Open Thinkering


TB872: The nature of change

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

Image created by DALL-E 3 with prompt: "An abstract expressionist painting featuring a central fiery orb with chaotic, harmonious strokes radiating outward, illustrating the ripple effect of change in systems. Silhouette figures converge towards the core, navigating the complexities of change within STiP, capturing movement and transformation."

The last thing for me to do in Week 1 is to look at definitions of ‘change’. The activity weaves in a nice introduction to using the libraries resources and posting to the student forums.

The module guide emphasises the extent to which all learning involves change, but it is not given that all changes involve learning. Also, managing change is by definition social and situational:

For us, change is related to learning and development. Managing change can be conceptualised as learning. There is a strong relationship between learning and change. All learning involves change – in learners, in situations, and between the two. But change does not always involve learning. In this module we are concerned with change of a systemic and systematic nature – at the level of a whole system of interest or concern – not just with change in individual elements or processes of that system. We are also concerned primarily with human activity systems. One individual alone can rarely affect a situation that they are part of, in ways that bring about improvements. This is partly because of the unpredictable way in which human activity systems function, which cannot be anticipated, and partly because bringing about such improvements often requires collaboration or negotiation among individuals – interactions of a particular kind. There is always much that is not known as we begin a process of managing any situation. Managing change in the way it is expressed in this module is almost invariably a process of finding out through inquiry action – in an active, socially-embedded learning process.

Using Oxford Reference, the task is to look at definitions of ‘change’ across all of the dictionaries, and pull out those most relevant to Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). There are a lot of definitions, with the most obvious demarcation being between ‘change’ as a verb and as a noun. For example, “technology and the internet have dramatically changed the way we communicate” uses ‘change’ as a verb, whereas “the change from a nomadic to an agricultural society” uses ‘change’ as a noun.

‘Change’ in the context of STiP is both verb-based and noun-based. That is because within Systems Thinking, we’re interested in both the organisation and the structure. The most relevant definitions are therefore:

  • Make (someone or something) different; alter or modify — STiP often involves understanding and implementing change within a system to alter outcomes or processes. It entails a strategic and informed approach to implementing change within a system to improve or correct outcomes and processes. This involves adjusting system components, dynamics, and interactions based on a thorough understanding of the system’s structure and functions, using data and models to guide changes and anticipate outcomes.
  • Replace (something) with something else, especially something of the same kind that is newer or better; substitute one thing for (another) — in the context of STiP, this definition can be directly related to the iterative process of improvement within systems. It suggests the replacement of a system component with a newer or more effective version to improve the overall functionality or efficiency of the system. This could involve updating technology, processes, or even organisational structures to better achieve the system’s goals.
  • An act or process through which something becomes different — This is at the core of STiP and focuses transformation process itself. Systems thinking is not just about the endpoint but also about understanding and managing the process of change. It involves seeing how parts of the system interact over time, leading to change, and how these changes affect the overall outcomes.


Note: we’re advised to use Cite Them Right in Harvard style, but it’s a whole lot easier just to use zoterobib.

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