Open Thinkering



TB872: The people of the PFMS heuristic

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.

A DALL-E 3 created abstract image, conceptualizing the PFMS heuristic in a collaborative learning context, is now available. It visually represents the integration and interaction of the four elements of the PFMS heuristic: Practitioners, Framework of Ideas, Methods, and Situations of Concern, within a vibrant and dynamic setting.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, the PFMS heuristic is at the core of the TB872 module I’m currently studying:

Practitioners (P) Which other practitioners do you work with?
Framework of ideas (F) What ideas are informing your practice? Do you have a shared set of ideas or are you all working with different ideas? Are there particular ideas you have heard about that you would like to explore further?
Methods (M) What methods and tools are you using?
Situations of concern (S) Do you have a shared situation of concern? If so, what is it?

The next activity on my list is to fill in what seems like a straightforward 2×2 table, based on the work of De Laat and Simons (2002). The idea, I think, is to introduce the idea of social learning to those who are perhaps only really conceptualise the kind of individual learning done on traditional university undergraduate courses.

IndividualIndividual learningIndividual learning processes with collective outcomes
CollectiveLearning in social interactionCollective learning

Taking both the PFMS model and the table together, it’s clear that in my day-to-day work through the co-op of which I’m a founding member, I engage in all four of the kinds of learning:

  • Individual learning: all knowledge and belief is contextual and theory-laden, so much of what I learn is based on my own personal experience, observation, and internal reflection. For example, I might learn what to say or not say to a colleague in a given situation. Or I might find out about something from a client who works in a slightly different way to me.
  • Individual learning processes with collective outcomes: although learning often occurs at an individual level, the knowledge or skills we acquire can contribute to a larger group’s collective goal. For example, we can pool the expertise we have as a cooperative, and the experience for clients is greater than if they engaged us as individual consultants. In this quadrant, there’s a symbiotic relationship between personal development and collective advancement.
  • Learning in social interaction: I’d say about half of my working week is spent ‘co-working’ with members and collaborators of the co-op. As such, learning happens through these interactions by sharing, discussing, and negotiating knowledge. This happens within Communities of Practice (CoP) we’re part of but WAO itself is a CoP, and a place for learning and development as well as for doing business.
  • Collective learning: although individual people learn, so do groups, communities and organisations. This goes beyond the simple aggregation of individual learning experience to include the creation of new knowledge through collective effort. To achieve this, there needs to be shared goals, co-creation of knowledge, and mutual engagement. In my working week, this happens most often through networks of co-ops we’re part of (e.g. and CoPs (e.g. ORE).

I’ve been working on the Open Recognition Toolkit this week, and during our working group call we discussed the Plane of Recognition we’re using on this page. Although, like De Laat and Simons’ grid, it involves quadrants, what’s really happening is a continuum. In the former case it’s from traditional, formal recognition to non-traditional, non-formal recognition. In the latter, it’s a continuum of learning that mvoes from the individual to the collective, emphasising the connections between personal knowledge acquisition and social, collaboration knowledge creation.

So, in my Situation (S), the Practitioners (P) I’m working with are primarily Laura, and then on few with John and Anne. In the past there have been other members and collaborators involved, too. The Framework of Ideas (F) that we implement has been negotiated over time, but was helped by us all working together for a few years at the Mozilla Foundation. At our monthly co-op days, we reflect on different aspects of our work together, for example creating pages such as Spirit of WAO which allow us to say together things like:

We believe in:

  • Placing ourselves and our work in historical and social contexts so that we can make thoughtful decisions about our behaviours and mindsets.
  • Seeing ourselves as part of nature not the rulers of it and acknowledging that there is a climate emergency. We are conscious of the lost lessons and spirit of the indigenous and strive for climate justice.
  • Sharing resources to help combat prejudice wherever we see it (including, but not limited to: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and hostility relating to education or socio-economic status).

In terms of our methods (M) we try and make these as explicit as possible. So we’re currently using software tools such as Trello, Google Docs, and Whimsical. But we’ve got a Learn with WAO site where we share tools and approaches, which include the templates we use with clients on a range of activities. These are all Creative Commons licensed, as we walk the talk of openness.

