Open Thinkering


TB871: Context and perspective in systems thinking

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

Lion lying down on green grass field with trees in background

As people in both my personal and professional lives are probably sick of me saying, context is everything. Just because this project looks like one we’ve done previously, doesn’t mean much. Just because we managed to move house in a stress-free way last time doesn’t mean we will this time. And so on.

Part of this is because we think in nouns rather than verbs. The module materials, which talk of the Viable System Model (VSM) as drawing on Eastern traditions, give a good example of this:

You might normally think of the lion in the zoo as the same animal as the lion in its natural habitat. The focus of this deduction is on the shape, colour and form of the lion, i.e. the lion as an object. But the lion in each of these cases is not the same system. If you focus on the relationship between the lion and its environment, then it is easily seen that there are great differences between the two situations. In the first case, the lion’s role is to be a supreme attraction for people to the zoo; in the second, it is to enact the role of supreme predator in the wild.

(The Open University, 2020)

We usually think of systems as relatively static things which are made up of nouns. But this is not the way the world works. The VSM represents the parts of a system as part of a transformation process defined by the purpose you assign to it: for example, the lion is transformed from being a ‘supreme predator’ to a ‘supreme attraction’.

In addition, not only can contexts change, but perspectives can be different too. These can be differing perspectives between stakeholder groups, within stakeholder groups, or different perspectives taken at different times and in different contexts by the same stakeholder. For example, I might frame something much more negatively when I’m angry compared to other times.

Activity 3.8 asks us to identify and define different perspectives in our area of practice. So let’s consider five different stakeholder groups:

  1. Library Management
  2. Library Staff
  3. Visitors/Users
  4. Community Members
  5. Local Government

1. Library management

Managers of libraries focus on the efficient use of resources so that they can improve service delivery and attract more visitors. A system definition for them might therefore be something like “a system to manage library resources and services efficiently to enhance user satisfaction and engagement.”

2. Library staff

Staff members in libraries are interested in ongoing training and development to improve their skills, so they can better serve visitors. So a system definition might be framed as “a system to ensure continuous staff development and effective service delivery.”

3. Visitors/users

Visitors to the library are primarily concerned with the availability and quality of library resources such as books, digital access, and study spaces to meet their educational and recreational needs. A system definition for them could be “a system to provide accessible and diverse library resources and services.”

4. Community members

Some visitors aren’t necessarily interested in the library as being anywhere other than a place to meet. So if we conceptualise these ‘community members’ we can appreciate their view of the library as a hub for social interaction and support services. A system definition for this group might be phrased as “a system to enhance community engagement and support through library services.”

5. Local government

Northumberland County Council has responsibility for all public services, so needs to ensure that they contribute effectively to community development and public welfare. This happens through adequate funding(!) and policy support. A system definition from this perspective is “a system to integrate library services into the broader public service infrastructure to support community development.”

Perspective 5: Local Government

  • System Definition: A system to integrate library services into the broader public service infrastructure to support community development.
  • Reason: Local government aims to ensure that public services, including libraries, contribute effectively to community development and public welfare through adequate funding and policy support.


Photo by Zdeněk Macháček

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