people before they travel abroad. The Children's Index, the Children's Assessment Framework, the National Health database, the ever-expanding police DNA database will all continue to scoop up information. Why? Because the control of the masses is coded in the deepest part of Labour's being.

So let me just say it now: the politicians we saw ranged before us on the front bench last Tuesday, like defendants in a mass trial, are dangerous, misguided and incompetent; and they are still in a position to cause havoc. Under a plan known by the reassuringly dull title of Transformational Government, a huge process of centralisation has taken place, creating countless opportunities for security breaches, as well as abuse by the state. At the time, the government defined it as 'transforming public services as citizens receive them and demonstrating how technology can improve the corporate services of government so more resources can be released to deliver "front line" services'. Anyone emerging from this phrase with a clear meaning in their mind deserves an award, but it has resulted in the demonstration of an almost mathematical truth. The larger the database and the more people who have access to it, the greater the lack of security.

Professor Ross Anderson, the leading British expert on this kind of engineering, believes it is impossible to go for scale, security and functionality without one suffering. . . Some 300,000 people will have access to the NHS database. There are already stories about the records of a well-known patient being viewed for entertainment by 50 hospital staff in the North East. 'Imagine a doctor or professor leaving a laptop on a plane that includes the entire nation's health records,' said Anderson. 'It's not impossible.' Indeed, at the last count there had been 14 lapses in major government IT projects in the last two years. It's not just about patient privacy or the outrageous decision by Whitehall to override the need to gain people's consent before their records were uploaded; a failure of the internet or large-scale power cuts could leave hospitals without access to x-rays or medical records. . . Each of us should understand that personal information is exactly that - personal - and that the government has only limited rights to demand and retain it. The scale of its operations and the innate weakness of the systems is a very grave concern to us all. What is needed - and here I hope someone is listening - is a mass movement on the lines of the Countryside Alliance, which goes across all parties and absorbs the skills and expertise of countless activists. Now is the moment to create a movement in defence of our privacy, security and freedom."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An accident waiting to happen - the systemic failure of centralised record systems

The announcement yesterday by the UK Chancellor of
the loss of two computer discs containing the personal details of 25 million people is a disaster in and of itself but it also draws fresh attention to the on-going saga associated with the UK's Connecting for Health IT project. Those who have read some of my earlier postings on NPfIT, as it is known, will appreciate that I have been part of a group of 23 academics calling for an independent review of the multi-billion pound project. Despite a strong case for such a review the government has dug its heels in. Perhaps this event will lead to a reappraisal?

As one commentator has said: ". . . It is beyond farce, past comprehension, criminally irresponsible and beneath contempt. All those lectures from government and authorities about keeping our personal data safe; every statement ever made about the security of the proposed NHS database of everybody's personal medical records; each claim that the Children's Database containing all their personal details will somehow make our kids safer; and of course each and every promise about the safety of the national identity register - exposed as quite, quite worthless. . . "

Some other recent developments include:

'Doctors' support for the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) has declined sharply in the past three years, the latest survey from medical research company Medix has revealed.' ........BUT ....'Angela Eagle, exchequer secretary to the Treasury, told parliament last month that the NPfIT was a success. "Without the programme, the NHS could no longer function, and it is already providing essential services and significant benefits to tens of thousands of clinicians and millions of patients. It is therefore a success story that ought to be acknowledged"'

The government has rejected calls by the Commons Health Select Committee for NHS Connecting for Health to hand over greater contractual power to trusts and strategic health authorities as part of the NPfIT local ownership programme.

The Department of Health's response to the Health Committee report on the Electronic Patient Record rejects the committee's recommendation that sealed-envelope data should be kept out of the secondary uses service (SUS). Sealed-envelope data is the stuff you don't want shared, and SUS is the database that lets civil servants, medical researchers others access to masses of health data. '
Critics of the National Programme for IT have attacked a Government report as ‘simply untruthful’, after it backed security measures used in the controversial Secondary Uses Service.'

NHS IT bosses have launched a review of security surrounding the Summary Care Record amid fears it will be targeted by blackmailers and identity thieves.

More 'teething problems'

There was no squalor when sister ran the ward: ....'the Health Care's Commission report highlights is that the top-heavy hospital administration ostensibly in charge at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells were so pre-occupied with jumping through the hoops of centrally imposed targets as to be unaware of what was going on in their wards.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Former OU academic critiques moves towards nuclear power in his Quarterly Essay

In the most recent Quarterly Essay, entitled 'Reaction Time. Climate Change and the Nuclear Option', Ian Lowe describes how he arrived in the Technology Faculty at the Open University (OU) in 1971 as 'a believer in nuclear power' but whilst there his 'views were shaken by some colleagues who asked awkward questions about the economics and about waste management'. Ian's reflections are testimony to the ethos of the Technology Faculty which prided itself in developing a style of teaching in cutting edge courses which 'asked the awkward questions'.