In considering the Situations (S) of concern, our work at the co-op often revolves around diverse and sometimes complex projects. Each project brings its own set of challenges and opportunities for learning. Returning to my earlier example of the Open Recognition Toolkit, there were some new things we had to learn about using MediaWiki, even though it’s a tool we’ve used before. Likewise, there was a time when I had to send a somewhat awkward, but necessary, email, to a contributor who was engaging in a way that wasn’t entirely pro-social. As such, the project has required not individual learning but also collective effort to bring together different expertise and perspectives.

A really interesting aspect of thinking through my practice using the PFMS heuristic is how it enables a fluid transition between individual and collective learning processes. For example, I often find that my own, individual, learning about Open Source technologies contributes significantly to the collective knowledge base of the group.

Social learning is essentially learning in practice. It’s not just about exchanging information, but full-bandwidth collaborative experience that inform and shape both our understanding and approaches to work. For example, I’ve seen many instances when people have taken things that they’ve seen us used (and which we learned from others), and then use them in their own practice. Sometimes they even verbalise it: “Oh, I’m going to steal that!”. This encourages a culture of continuous learning and adaptation, which is important in any kind of work environment.

I’m part of the Member Learning group of, and in a meeting this week I was trying to explain the value of regular community calls. I was trying to get across the point that the kind of learning we want to foster in the network is not a series of transactional experiences, but rather building a constituency of people who are learning and growing together. It’s not something confined to formal training sessions or workshops. Instead, it’s embedded in our interactions, projects, and shared culture.

As I get further into the TB872 module, I am increasingly appreciative of the way that WAO works internally, with clients, and with other cooperatives. We’ve essentially set up a learning organisation. What’s useful to me is that the PFMS heuristic provides a really valuable lens through which to view and understand these processes, and I’m glad I’m forcing myself to blog all of this so that I can come back to it later!

Image: DALL-E 3 (it reminds me somewhat of a Doom painting you might find on the wall of a medieval church!)

TB872: Systems lineages

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.

A lineage of Systems Thinkers approaches from the Open University's TB872 course materials

(tap to enlarge)

The above diagram is from Chapter 2 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act. He’s one of the course authors, and this is one of the set texts, although we won’t get to it properly until a later part of the module. Ison is keen to stress that this diagram is a heuristic device rather than a definitive map of the entire field.

There are some familiar names on there, some of whom I’ve studied (e.g. Hegel, Heraclitus, Whitehead, Dewey, Singer, Kuhn, Peirce) and some whose work I’ve encoutered in passing (e.g Mead, Meadows, Checkland). The rest are, as far as I’m aware, entirely new to me. What’s exciting, especially given my background in Pihlosophy, is that there are so many traditions which feed into what Ison calls ‘Cybersystemics’. He notes that it’s paradoxically both “a discipline in its own right, but also a transdisciplinary metadiscipline, applicable across all domains of human activity – a bit like mathematics”.

As useful as the diagram is, it’s not how I would represent influences. As one of the other course authors noted, there are no dates on it which make it difficult to understand the order of things. For example Heraclitus came centuries, if not millennia, before A.N. Whitehead!

The main people mentioned in the video I watched in the course materials were (in order by birth date):

  • W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993)
  • Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)
  • Margaret Mead (1901-1978)
  • Ross Ashby (1903-1972)
  • Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993)
  • C. West Churchman (1913-2004)
  • Stafford Beer (1926-2002)
  • Frederic Vester (1925-2003)
  • Humberto Maturana (1928-2021)
  • Peter Checkland (1930- )
  • Donella Meadows (1941-2001)

Something else which is in the course video but not, weirdly, actually in the diagram provided in the resources section, is an arrow to the extreme right. This indicates that the names and organisations in the yellow square box are organised intentionally in terms of how they think of systems:

The approaches are organised from top to bottom, in terms of what are perceived to be one of two common commitments or tendencies of a majority of practitioners within the given approach. These commitments are to see systems as real entities, systems as ontologies. The alternative is to see systems as constructs or epistemological devices that enable learning and change in situations.

I don’t have enough knowledge right now to draw my own lineage of influence of people and organisations who have had an impact on Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). However, I think I’d want to lay it out vertically for a start. I guess that doesn’t fit on a video, or a slide deck, very well.

