Thursday, May 17, 2012

European Conversations 4 - Checkland

Not before time, and many years past his retirement date, Lancaster University hosted on Friday 20th April a special Colloquium to honour Peter Checkland. He has certainly been one of  Lancaster Management School's must illustrious scholars with significant international impact. Google, for example, thows up the following citations:

Systems thinking - Checkland - Cited by 7510

I was delighted to be able to attend. It is not often these days that one has a chance to be part of a [insert collective noun] of Systems Professors!  There was a good turn-out of alumni and invited guests. The speakers were, in the main, stimulating, humorous, and well able to contextualise what they said in the achievements of the over-30 years action research programme at Lancaster that generated SSM.  A series of 10 videos have been produced of the event. My one grizzle was that it is a pity the programme did not allow for more questions and interaction.

A particularly pleasing feature of the event was the recogntion and praise the Open University (OU) recieved for its role in making SSM accessible to a whole cadre of  students who studied the course T301 Complexity Management and Change (and subsequent modules).  Mike Haines, a well known SSM consultant, spoke at the event about his experiences at the OU, as did John Naughton who wrote the original SSM course material.

John Naughton, the final speaker addressed the conundrum that faces SSM and Systems approaches more generally.  Why is it that they are not more widely taken up?  This is a question that Peter himself posed, concluding that in the history of ideas 40 years was but the blink of an eye.  John elaborated on this theme drawing on Thomas Kuhn's scholarship - explanations based on paradigm shifts that John finds particularly satisfying and relevant.  In a sense Kuhn's thesis is about the nature of clubs, who makes the rules, how membership is negotiated and how, after a falling out, a new club is formed (invented?) with new rules for membership. John has posted his talk, delivered in more scholarly terms than these.

For my part I find Kuhn's ideas satisfy a form of ex poste analysis.  My concern is to better understand how the current situation can be transformed, purposefully.  I am too impatient for Kuhn. I am also not convinced that the epistemological-technological complex that we humans have invented in the last century is as susceptible to breakdown as Kuhn's analysis suggests.  Each piece of technology reifies understandings of a particular form and time. I include here social technologies such as GDP, road rules and the like. Elsewhere I argue that in the Anthropocene all the social technologies that human's have invented in the past ought to be subject to critical reappraisal in terms of systemic fitness for today's circumstances - amongst which I would include the concept of paradigm itself!

In his closing remarks Peter cited three sources of possible illumination for the failure of SSM to be taken up.  These were:
(i) G.H. Lewes (1879) "..the new object presented to sense or the new idea presented to thought must be soluable in the old experience.."
(ii) G. Vickers "people seek confirmation which reassures the person of the validity of his (sic) judgement of reality. Confirmation is needed and is prized".
(iii) Diana Athill (Somewhere Towards the End, 2008 Granta Books): "How does the written word work? Whatever is needy in the reader is taking in whatever the text offers to assuage that need".

My interpretation of these insightful observations in terms of my own scholarship is that several phenomena are at play:
(i) we each have our own (unique) traditions of understanding out of which we think and act  - interpretation draws on these unique traditions;
(ii) human communication has a biological basis - we can never share understandings - all we share is our ability to live in, and use, language. Thus agreeing that mutual understanding has occurred is a protracted process - and much aided by experiential activity rather than words, whether on paper or verbally;
(iii) humans language - that is human communication is a braiding of emotioning and languaging (verbal and non-verbal). Put another way how something is said, or who says it can, in context, be more powerful than what is said (Geoffrey Vickers' concept of appreciation could be said to function on this 'mechanism');
(iv) the challenge posed by Peter could be reframed as: how can the experience of listening differently be created for an other?  This is a challenge that Humberto Maturana set for himself.  Those keen to understand what Maturana has to say (usually triggered by personal contact or a circumstance that makes one open to his work) grapple with his writing from which new understandings emerge. Many however are not triggered by the 'new language' to listen differently and thus dismiss his work.
(v) acceptance of the theoretical basis of SSM involves an epistemological shift that challenges personal identities in more profound ways than merely accepting a different explanation (as in a paradigm shift).  This is the shift from starting with situations of concern and using systems as epistemological devices created for the purpose of learning about, and changing, the situation in contrast to seeing systems as ontologies, 'real things' in the world.
(vi) there is also a praxis legacy issue - SSM practice was primarily centred in a university setting which had many advantages but it has not spawned major practices (in the sense of a doctor's or consultancy practice) that specialise in SSM. Had such practices existed they could have made it known that SSM was being used, made claims about its usefulness and thus created both brand recognition and demand pull for business and training.  In a sense the systems consultancy Vanguard is doing this for its approach with demonstrated utility in the public sector. Whilst there are many consultants who use SSM very effectively, most in my experience use it as a form of silent practice - the approach and underlying thinking and practice skills are not given away as part of the engagement with clients (despite advocacy to do so).

Despite these issues of uptake of SSM I am pleased to say that it can still be studied at the OU as part of the MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) core module (course): 'Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change' (TU811). SSM also appears in several other OU courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels and features strongly in Rosalind Armson's recent book based largely on OU experience.  But it is a pity that  resources are'nt available to create a specialist SSM course as both a way of thinking and acting as well as a methodology (and method) for practical action to improve.  The former Lancaster applied masters experience demonstrates that to 'get it' well, SSM requires a significant immersion in both theory and practice.