Ian is now President of the Australian Conservation Foundation as well as being an Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology & Society at Griffith University. He has been an articulate and brave critic of the Howard Government in relation to a range of environmental issues. This essay continues that commitment. It is a powerful, systemic analysis which I commend to all who are concerned about how we respond to climate change and to securing our energy futures.
The questions that numbers reveal II

A colleague , Doug, in response to my earlier posting on this matter says:

'Just saw your blog post about the death rate in Iraq versus Washington DC. I've seen similar figures around the place, but what they all-but-actively conceal is that being a civilian in Iraq is much more dangerous than being a civilian in Washington. The comparison made is heavily-armed and -armoured troops in Iraq versus the entire population in Washington. The force protection measures the US takes to safeguard its troops work, in that they keep the death rate of the troops down, but at huge cost to the civilians. Take the recent Blackwater issue: their boss - rightly - claims a 100% success record in the job they are assigned (protecting diplomats). To do that job, they shoot first, and ask questions only if international outrage obliges them to later. It's appallingly tough on innocent civilians, and tough on the overall mission of the coalition forces in Iraq, but they are doing what they are organised to do. I think it links back to your other post about targets: they (and the regular US forces) are optimising to a single target measure that doesn't include a more systemic consideration of what the troops are there for.

(Though my personal view is that the work that needs to be done in Iraq isn't stuff that you can do with heavily-armed troops even if you could find squaddies who were selflessly devoted to a nation-building mission and unconcerned about their own personal safety.)'

I couldn't agree more. Thanks Doug for taking the time to make these important points.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

'It takes more than Mr Targets to get results' - another Caulkin 'must read'

Lest anyone remains that thinks that targets work to effect results for which they were intended then read this excellent article by Simon Caulkin. To any systemist targets epitomise all that was wrong with the Blair years. As Simon points out:

'As someone said, carrots and sticks are useful for donkeys and if the object is direct and simple. Likewise targets. Of course, as Barber [Sir Michael Barber who set up and ran the Prime Minister's delivery Unit - PMDU - from 2001 to 2005 and was Blair's 'Mr Targets] writes, it is important to know what success is and devise measures to track progress towards it. But it's bad faith to try to motivate people with financial incentives then complain they are self-interested; and disingenuous to pretend that the unintended consequences of crude numerical targets are trivial.'

'Even Barber concedes that getting from 'adequate' to 'good', let alone 'great', can't be done by central fiat. It needs to enlist hearts and minds. It also requires the ability to look at and manage the system as a whole. Barber acknowledges the need for 'whole system reform' in passing, but only in passing, and gives no hint of the extent to which the blunt, soviet-tractor-style techniques of PMDU Mark 1 (targets, carrots and sticks) are incompatible with it.'

In his argument Caulkin makes the case, I believe, for 'delivery' based around systemic practices that acknowledge the complexity that has to be engaged with. Indirectly he makes the case for significant capacity building in systems thinking and practice skills. As he says:

'As an easy solution to a complex problem, this is what targets do. It's not that they are too ambitious or can't be made to work, at least temporarily; it's that optimising the parts is the enemy of the much greater returns that only system reform can deliver.'

To think and act differently - to appreciate systemic complexity and act purposefully to improve complex situations is one of the major needs of our times!
Mushrooming numbers of managers may actually be stifling UK enterprise…

In a very perceptive article Simon Caulkin, Management Editor of the Observer points out the litany of unintended consequences arising for the professionalising of management, as in MBAs, and the unquestioning adoption of flawed theories in the social realm. He argues that 'it can seem that the principal role of management these days is to make life a misery'.

In explicating his argument he draws on the work of Russ Ackoff:

'Russell Ackoff, the distinguished systems and management theorist, memorably described the self-set trap as “doing the wrong thing righter”. Most of our current problems, he maintains, are the result of managers and policy-makers trying ever harder to make something come right that they shouldn’t be doing in the first place. “The righter we do the wrong thing,” he notes, “the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.” The wrong thing that managers have been striving to do righter — and in support of which a whole industry has grown up to amplify the wrongness — is, not to put too fine a point on it, central planning: an amoral, dysfunctional (and dangerously self-reinforcing) command-and-control management model that would not have been out of place in the Soviet Union.'

He concludes:

'In every sense, today’s dismal discipline is not economics but management.'

I hope there are folk out there taking notice of Simon's insights!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Can you believe it?

I have been surprised that more has not been made of the British Conservative Party's new policy document: Blueprint for a Green Economy. Perhaps it has in the UK but in Oz it has mostly slipped below the radar - with a few exceptions! It is in many ways a radical document and although not yet adopted as Conservative Party policy it seems to move the debate, in some respects, light years ahead of where it is here in Oz. If only the current Oz election campaign involved discussion about these matters!! The description on the Conservative's home page says:

The Quality of Life Policy Group, chaired by John Gummer and vice-chaired by Zac Goldsmith, released their final report on Thursday September 13.

The Group have spent 18 months developing an agenda to make Britain a world leader on green growth by:
- Using markets to help create positive change
- Helping individuals change their behaviour
- Making industry use resources more efficiently

They have outlined a series of proposals to reduce pollution and improve the wider environment and quality of life.

Refreshingly the paper addresses a number of complex issues systemically. For example co-author John Gummer said:

"If we are to create a way of living that can sustain, then water, waste, transport and energy, as well as farming, food, fishing and the built environment, have to be thought of as a whole."

This can be interpreted as a need for investment in building systems practice capability. Systemic insights can be found elsewhere in the document:

'It is increasingly clear that the global economy must be retooled in order to ensure that it operates sustainably, within environmental limits. In this urgent task, it will be the world’s developed countries which lead the way. Over nearly three centuries we have grown ever richer but we have done so at the expense of the environment upon which our lives depend. We have therefore both the means and the obligation to repair the damage.'

'Yet, although Conservatives understand the vital role of markets, they recognise too that markets are mechanisms not gods. The market is crucial to our vision, but cannot deliver it alone. The strength of the market is its unique ability to meet economic needs. Its weakness is myopia. The market lacks the dimension of time. Unrestrained, it will catch till the last fish is landed, drill till there is no more oil, and pollute till the planet is destroyed. Its efficiency in creating material wealth is both its strength and its weakness.'