One of the activities in the module is to read the introductions to the first and second editions of the book Systems Thinkers, another set text for the module. It’s interesting to read the authors applying the term ‘boundary’ to their work of deciding who should be in the book! I’d usually approach this through the lens of ‘scope’ when it comes to client work, but thinking about things as a system and what the boundary (or, I guess ‘lens’) is, constitutes an insightful approach.

It’s rare to see authors be so explicit in sharing their method, and then explaining their methodology:

Our basic criteria for inclusion were that an author:

  1. Explicitly identified themselves with one or more of the major traditions in sys￾tems thinking, by citing the works of previous authors within those traditions
    and/or working directly with earlier thinkers
  2. Advanced systems concepts through their work and/or advanced another field
    through their application of systems concepts
  3. Expressed their ideas in print
Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2020) Systems thinkers. London: Springer. p.xiv. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4471-7475-2.

As a result, I think it’s fair enough that the authors chose not to include, for example, Aristotle and Heraclitus as they don’t fit with the criteria. I, on the other hand, absolutely would have included a lot more philosophers. But then that betrays my own personal background and interests.

The authors of any kind of book like this have to explain what it’s going to do about people who aren’t white men. Do they attempt to be potentially ahistorical but more inclusive? Or do they simply list the figures whose works are seen as ‘canon’? It’s a tricky issue and one where it’s impossible to please everybody.

A gap in this book is the absence of practitioners who have not chosen to describe their methods, ideas or applications in written form. This is not to say that such practitioners do not advance the discipline, given that much work within systems thinking is grounded in the cyclical relationship between theory and practice, but our focus in this book is on systems thinking, as expressed in writing.

Two other under-represented groups in our list of thinkers are women and those from outside of the Anglo-American tradition. We regret the lack of many women in this book (only three of our 30 thinkers are female), but this sadly reflects the history of systems thinking as a discipline, which as with many scientific disciplines has been male-dominated. We made a decision not to hide this fact by skewing our
criteria to include more female writers. There are many women currently doing highly important work in systems thinking, so it is to be hoped that this balance may be different in future work.

Ibid. p.xvi.

A problem that I’ve run into in my own work, especially when studying History, has been my inability to read languages other than English. That presents an unwanted, but necessary ‘boundary’ in one respect. The authors of Systems Thinkers found themselves in a similar position:

Most of our thinkers are either from North America or Europe, and indeed most of the mainland European thinkers have worked in North America (many as part of the large migration by academics from central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s due to Nazi persecution and post-war hardship). Our stance partly reflects our need (due to our own limitations) for authors to have written or been translated into English, but also reflects the intellectual tradition we have considered, which largely arose in the USA with a significant British connection. There are many interesting systemic thinkers from outside this group, and the systems thinking traditions we discuss would be richer for hearing their voices, but this is not something we have been able to do in this work.

Ibid. p.xvi.

STiP practitioners do like a diagram, and so the authors have grouped the 30 thinkers into seven categories, as shown below.

Diagram showing authors and groupings for 2nd edition of 'Systems Thinkers' book

While the introduction to the first edition talked about boundaries, limitations, and groupings, the introduction to the second edition discussed what had happened in the decade that had elapsed. A global financial crisis, more realisation in the general population about the climate emergency, and what the authors explicitly name as ‘surveillance capitalism’ (after Zuboff, 2019).

Switching to the personal pronoun, Magnus Ramage then explains what has been going on in terms of his own practice in the decade that passed since the publication of the first edition. These, he says, have all impacted and deepened his understanding of the systems thinkers covered in the book: academic conferences and workshops, taking on the role of editor-in-chief of a well-established journal, become more concerned with “critical approaches to informa￾tional phenomena” (i.e. “working closely with colleagues who have a deep concern for the interaction between information technologies and race, gender and class”), and writing papers that built on the themes in the book.

This is fascinating in terms of the trajectory diagram I drew focused on my ‘arrival’ to this module. It seems that Ramage is essentially saying that his has altered as a result of further thinking, and that he is ‘arriving’ at making changes for the second edition of the book as a slightly different person that the one who originally co-wrote it.

