Reflections - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Limits to “Limits to growth”

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Those of us of a certain age with an interest in environmental issues will remember “The limits to growth”, the 1972 Pan paperback authored by Donella Meadows and others at MIT. It will also be familiar to students of systems thinking, as it was perhaps the first major use of computer technology to support a large system dynamics model.

The LTG model that the MIT team develop looked at the relationship between population, industrial output, food production, pollution, availability of non-renewable resources, birth rates, death rates and the level of services that could be provided (health and education), and made projections about how these might interact through to the year 2100. The predictions were not good. Although they ran the model with different conditions, the one that was seen to be most likely given the way the world economy ran in the 1970s was that most things would progress steadily until about 2030, at which point there would be a collapse as a shortage in natural resources made it harder to deliver services. In 1972, 2030 was literally a lifetime away (mine certainly), but now it looms large.

As George Box said, all models are wrong but some are useful, so how useful has the LTG model been? Although it was roundly criticised throughout the 1970s by neoclassical economists, several studies conducted during the last 20 years have shown an alarming accuracy in its predictions, so if nothing changes, we may be not far away from catastrophe.

But one of the more interesting aspects of LTG is little known. The report was commissioned by the Club of Rome, a group of intellectuals and professionals, on the basis of a paper written by one of its members, Hasan Ozbekhan, entitled “The predicament of mankind”. In it Ozbekhan listed 49 ‘continuous critical problems’ that he thought the world faced at that time. The paper called for the then newly emerging computer technology to explore the relationship between these problems to try and develop an understanding about how they were connected and what the implications might be. LTG was the result.

However, Ozbekhan was not happy with the result because he felt that the MIT team had focused very much on hard information that was easily quantifiable and amenable to system dynamics technology. One of the continuous critical problems that they did not take into consideration was CCP-18, “Growing irrelevance of traditional values and continuing failure to involve new value systems”. Subsequent research into the 49 CCPs using different computer analysis techniques has shown that CCP-18 is a root contributor to all of the other problems, suggesting that a failure to deal with value systems dooms everything else.

A cursory reflection on late 20th century and early 21st-century value systems seems to confirm this. By the 1980s the world was dominated by neoliberal thinking and the importance of the individual and their choice — consumption, lifestyles, the need for new things, to better oneself.

I am not sure that we have learnt much about the possibly fatal nature of our Western value systems. During 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic there was talk about ‘building back better’, and movement restrictions might have encouraged people to reflect on what was actually important in their lives and what they wanted for the future.

Will this have triggered a new enlightenment?

The importance of boundary spanners

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I have not been able to write any blogs recently because all of my time has been taken up with finalising the manuscript for my new book. Provisionally entitled "Performance and evaluation: a systems thinking approach", I eventually managed to get everything packaged up sent off to Routledge, my publishers, by the end of last week and so this should hopefully now be published towards the end of 2016.

It has taken about two years to put the book together, pulling together experiences from work that I have done and my ongoing studies with the Open University. Taking that amount of time has some advantages but also means that what you learn over time makes the content of sections written early on seem somewhat inadequate. There is also the problem of changing writing styles as time goes by: what seemed a good way to do it in 2014 was not by 2016. These inconsistencies were exposed by the review process. I asked a number of trusted associates to look at the draft manuscript and their comments were invaluable, pointing out how the logic of the structure could be improved and identifying weaknesses in words, sentences and paragraphs.

It made me realise that a fundamental problem with the book was bringing together two academic disciplines, the training world and the systems thinking world. A core theme within the book is about learning as a networked activity, of connections of people in groups. One of the topics I discussed within the book is that of Social Network Analysis, a way of quantifying how people work together. Some early research within this field was by Mark Granovetter, whose article "The strength of weak ties" looked at how working-class people relied on social networks to find information about job opportunities. He saw that people have both strong ties, those with friends and family, and weak ties with friends of friends and infrequent contacts. His research showed that the people who were most useful for identifying work opportunities were actually the weak ties, because these people were connected with other networks. They functioned as 'boundary spanners', a term coined by Michael Tushman to describe people who form connections between networks, and play an important part in helping information and ideas to move one network to another.

Receiving feedback from both training professionals and systems people made me realise that my book will be operating as a boundary spanner, that it tries to communicate training ideas to system professionals and vice versa. Really, the target for the book is training professionals so the priority will be for them to develop an understanding of how systems thinking ideas can be useful.

It remains to be seen how useful as a boundary spanner my book will become!

Training needs analyses: do they exist?

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When I was doing the research for my upcoming book on training needs analysis and systems thinking I came across an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology (see reference below) which summarised a meta-analysis looking at what factors seem to influence the success of training programmes. One statistic which caught my eye was that their data suggested that only 6% of training programmes were based on a training needs analysis. 6%, not many!