'We believe that growth and progress need to be redefined for a new century. ‘Growth’ should also encompass growth in the value and richness of society, of tolerance, diversity, and variety and of the strength and empowerment of family and community As a leading American economist, Herman Daly, has argued, economic growth is focused upon quantitative expansion and the notionally ‘limitless transformation of natural capital into man-made capital’. Sustainable development, by contrast, is about qualitative improvement, promoting increased economic activity only insofar as it does not exceed the capacity of the eco-system.'

'The social cost of material growth is becoming increasingly clear. Even as the global economy continues to consume beyond its ecological means, the long-assumed link between increased financial wealth and increased social wellbeing is showing signs of stress. Levels of income and consumption have soared over the last three decades in most developed countries. Yet consistently, the people of those same countries report no increase in their sense of contentment or wellbeing. In many cases they report a decline. It seems that in wealthy countries, a continued increase in economic growth, is not increasing wellbeing. '

'A measure of wellbeing that takes such environmental accounting into consideration needs to respect the four interdependent ‘securities’ of nature – energy security, water security, food security, and climate security. All overlap in complex ways. For example, if we put huge areas of fertile land over for production of biofuels to gain energy security or increase climate security, what will be the effects on food and water security? Failing to understand how these things mesh together ultimately damages us all.'

Not for one minute am I recommending the uncritical acceptance of all that is here. But as a report for a major political party in a western democracy I hope it has the effect of taking us collectively onto a new, much needed conversation and policy space.

For fresh insights turn to the Centre for Policy Development (CPD)

The Centre for Policy Development was set up to foster a diverse, cross-disciplinary community of thinkers who are interested in changing Australian policy for the better. CPD provides authors, public intellectuals and policy entrepreneurs who care about Australia’s long-term future space to grow and develop their ideas, and sets out to connect these ideas with a wider audience of concerned citizens, policy makers, and the media.

A recent paper by Geoff McAlpine addresses a number of key systemic issues in regard to how we understand and engage with 'the environment'.
The questions that numbers reveal?

Thanks to my friend Ric for the following.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of the U.S. involvement in Iraq , here's a sobering statistic:

There has been a monthly average of 160,000 troops in the Iraq theatre of operations during the last 22 months, and a total of 2,112 deaths. That gives a firearm death rate of 60 per 100,000 soldiers.

The firearm death rate in Washington D.C. is 80.6 per 100,000 persons for the same period.

That means that you are about 25% more likely to be shot and killed in the U.S. Capital than you are in Iraq .

Conclusion: The U.S. should pull out of Washington

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Understandings and a sense of place - my visits to the Battye Library and Rottnest Island

Whilst in Perth I managed to squeeze in several hours in the Battye Library on the trail of my great-grandfather, Gus (Augustus Horatio Arthur!) Coleman who taught at primary schools in WA from 1900-1909. I also managed an overnight stay on Rottnest Island, 12 miles off the coast from Freemantle, which was the last school in WA at which Gus taught. He went home (to NSW) on Christmas leave in 1909 a broken man never to return to WA. In fact he died in 1913 aged just 42 leaving a widow and five children. Having heard stories of her time in WA from my grandmother, Rottnest had stayed with me - stories of Quokkas and aboriginal Australians (the history is quite shameful - it was in fact a prison for aboriginals for many years with about 365 deaths in custody!). I had imagined the stay on Rottnest to have been a significant part of my grandmother's life in WA but the records show that she and her family only lived there for a bit over a month at the end of 1909. By this time the prison and the boy's reform school had been closed and the island was already becoming the leisure and tourist destination it is today.

I did however locate the school in which Gus must have taught and the house in which the family would have lived. Although in a parlous state, in terms of funding, the archival material available enables those who are interested to recapture through research an understanding of the Europeanisation of this continent and thus to better appreciate our place in it. The photos are a selection from this journey into place [they include (i) the chapel/school where Gus taught; (ii) a triple terrace, one of which was the teacher's house; (iii) a Quokka and (iv) a view from Bathurst Point.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

Systemic and complexity perspectives a highlight of IPAA conference, Perth

From Monday last I have been in Perth presenting at the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) National Conference. The aptly named conference 'Western reflections: conversations on the place of Australian Public Services in a changing world' went off smoothly. With the backing of Lynn Allen and her program organising group there has been a strong contingent of systems and complexity thinkers leading the various sessions. The speakers all seem to have been well received - or at least provoked some form of engagement. Plenary speakers included Linda Scott of Primed who started with an engaging theatre piece purpose-designed for the conference around a water development scenario based in WA. The two day conference was followed by a Policy in Action: Researchers and Practitioners Forum led off by Dave Snowden and then addressing the themes of mental health, cultural policy and water. Lynn is to be congratulated in creating the circumstances to re-awaken interest in systems and complexity approaches to public administration and to introduce (re-introduce?) it to IPAA. In WA Lynn and her colleague Trudi Lang offer a systems-based programme called 'Navigating the Maze'.