The PFMS diagram, as applied to the TB872 course

In terms of the PFMS heuristic, which is included in the diagram above as mapped against the TB872 module, it’s heartening to see Ramage reflect on his own practice. My understanding is that when he helped create the first edition of the book, he understood himself as a practitioner applying a framework and methods to a situation (PFMS).

However, when Ramage came back to revise it a decade later, he was reflecting on himself as a practitioner using that kind of approach (i.e. P(PFMS)). In addition, he had the opportunity to talk with others about the book, and about why some thinkers were included and some not. Ramage therefore got to understand and debate other people’s point of view as practitioners, therefore coming to the kind of viewpoint shown in the diagram as P(P(PFMS)).

As someone who understands deeply systems thinking approaches, instead of Ramage and his co-author taking different viewpoints, they could discuss and agree on a single way forward which would lead to the best outcomes. In this case, for example, they decided to revise the book but keep the original list of 30 thinkers. This gave them something fixed as they set to work amending and updating their work.

Reflecting on the evolving nature of STiP, it’s evident that this field is shaped by a diverse range of thinking and experience. The revision undertaken by Ramage and Shipp for the second edition of their book highlights the continuous transformation inherent in this area. The Week 3 activities I’ve covered in this post have not only broadened my perspective on the depth and variety within STiP but has also made me more aware of my own evolving position within this landscape.

So, as I progress through the TB872 module, I anticipate further shifts in my understanding and approach to STiP. I’m particularly interested in its future in relation to navigating complex societal issues and global challenges such as the climate emergency. After all, this MSc is supposed to be as much about personal growth as it is about academic learning!

TB872: The PFMS heuristic

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.

The word heuristic comes from the Ancient Greek and means ‘to find’ or ‘discover’. In modern usage we use heuristics as practical tools for problem-solving, decision-making, or self-discovery. The idea is that they’re not something that necessarily generate ‘perfect’ results, but that they nevertheless lead to a satisfactory solution.

For example, a simple (and somewhat trivial) heuristic where I live in the north east of England would be to wear waterproof shoes when going out from October until March. It might not be wet when you go out, but the chances are the weather could turn at any point. It’s not a perfect solution, as your feet could overheat, or you might not look as stylish as you would otherwise have wished, but on the whole this is outweighed by mostly having dry feet.

PFMS heuristic

In module TB872, students are presented with the PFMS heuristic which I mentioned in my first post about this MSc. We discussed this in the tutorial I attended last night. Here’s my understanding of the different elements:

  • Practitioner (P): this represents me, either in the context of the module or in the situation to be examined. Everyone is a practitioner in terms of the various aspects of our lives; this could be studying but also in our working lives, parenting, etc. Recognising that our practice is situated and embodied is essential as it means acknowledging that we are central to our own practice — and that we are influenced by our surroundings, experiences, and history.
  • Framework (F): this is the theoretical and conceptual base from which you can understand and approach the situation under consideration. We all have a ‘tradition of understanding’ which we bring to situations under consideration. I currently think of this in terms of W.V. Quine’s web of belief, in which we have things which are more core or more to the periphery of our belief systems. So, for example, the ‘framework’ which we bring to a situation could be a formal one, but equally it could be a hodge-podge of correct, incorrect, useful, and tenuous ideas.
  • Methods (M): these are the things that you use to practically apply theoretical concepts from the framework of ideas. They can also be thought of as ‘tools’ to help engage with, explore, and understand the situations we encounter as practitioners. So, for example, whereas the idea of ‘interconnectedness’ or ‘holism’ might be a framework, the method by which we instantiate this could be through rich pictures, which help us visually see how everything is connected.
  • Situation (S): this refers to the specific context or situation in which we find ourselves practicing. In TB872, the situation is the module itself, whereas in my day-to-day work this might be the organisational change that we’re helping a client with. In my personal life, a ‘situation’ could be managing my migraines through a combination of nutrition and exercise.

The PFMS heuristic is a tool to help us think about our practice within the module. What I like about it is that it helps us think about praxis (i.e. theory-informed practice) and gives us a way of separating out, for example, the theoretical frameworks from the methods by which we apply them to a situation.