Open Thinkering


Tag: system of interest

TB871: Nominating an area of practice

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

In my last post, I realised that I might be quite interested in focusing on library provision as my area of practice. The module materials give the following guidance:

  1. interest – the area must invite your own personal interest, which may usefully be an existing or aspiring professional area of practice, but may alternatively be an area of more general interest
  2. practice – the area must have an associated central element of practical change, signalled by an adverb associated with some practical activity such as control, regulation, management or reduction
  3. scope – don’t define an area of practice too narrowly (perhaps use ‘immigration control’ rather than ‘checking passports’), and try to include different hierarchical levels (the practice may have local, national or international ramifications, or may include elements of policy planning, management planning and operational planning)
  4. perspectives – the area of practice should invite different viewpoints and associated meanings
  5. uncertainty – there should be significant possibilities of unforeseen change.
(Open University, 2020)

I have a personal interest due to using the library (I am right now!) and improving use of the library is a management issue. The scope is sufficiently wide, I think, even though I’m tempted only to focus on my local library. There are different perspectives on this issue, as evidenced by the group I was part of that dealt with the problem in the workshop earlier this week. And there is plenty of uncertainty with cuts to council budgets, changing demographics, and an upcoming General Election.

Area of PracticeLibrary ProvisionGeneralised role or area of responsibility, identifying generic types of concerns in library services.
Situation of InterestCurrent concerns about use of public libraries in NorthumberlandMore specific area of concern, situation or event that is perceived by someone as calling for some kind of intervention.
System of InterestSystem to increase uptake of libraries in NorthumberlandParticular arrangement of activities associated with a situation designed to achieve a particular purpose of boosting library usage.

I’m going to share this idea in the student forums (Activity 1.14) along with the diagram below which I created with Whimsical with a bit of help by prompting GPT-4 (Activity 1.15).

Concept map detailing aspects of Northumberland Library Services, with branches discussing key interrelationships, contrasting perspectives, and possible tensions related to technology, funding, community engagement, and digital versus traditional services.

Given a bit more time, which I’ll probably spend when we get to the first assessment, I could spend some time linking and renaming things. But I think this is enough to go on for now.


TB872: My learning contract as a designed system of interest

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

Abstract image depicting a fluid transition from a structured learning contract to a dynamic, interconnected system. On the left, a monochromatic, orderly table with words and linear elements gradually blends into a vivid, complex network of interconnected nodes and colorful pathways on the right. This seamless transformation symbolizes the evolution from systematic to systemic thinking, highlighted by the subtle shift in color palette from muted tones near the table to vibrant hues in the network, representing the growing complexity and depth of understanding.

It’s time to revisit my learning contract, that document that I’m encouraged to keep updated during this module, and turn it into a ‘designed system of interest’. In other words, I need to take something which is currently a table with words in it and transform it using the I’ll be building on the diagram I created in this post and also this one.

It seems as if about half of the students on this module have previously studied TB871. Although it’s not a pre-requisite, it seems like there’s a lot of knowledge and understanding that, if not assumed, would be extremely helpful in knowing what’s actually going on at various points of this module.

If it weren’t for fellow student Paul Phillips sharing his diagram for this activity in the student forums, I’m not sure I would have known what to do. Thank you Paul 🙏

As a reminder, my learning contract when I last touched it looked like this:

Updated learning contract

The idea is to turn it into something that looks like this:

Diagram included in TB872 course materials (The Open University, 2021)

The idea in doing this is to move from systematic to systemic practice in a way which represents the stage I’m at in the module. I’m not going to lie, this is hard. I’m new to the concepts involved, the diagrammatic approach, and juggling both my S1 and S2 at the same time is confusing.

Nevertheless, I persist.

The diagram below is my attempt at taking the information from the learning contract and turning it into a model:

Learning contract translated into SSM activity model

I have to say that I’m finding this part of the course particularly difficult. There are sections explained in painstaking detail, followed by parts akin to the meme about how to draw an owl.