The text of my invited plenary follows (slides are available on request):

Appreciating Janus? A systemic inquiry for water-managing

Paper delivered by Ray Ison to The IPAA National Conference, Tuesday 18 September 2007


Janus was the Roman god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings. If Janus were to be assigned to the pantheon of contemporary gods on the basis of experience of early 21st century organisational life and governance he would probably become recognised as the god of dualism – of self negating either/ors such as east and west. Based on my experience of research within Europe relating to social learning, a new governance mechanism suitable for policy and practices for sustainable water management, I will make the case for considering Janus as the god of duality - of systemic wholes. Those present will be invited to begin a systemic inquiry into what it is that they do when they do what they do. Systemic inquiry, as a broader context for projects and programmes, and understandings based on dualities seem to offer what is needed when we live in a climate change world that demands administration and governance based on processes of co-evolution – people with their environment.

Keywords: systemic inquiry; social learning, water governance; knowledge transfer; policy practice.

Introducing Janus
Janus was the Roman god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings. What the Romans realised in admitting Janus to their Pantheon of Gods was the eternal flow and connectedness that is central to our world. Janus is an antidote to the trap of language that arises when we name, and then think of, things in isolation from the processes of which they are a part. The Romans would have realised that a sunrise in eastern Australia was part of the same process as a sunset in Western Australia – what differs is the way we choose to perceive and interpret what we have experienced. Thus a gate or door merely marks the transition from inside to outside; a story or conversation has a beginning and an ending but they are part of the same whole. The same can be claimed for ‘western reflections’!
A pathology – being in a trap
Hungarian born author and polymath Arthur Koestler explicated in his books The Ghost in the Machine and later Janus: A Summing Up what he called the ‘Janus Principle’. In these books he bridged concepts of reductionism and holism with his systemic theory of Open Hierarchical Systems based on holons – his term for wholes. He argued that holons in a holarchy have the dual tendency of integration and development and when out of balance they tend to a pathology – a trap of our own making. This slide exemplifies the systemic notion of a holarchy. If you think about it clearly the slide reveals a number of systemic concepts – the first of course is the layered, holonic structure, which also applies to our own thinking – we all have different perspectives from which the common act of talking past each other arises – often when this is done we may be speaking at different levels – at different levels of abstraction. Used with awareness moving up a level of abstraction can be used creatively to escape traps operating at the lower level. To move levels is also to move the boundary of your system of interest – there are emergent properties at higher levels not apparent at lower levels. For example I wonder what those of you in WA think about the so called National Water Plan which appears to have its boundary firmly drawn on the Murray-Darling basin? In my talk today I want to suggest the existence of a pathology in relation to water and its managing and in relation to the dominant ways of thinking about these issues – after all water is a part of a closed cycle and wherever humans choose to intervene there is the equivalent of an upstream and a downstream perspective.
The dualism/duality distinction
Admitting Janus to the pantheon of public administration gods is a choice to be made – in contemporary society prevailing discourses and practices too often ignore or reject the Janus Principle. In terms of current needs, as I perceive them, I want to incorporate into the Janus Principle an additional distinction, which rather than connecting upstream with downstream, or one level of abstraction with a higher or lower level, operates at the same logical level. The distinction is that between a dualism and a duality. We would invoke a dualism, an either/or choice, if in our thinking we saw east as distinct from and independent of west. Dualisms, presented as either/or choices are too common in our thinking, such as mind/body, public good/private good, objective/subjective; centralisation/decentralisation; rural/urban, explanation/explainer – there are many more. Dualisms often give rise to protracted and unproductive debate - they involve a negation – one element of the other – a process which is ultimately destructive. In contrast a duality arises whenever we see a complementary pair operating at the same logical level as contributing to some whole – a variation on the Janus metaphor.

The Chinese yin–yang symbol is often used to depict this unity/duality. At the Open University we in the Open Systems Research Group have drawn on our understanding of a duality to develop the logo for our research group and it is an understanding that also informs our research practices. Some common examples of a duality include the concepts predator and prey (from ecology) and in physics, wave-particle duality is a central concept of quantum mechanics. Wave-particle duality holds that light and matter can exhibit properties of both waves and of particles (whereas in the usual formulations of classical mechanics a given object is either a particle or a wave). The failure to appreciate Janus amongst our contemporary administrative practice gods gives rise to traps of our own making.
Systemic inquiry
How can we break out of traps of our own making? I contend that engaging in a systemic inquiry is one of the better ways to break out of the pathology that can arise when the Janus Principle does not operate. Systemic is one of the two adjectives derived from system - together systemic and systematic can form a duality although most commonly, if they are considered at all, they are treated as a dualism. Systemic inquiry proceeds by enacting a learning process with those who have a stake in a situation experienced as problematic or as presenting an opportunity. Systemic inquiry is a particular means of facilitating movement towards social learning[1]. It can be seen as a meta-platform or process for ‘project or programme managing’ in that it has a focus on (i) understanding situations in context and especially the history of the situation; (ii) addressing questions of purpose; (iii) clarifying and distinguishing ‘what’ from ‘how’ as well as addressing ‘why’; (iv) facilitating action that is purposeful and which is systemically desirable and culturally feasible and (v) developing a means to orchestrate practices across space and time which continue to address a phenomenon or phenomena of social concern when it is unclear at the start as to what would constitute an improvement.