The authors of the study did point out that it was often not clear what a 'training needs analysis' constituted, and that their research looked at published studies, so it was possible that in the 'real world' organisations were indeed carrying out needs analysis activities. So, to try and get some different perspectives on this I asked the question in one of my LinkedIn groups: "Training needs analyses: do they exist?".

Very quickly the question attracted over 100 comments from many different people, and they are still coming, so clearly the question was of interest, and in general showed a lot of frustration with the current situation within organisations as far as conducting needs analyses is concerned.

With so many comments, it is difficult to control specific conclusions, but there were a number of common threads which appeared during the course of the conversation.

Essential but not happening. Many people agreed with my initial proposition that while TNAs are universally said to be essential, they are often not carried out in any significant way.

TNAs take too much time. Organisations want quick results and running a training course is a quick solution (although of course it does not guarantee quick results, which many people pointed out).

What is a TNA? Quite a few people discussed the difference between a training analysis and a performance analysis, seeing the performance analysis as something which came first, to identify what factors are affecting performance, followed up by the training analysis to decide how training can contribute. Interestingly, several of these comments mirrored what I have seen in the standard TNA literature, that these are sequential events, which, from a systems perspective, runs the risk of creating stand-alone solutions which do not necessarily integrate with each other.

The lack of clarity about what a TNA actually is seems to mean that all kinds of activities can fall within the definition of a TNA, ranging from gut reactions to systematic organisation-wide surveys.

Adult learning. Another thread was the common lack of understanding amongst non-training professionals as to how adults learn, leading to inappropriate solutions.

Developing baselines. The intimate relationship between a training needs analysis and an evaluation was also pointed out: how can you carry out an evaluation of the effectiveness if you have no idea what the original problem was.

An interesting exercise, in eliciting views, and one which highlights how far the training profession has to go in making organisations realise how important it is to really think about the reasons for embarking on training programmes.

For more information see: Arthur Jr, W., Bennett Jr, W., Edens, P.S. & Bell, S.T., "Effectiveness of training in organizations: a meta-analysis of design and evaluation features", Journal of Applied Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2003, 88, 234

Training - event or part of a system?

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In  a few days time I will click a Send button and my Master's dissertation will go off to meet its marker. That will be the culmination of 15 months of alternating periods of reflection, inaction and obsession, and I will not be sorry that it is all over. I have lost count of the number of nights where I have woken up in the dark to start worrying about some area of research I have not yet explored but definitely must. And then woken blearily to the rising sun with little clear memory of those nocturnal moments of complete clarity.

Research such as this makes you focus on increasingly narrow subjects, and it becomes very difficult to to see the bigger picture of what you are looking at. So when I came to a question in the dissertation template which asked me to include some observations about what the wider implications of the research would be for my professional practice, I was somewhat taken aback.

It took me a few days before I was able to adjust my focus and think of an appropriate answer. I realised eventually that one way in which I would now be able to look at my professional practice different was to stop looking at a workshop or an e-learning course as a single event but to always see it as part of what might be called 'a learning system'.

In an earlier post I talked about comments made by several people at OEB 2015 about the 'training as pizza' model: how long would you like the workshop to be? Too often, training is seen as the only solution which is needed to solve performance problems, and overlooks the operational context of how people do their work, by experimenting and reflecting, by asking other people for help, by discussing things which they don't understand and so on.

By thinking systemically about how learning contributes to improve performance we become able to see much more clearly the small part that single events such as a workshop play in the whole learning system, supporting the development of social learning networks, strengthening social capital and other intangible outcomes. Formal training should never be just the only answer, but should always be designed to be just a part of a systemic change process which strengthens learning and the ability to apply new skills.

Call centres, requisite variety and poor training

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A few days ago my wife decided she needed to change her mobile phone provider (XXX for the purposes of this story). The main reason for this was the poor signal that we got where we live: Sheffield, like Rome, is built on seven hills, and this seems to make mobile phone and television signal reception quite problematic, so receiving calls on this network in our house has always been chancy.

So as she entered the last four weeks of her contract she rang the provider and said she wanted her PAC code. The person in the call centre checked her records and said that there would be a penalty, as her contract did not end until 27th May. "Oh no it doesn't!", said my wife, "I have the contract here, and it says 27th February."

This unfortunately did not impress the call handler, who said that their system definitely said 27th May and there was nothing that could be done about it. So my wife asked to speak to a manager, which seemed to be a surprising request to the call handler, who said there were none available, but that he would find one and ask them to ring her back immediately. Nobody rang.