TB872: Situations of concern, systems of interest, and PQR statements

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 image representing the concept of a 'system of interest' within a broader 'situation of concern'. Each image employs abstract elements to symbolize the contrast between the specific, focused nature of a system of interest and the encompassing, general nature of the situation of concern. The designs use contrasting colors, shapes, and patterns to visually differentiate between the detailed, concentrated system of interest and the larger, more diffuse field of the situation of concern.

I’ve already pointed out in this module how difficult it can be when there are two words which are often used in a similar situation that look or sound the same. So, for example systemic (something that relates to, or affects, an entire system as a whole, rather than just its individual parts) and systematic (a process or method that is done according to a fixed plan or system).

Only slightly less confusing, until you get your head around it is the difference between a situation of concern and a system of interest. I thought the best way to illustrate it might be to come up with my own example, rather than use the one in the course materials. So let’s talk about football (soccer).

In the last decade, Video Assistant Referees (VAR) have become an increasingly large part of the professional game. This has had a huge impact on the sport: it’s changed the way matches are officiated, the way players interact with referees (and one another), and even affected how long spectators need to allow for getting home at the end of a game, as they often massively ‘overrun’.

Let’s imagine a football coach whose team has won promotion from the Championship (no VAR) to the Premier League (VAR). From pre-season training onwards, while VAR has always been part of the coach’s situation of concern, it’s now part of their system of interest. That is to say, whereas previously it might have only affected the sport that he coaches more generally, and perhaps the occasional cup game that the team he coaches plays in, now he needs to prepare for VAR being a factor in most matches.

That means the coach needs to understand the intricacies of VAR, choose and apply relevant frameworks (e.g. adapting team strategies), and make explicit choices and changes. This might even involve the recommendation of buying new players, or training in a different way. An example of the latter would be that if a game is likely to be more stop-start and players are likely to be out on the pitch for, say, 105 minutes instead of 90 minutes, then they should be prepared for this.

To summarise, then, the coach is a practitioner whose situation of concern (the world of football) has changed in a way directly related to their system of interest (the team they coach).

Thinking about module TB872 as a system of interest to me, as a practitioner, this brings us to the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) of thinkers like Peter Checkland. SSM is a useful methodology when dealing with situations where there are significant social, political, and other ‘human’ components. It does not assume that there is a single, objective ‘problem’ to be solved, but rather recognises that there are many different perceptions of problems. It therefore offers a structured approach to explore these differing perceptions among stakeholders.

We’re not going into too much detail around SSM right now, just looking at what are called PQR statements. These take the following format:

A system to do P (what) by Q (how) because of R (why).

As the course materials note, the simplest way of referring to the ‘change’ that occurs in us as practitioners because of our involvement in the TB872 as students is represented in this diagram:

Practitioner on the left wearing blue shirt and same practitioner now on the right wearing a purple shirt (to represent difference). In the middle is a box labelled 'The TB872 module' with arrows pointing from the practitioner on the left to the box, and then from the box to the practitioner as represente on the right.

The interesting thing, of course, is what’s in the box. Representing it using a PQR statement from my own perspective might yield:

A system to develop my systems literacy by helping me reflect and complete activities about Systems Thinking because of a need to improve my practice.

It’s a bit of a clunky statement, so the concise version is probably: “A system to develop my systems literacy through the use of reflective activities that help me improve my practice”.

Thinking about that ‘black box’, this is a brief and cursory overview of what’s inside it, from my point of view:

(tap to enlarge)

As the course materials state, everyone’s diagrams will be slightly different. I noticed that the module authors’ focused very much on the way that the module is organised rather than on the way it is experienced, for example. This is something I would go into a bit more, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m rushing to get this done on a weekend inbetween driving my kids between sporting activities and social engagements!

To conclude, then, the system of interest for me is shown above in the diagram I have drawn. This sits within a wider situation of concern, which could be thought of as being my whole MSc, or (given that I’ve already referred to my family) my life as a husband and parent. A systems diagram like this is to show in a visual way systematically desirable change from a particular point of view. I always find visual aids useful when talking to others and helping them explain a point of view, and so getting better at these will help my practice no end.

Top image: DALL-E 3