The possibility of designing a systemic inquiry is open to anyone who is able to make a connection between a theoretical framework (in this case concerned with systems thinking and practice) a methodological approach and a given situation. Over the last five years we have been pursuing our research with the Environment Agency of England & Wales organised, even contractually, as a systemic inquiry. Our rationale for doing it this way was because:

  • we are often blind to our traditions of understanding
  • the nature of situations we are having to engage with
  • there is considerable rhetoric about being more joined-up, holistic, ‘integrated’ …but praxis (theory-informed practice) is weak or non-existent
  • we live in a ‘projectified-world’ and there is increasing evidence that ‘projects’ deal poorly with complex, long-term phenomena e.g. PRINCE2 project management system;
  • an inquiry-based approach enables managing and/or researching for emergence
  • ethics arise in context-related action

Jake Chapman has also made arguments as to why systemic approaches are needed to avoid system failure in government policies and practices.
Invitation to engage in a systemic inquiry
With this as background I now want to draw on the ‘Janus Principle’ and the distinction I have made between dualism and duality to invite you to join with me in beginning a systemic inquiry operating at two levels. I hope that by the end of my talk you may see fit to continue these inquiries, in whatever way you can, beyond the life of this conference.

The first is to inquire into what we collectively do when we set about managing water
The second is concerned with each of us and my starting question is: what is it that you do when you do what you do?

Consistent with the Janus principle I am inviting an inquiry into a situation of concern as well as, and at the same time, an inquiry into the inquirer. In advancing both inquiries I will draw on my own research and scholarship, and in relation to water, particularly my experiences in Europe since 2000.
Water – characteristics of the situation
Why have I issued these particular invitations? Well water is an issue of global concern as the following images depict:

  • Through climate change we are literally re-drawing our world
  • In the worlds fastest growing economy the water situation is not sustainable – glaciers, river degradation, availability
  • Our own rivers are not healthy
  • We are experiencing a period of the lowest rainfall on record – particularly in the dark brown areas
  • The Murray/Darling – as with many other rivers - is in dire circumstances;
  • Livelihoods are threatened- some are using crisis to describe the situation!
  • To act needs an appreciation of a complex of factors – a systemic approach
  • And at the same time we exacerbate the institutional and organisational complexity

I am sure all amongst you are affected in some way by the current water situation in Australia, whether through water use restrictions, friends or family who are irrigators or farmers, increased food prices, concerns about loss of environmental flows or involvement in developing new water-related policies or technologies. I would characterise the situation we are experiencing as essentially unknowable – it is a situation characterised by uncertainty, complexity, connectedness – or lack of it – controversy and multiple perspectives. These characteristics apply to all water catchments or basins.

Water is also a domain where the pathology associated with the Janus Principle is being played out. The prevalent tendency is to regard water as a commodity and to forget its role as a process. At some stage during your schooling I feel sure you were taught about the water cycle – it is one of the fundamental cycles on which all life exists. So whenever we talk about water we are using a linguistic shorthand (i.e. water as some thing) to talk about a process that is both local and global in its scale and distributed in time but which is a closed system. Whenever humans intervene in the water cycle to build dams, set up irrigation schemes etc then in theory the Janus principle should operate – there is always a whole to which an action is but a part! Of course many recognise what I have said and many inventive and creative things are being done – probably also here in WA. But for us as citizens and as a nation to be responsible then the circumstances for response-ability have to be created. It is my contention that our current understandings and how these are translated into practices, particularly through policy and institutions, in the institutional economics sense, are not conducive to creating the best circumstances for response-ability.

Before turning to our work in Europe particularly that associated with ‘social learning’ and the development and implementation of the European Water Framework directive let me turn briefly to my second inquiry invitation:

what is it that you do when you do what you do?

Practices (doings) arise through relationships
By inviting you to reflect on what you do when you do what you do I am inviting you to consider what you do in terms of a practice or set of practices. Let me demonstrate what I mean by asking you to answer the question:

How does walking arise as a practice?

[Pose possible answers to the audience; Do exercise]

In my experience few people answer my question about walking in terms of a practice that arises in the relationship between an organism – a human – and a medium – the floor. Thinking in terms of the dynamics of relationships seems particularly difficult for many. That this is so should be worrying. My explanation about walking serves as an analogy for co-evolution – whether of human beings with the world or for how we lay down our world in our doing – as elegantly captured in this Michael Leunig cartoon.
Traditions of understanding
As unique human beings we are part of a lineage and our history is a product of both ontogeny, of biological growth and development, and social development which I will call a tradition. Perhaps another way to describe this is that a tradition is the history of our being in the world. Traditions are important because our models of understanding grow out of traditions. I shall further define a tradition as a network of prejudices that provide possible answers and strategies for action. The word prejudices may be literally understood as a pre-understanding, so another way of defining tradition could be as a network of pre-understandings. Traditions are not only ways to see and act but a way to conceal.

Traditions in a culture embed what has, over time, been judged to be useful practice. The risk for any culture is that a tradition can become a blind spot when it evolves into practice lacking any manner of critical reflection being connected to it. The effects of blind spots can be observed at the level of the individual, the group, an organization, the nation or culture and in the metaphors and discourses in which we are immersed.
Knowledge transfer – a particular tradition
Let me exemplify what I mean by rather quickly unpacking the widespread notion of ‘knowledge transfer’ as it demonstrates a particular pathology and what I mean by traditions of understanding. In the mainstream view knowledge transfer is associated with the prevailing linear model of R&D. Both this model of R&D and ‘knowledge transfer’ as practices or policies are knowingly, or not, built on epistemological assumptions which are the same as in this cartoon – knowledge as commodity. These in turn are built on particular theoretical assumptions – the linear model of technology transfer and Everett Roger’s theory of the diffusion of innovations. The mainstream view is also built on particular metaphors associated with human communication – here are the main metaphors – and in relation to knowledge transfer the main metaphor is that of 'communication as signal transfer'. The prevalence of this metaphor is a legacy of the use by Heinz von Foerster of 'information' to replace 'signal transfer' when writing up the proceedings of the Macy conferences in the 1950s. Communication as information transfer is based on the mathematical model of Shannon and Weaver and it has linguistically, in terms of everyday use, become pervasive: Everett Rogers, in his preface to the third edition of "Diffusion of Innovations", acknowledges that "many diffusion scholars have conceptualised the diffusion process as one-way persuasion" and that "most past diffusion studies have been based upon a linear model of communication defined as the process by which messages are transferred from a source to a receiver."

The metaphor appropriate to human communication as a biological and social process is the dance ritual metaphor – it can be understood as conversation – particularly its Latin roots, con versare, meaning to turn together. If you are interested in pursuing the alternatives to the main stream view as part of your on-going inquiry then I recommend our book. I have worked closely with policy makers in the UK and Australia who have been responsible for developing ‘knowledge transfer’ strategies. I now know that initially they were not aware of what it was they did when they did what they did! Put simply they acted out of their tradition of understanding - as if knowledge could be transferred from one person to another!
Water managing in Europe
Let me return to water governance and managing in Europe and our work with ‘social learning’. My approach is necessarily broad brush – but the detail can be followed up if you wish to. In presenting this I am inviting you to consider how European experience might enhance Australia’s water governance – policies and practice.

Synopsis of the SLIM story
From 2000 to 2004 I was fortunate to be the coordinator of, as well as a principle researcher in, the EU-funded Fifth framework project called SLIM. SLIM stands for ‘social learning for the sustainable use and management of water at catchment scale’- the project was interdisciplinary, with a focus on what we call interactive social research and involved partners from UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. The rationale for the SLIM research came originally from the perception of water catchments as ‘‘bundles’’ of natural resources and ecological services whose sustainable management requires the continuous balancing and integration of social, economic and ecological factors in a complex process of societal transformation. Historically water policy – and most environmental policy for that matter have been based on a limited set of governance mechanisms. Take for example this quote from an EU Environment Commissioner at the time we were doing our research. The SLIM position was that a mainstream understanding of water catchments and governance mechanisms built on a fixed form of knowledge, independent of its historical and social construction, was no longer sufficient. If we were to accept catchments as exemplifying a resource dilemma characterised by interdependencies, complexity, uncertainty, conflict, multiple stakeholders, multiple perspectives then the traditional policy prescriptions and the ‘transfer’ model of scientific research seemed ill-equipped to deal with their on going managing – as an active, co-evolutionary process. In contrast social learning is built on a different understanding of how knowledge and action are constructed.

In starting our research we recognised that for ‘social learning’ to become a complementary policy instrument in water governance its successful conduct needed to be much better understood as a conceptual framework, an operational principle, a policy instrument and a process of systemic change. Subsequent SLIM case studies provide evidence for achieving the transformation of individual and institutional behaviour, at large social scale, with significant technical results, through deliberate investment in multi-stakeholder learning processes or social learning. We have found the idea of an orchestra creating a satisfying performance to be a good metaphor for what we mean by social learning. Creating a satisfying performance involves the interactions of many factors and is also the product of the relationship between orchestra and audience.

I do not have time here today to elaborate on the evidence base- this can be found in the final report, case studies and a set of policy briefings all of which can be downloaded from the web. There is also a recent special edition of Environmental Science and Policy devoted to SLIM.
The SLIM heuristic
Based on our research evidence we argue that social learning can be invested in as a policy option that is different from, but complementary to, the mainstream approaches. But to invest in it also requires capacity building and an appreciation of those factors that most enhance, or constrain social learning – or in terms of our metaphor an effective performance. Our case studies provide empirical evidence for the importance of five variables that through their interactions constrain or enhance social learning. These have been incorporated into a heuristic to depict how the transformation of a complex situation in terms of changes in understandings and practices depend on the systemic interaction of:

(i) the history of the situation;

(ii) stakeholding

(iii) facilitation

(iv) institution and policies

(v) ecological constraints – a proxy really for epistemology as it concerns the knowledge claims for what constitutes an improvement.

Let me briefly mention one of these variables – institutions and practices.

The WFD – a conducive policy?
At the same time as we were engaged with SLIM the European Water Framework Directive – I will refer to it as the WFD – was being introduced. It is a legally-binding document which requires all European Union Member States to implement water management measures to achieve ‘good overall quality’ of European water bodies by 2015 with another cycle to operate from 2015 to 2027. It results from a joint decision and policy-making process in which the European Parliament played an unusually significant part. It was strengthened by a powerful pro-ecology coalition of environmental NGOs. The policy development process was controversial with the formal text produced in October 2000. The text refers to water as both a fundamental human right and as a commodity – what is perhaps most significant is that the historical basis of managing water has been changed. In the past it was largely the province of chemists and engineers – water quality was the key variable, whereas now it is the ecological status that has to be managed. With this change it has taken many in Europe some time to realise that the WFD is as much a land management directive as it is a water directive – this is what happens when water’s roll in ecological processes is recognised. Will it be successful? It is too early to tell.

Continuing this systemic inquiry?
I have been back in Australia on sabbatical leave now for a year. What have I gleaned in this time that I would urge you to consider if you were to continue this systemic inquiry?

Firstly I would urge you to admit Janus to the Pantheon of public sector gods if for no other reason than the excesses of New Public Management with its narrow focus on efficiency at the expense of effectiveness. In a forthcoming paper Kathy MacDermott argues that ‘within the broader system change, the new disciplines of NPM … reshape relations between government and the public service in less expected ways. Within them lies the capacity to shift the norm away from ‘frank and fearless’ behaviour and towards unquestioning responsiveness to the spoken and unspoken wishes of the government of the day’. She asks ‘whether some of the disciplines of NPM may have been internalised in ways which facilitated the problematic events of recent times, for which both the public service itself, governments and the state of Australian democracy, have recently been criticised.’

Her overall conclusion is that the reforms of NPM have been internalised by the public service in ways that leave it much less protected against pressures towards politicisation than it has been over its earlier history.

So a question must be is the current temple of Australian public administration a conducive environment for Janus? Consider this question in the light of the variables in the SLIM heuristic? From my perspective there is much to be revealed from such an inquiry. I have already outlined elsewhere why I consider the so-called $10 billion water plan to be inadequate for the circumstances – I will say more about this on Friday. It is also clear to me that Federalism is not working – in the sense of creating an effective performance to deal with situations of complexity. But this is not only an Australian phenomenon – I see similar issues arising in the UK, South Africa and Australia in relation to water policy and practice – something that needs to be changed for effective climate change adaptation. I suggest, above all else, policy and practice need to be developed in ways that are systemically desirable and culturally feasible. It is worth considering

  • An Australian WFD?
  • Looking beyond Australia for institutional arrangements– changing the boundary of the water managing system of interest (I will say more about this on Friday)
  • Addressing capacity and community of practice issues across the whole country i.e common understandings and practices that allow greater flexibility in the movement of staff between states and territories.
  • Policies that promote innovations – especially on the demand side – and that may be useful to other countries
  • Join up social and technological/institutional policies and practice

Based on my European experience amongst policy makers in Brussels I suggest a major trap is the failure to see a policy as a social technology that mediates actions in context specific ways – just as a hammer makes little sense without considering the hammerer, the hammered and the overall setting and performance especially the interpretation of purpose on the part of the hammerer!

Australia is crying out for a national rural development strategy attuned to future livelihood possibilities. In this and in the on-going managing of water and other natural resource issues social learning is worthy of purposeful investment as a new but complementary policy paradigm. We need to ask is current performance adequate? And is it supported by systems thinking and practice capability – systems practitioners engaged in everyday managing but capable of working with complexity, acknowledging multiple perspectives, assembling multiple partial views through active processes of building stakeholding and, in the process, surfacing assumptions and traps?

I leave you with the following two questions:

What might be revealed if you used the SLIM heuristic to explore what it is that you do when you do what you do


As administrators how might you transform your own situation through social learning?

If pursued systemically these questions should aid your engagement with complexity but remember complexity is as much a property of our understandascope as it is the world we see. Because of this more is needed – we need second order change and second order understanding – we need to understand our understandings. Thank you and good luck with your inquiries.

[1] understood as concerted action by multiple stakeholders in situations of complexity and uncertainty

I also made a short presentation as part of the water panel on the final day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An 'affordable' - well almost! - paperback version of Ison and Russell has just been released

At long last Cambridge University Press have released a paperback version of our book 'Agricultural Extension and Rural Development'. Those of you who already know the work might realise that in this version the sub-title has been slightly altered - it now reads as 'Breaking out of Knowledge Transfer Traditions'. The book is now available PB ISBN:052103941X at £23.99 or US$45.00.

The original hard cover edition of Ison and Russell was released in 2000 and although not widely reviewed, those that did appear usually offered critical engagement with the ideas of the book - in the main they were positive. Some reviewers missed the point entirely! Some of the reviews are reproduced below.

Reviews of our book:

1. The Journal of Agricultural Science Volume 134 Issue 3

Agricultural Extension and Rural Development: Breaking out of Traditions, eds R. Ison & D. Russell. xii.239 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. £35.00 or $59.95 (hardback). ISBN 9 780521642019.

At the recent International Rangeland Congress (July 1999, Townsville), participants came to the sobering conclusion that the ` best practice ' recommendations of scientists over the last 30 years had performed no better and often worse against a range of objective measures, than ` top' pastoralists' practice in maintaining range productivity, ecological function and profitability. The contributors to this book provide theoretical and methodological insight into why this might be so, as well as how research and extension professionals, together with industry stakeholders, from producers through to processors and marketeers, might choose in the future to go about the business of knowledge development and shared learning in a different way.

They illustrate their case by reference to their interaction over a number of years with sheep producers and the wool industry in the semi-arid Western Division of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. But the implications have far wider application and are in fact consonant with what is emerging as the leading edge of thinking and practice wherever research funding, research management and extension aim to sustain farming and rural communities in ways which are both environmentally safe as well as profitable.

The book introduces a number of key concepts, presented initially in Part I but elaborated and illustrated at numerous points throughout. An important opening concept is that of multiple traditions of understanding. It draws attention to the way that science works within intellectual traditions that serve both to offer new perspectives through the doors that are opened but also to constrain perception and understanding by the doors that remain closed. Pastoral science has proceeded on the basis of traditions which have obscured as much as illuminated, not least because of the tendency to avoid recognition that multiple traditions do exist and, moreover, that pastoral producers themselves work within their own traditions of knowledge and learning. The authors recognize, as scientists, that what they call first order change, that is, change within existing traditions of understanding and practice, is both useful and necessary. But they argue for complementary commitment to second order change, that is, systemic change which brings about change in the structure of traditions. The varying, sometimes contradictory, traditions of understanding that have guided policy, research and extension in the Western Division of NSW since nineteenth century settlement began are elaborated in Part II, together with an analytic report of semi-structured interviews with extensionists, middle managers and senior executives in R&D organizations with a stake in the Western Division. The SSIs suggest, as other research elsewhere has done, that explanations of experience are explained in terms of experience, and that ` the generated experience always remains secondary to the world of daily living ' (p. 157). In plain words, the ways we understand the world are coloured by the world we experience; the structures within which we work matter.

Ison, Russell and Fell in Part I thus argue that, theoretically, second order change requires attention to the biology of cognition and here they draw largely on the work of two Chilean neurobiologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. A foundation concept is that it is impossible for biological organisms to directly apprehend the world (the mind is informationally closed). People are structurally coupled to their environment via triggered response mechanisms. The coupled structure coevolves as people determine the world they experience. Each person's perceptions of the world they experience is unique: we can have an experience in common but literally cannot share a common experience. Adaptive learning, and the articulation and sharing of learning through languaging, thus bring forth a world (rather than reveal, as the tradition of normal science would have it, the nature of the world). Perception at a distance (through technology or theory) mediates and extends the networks of shared learning. This opens the way to understanding how stakeholders can be invited to cocreate future worlds by engaging together in systematic knowledge generation and shared learning processes to bring about second order change. A key notion here is that of enthusiasm, which the authors use as an organizing principle for how they approach their work as researchers and extensionists, as well as to describe what they aspire to recognize and support among the wool growers in the co-researching process. Intellectually in its root meaning it draws attention to the possibility of understanding being generated from within. Emotion- ally it signals the inner motivation that gives energy and direction to identifying and achieving what it is we want to do. Methodologically, it moves the research process toward narrative, conversations that allow someone to tell their story rather than impart ` facts ', stories that convey meanings, share interpretations, reveal enthusiasms. Common enthusiasms then form the basis of working together in more focused research and action (which may indeed involve some first order science).

The reader is taken in Part III through the history of a research project which aspired to bring into being the concepts outlined above, whilst as yet the researchers themselves had scant experience in how to act or guide such a process. Mistakes are honestly reported as well as the delights and excitements that arose as the process began to generate the energy, commitment, and systemic effects anticipated by theory. The first-person views and experiences of some of the wool growers are presented in chapter 8 and largely confirm, in the view of the producers themselves, the importance of the complementary role of the new way of ` doing research', ` extension', and ` development' in helping families, communities, and indeed whole industries, to learn how to survive in a fast-changing world.

Part IV attempts to systematize the experiences recorded in the book, to provide guidelines for designing R&D systems which can bring different, often initially antagonistic stakeholders, into concerted action for mutual benefit. The proposed process design avoids the trap of assuming there must be consensus in terms of values or understanding; what is needed, rather, is appreciation of difference and the development of a common statement of the purposes for which action should be taken. By making the procedures explicit the authors aspire to advance practice by creating the possibility for critical appraisal, or openness to public scrutiny. Without such transparency, R&D is likely to remain locked in traditions which fail to meet the needs of societies which are faced with the necessity of rapid change, but which lack procedures for generating shared understanding as the basis for effective action.

This book represents in many ways work in progress at the leading edge of what is emerging as ` best practice ' in agricultural R&D. It presents concepts that will be unfamiliar to many readers, sometimes in a difficult prose style (perhaps evidence of the acts of languaging that must take place as new understanding emerges). But it is highly recommended for students, practitioners and R&D managers everywhere +/- and not least to science professors within agricultural universities who do not yet see how their experience of the world within university structures is blocking the generation of the very understanding we may need to survive.
j. jiggins

2. A Review by: Dr Wolfgang Bayer, Advisor in Livestock, Range and Forage Husbandry, Rohnsweg 56, D-37085 Göttingen, Germany. E‑mail:

Ison R & Russell D (eds). 2000. 239pp. ISBN 0521642019. Cambridge University Press. Price: GBP 37.50.

What a book! It shows that the assumptions about and approach to agricultural research and development that have been exported from ‘developed’ countries are now being strongly challenged even there.

In a research project in western New South Wales in Australia, where sheep are kept on arid rangeland, it was realised that the conventional transfer-of-technology approach to extension is not working. Detailed research revealed that a major reason for this is the lack of communication between farmers (‘graziers’ or ‘wool producers’) and various government and private services. Action research was carried out primarily through discussions, meetings and visits (to wool mills, the wool marketing board, etc). A chapter entitled ‘The graziers’ story’ gives the producers’ assessments of the research process and outcome. It does this not according to any fixed format or specific indicators, but by presenting subjective and fascinating accounts.

The main thrust of the book is to encourage reflection on approaches to research and development. A distinction is made between ‘first-order processes’ in research, in which the scientists are outside the system they are observing and analysing, and ‘second-order processes’, in which the scientists are active partners in a development process. It is also stressed that the choice of research subject and approach cannot be divorced from the personal histories of the scientists involved.

Of particular interest for people concerned with policy and power is the chapter ‘From theodolite to satellite’. It recounts the history of range monitoring, which is carried out for two main reasons:

  • because the resource users and the state want to have ‘order’ in an apparently chaotic world;
  • because the state and its various services want to exert power over the resources and resource users.

The book offers some very stimulating reading on interactions between different stakeholders that by overcoming barriers to communication have resulted in developing new knowledge. However, a point of criticism is the high price, which unfortunately puts the book out of the reach of most potential readers.

3. Writing in 'Agricultural Systems' M. Waithaka outlines the book and concludes 'that it is a timely message, given that research and development agencies especially in the developing world are grappling with the problems of how to make research more appropriate to the end users..'

Hopefully the price of the paperback version will make it more accessible to potential readers!