The next day my wife called again, and spoke to another call handler, who seemed equally unable to understand that a data inputting error might possibly have led to a handwritten '2' becoming a '5' on the indisputably and unassailably correct computer system. However, she did suggest that my wife could go to a local XXX shop, show them the contract and see what they could do about it. Fortunately, there was such a shop about five minutes walk away, so she went off, spoke to a human being in person, who made a note on a computer system and told her to call XXX customer services again.

So she did as she was told, and now everything was okay and she was given her PAC code.

As I listened to this story unfold, I started to think about what it said from a systemic perspective. Back in 1956 Ross Ashby put forward his Law of Requisite Variety: that for a system to be viable with respect to its environment, it needed to be able to display at least the same amount of control variety as the variety present in the environment.

What does this mean here? The call centre handlers at XXX are undoubtedly trained, and probably work off some sort of system which guides them through how to respond to customer issues. This provides them with a certain amount of control variety. However, my wife presented them with unexpected variety, a contradiction between the written contract and the information on the system, and clearly the call handlers were unable to deal with this new environmental variety. Fortunately, one person panicked and suggested a solution which actually worked, but which, nevertheless, showed that they themselves were unable to deal with this particular form of variety.

To my mind that displays a weakness in the training that XXX's call handlers receive, they are unable to deal with all of the environmental variety that they receive, and do not have enough autonomy or confidence to be able to make decisions about how to deal with new problems on their own. Instead, they pass the buck and hope that somebody else picks it up. This time it worked, but it's really not a great strategy, and we will certainly not be recommending XXX as a mobile phone provider to any of our friends.

Why use systems thinking approaches in training?

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My last blog post reflected on reflective practice, and the power that could have in improving performance. One of my own personal forms of reflection-on-practice has been writing down what I do. I've always found this to be a very useful if challenging process, trying to capture in some form of systematic way what has often felt to be very ad hoc in the moment.

So it was that two years ago I started on the process of writing another book, this one on how to incorporate systems thinking approaches into training needs analysis and training evaluation activities. Writing a book is a long and lonely process, and one which constantly makes one question whether what you are doing is worthwhile, will it help anyone, will anyone be interested, would it be better to focus on fee-paying work? The fundamental question is therefore why do it, and one answer to that comes from thinking about what value I personally see in utilising systems thinking in these areas: why does a systems thinking approach leads to better training solutions?

A fundamental reason has to be the importance that systems thinking places on context. The interaction between the operational environment and people in the workplace is crucial to high levels of performance, and systemic enquiry makes this interaction fundamental, by making us think about how much variety there is in the environment and how what people do has to be able to manage this variety. Often training programmes are about standard, centralised processes and procedures, and not enough attention is paid to the kinds of skills needed to be able to monitor what is happening in the environment and adapt to it.

This means that training should be giving people more analytical skills in the ability to monitor the environment and adapt as necessary. This is often overlooked in conventional approaches to needs analysis, which develop objectives for a set of skills which will help to enable some sort of standardised approach, but which may not help people to deal with micro-variety (day-to-day differences) or macro-variety (trends over time).

The trends over time point is important, because the environment changes, and a needs analysis carried out today may identify solutions which are not appropriate tomorrow because things have changed. Again, an awareness of the principles of systemic enquiry can make us sensitive to these potential problems.

And thirdly, systemic enquiry forces us to think about the role that informal learning plays in managing performance. Informal learning, such as unplanned coaching and discussions between colleagues, plays an important part in helping to manage variety, but if the needs analysis process fails to look at how existing channels for informal learning work, it is less likely that support mechanisms will be built into any training plans that are developed.

So I guess that is a reason why I have pushed on with the project to write the book. I am certainly relieved that it is almost finished now, and that I should be able to deliver it to my publisher on time!

The power of reflective practice

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When I first started studying systems thinking in a more rigorous way I started coming across this word which was quite new to me: reification. It refers to the process of making something real, and in the context of systems thinking is used as something of a warning: avoid reification, avoid imagining that the world out there is a fixed, solid object that has a specific meaning.

Like when you buy a new car and notice that a lot of other people have bought exactly the same model, once you have got your head around the idea of reification you see it everywhere. I realised that before I started to build systems thinking into my working practice, that my working practice had become reified, that the way I looked at issues in my consultancy practice was always the same and this led to me always trying to apply the same solutions. Realising that my world was actually constructed in my own head and did not have its own independent reality was quite scary but also liberating: it suddenly became okay to look at things differently and try different ideas.

The other day I was dipping into a book by Hannah Arendt, the American social theorist, called "The Human Condition". I've had it on my bookshelf for several years and always found it too dense to get into as a single read, but found that she talks at some length about reification. She suggests that part of the human condition is to make things, to work, and that we do this to provide is with some reassurance about stability in the face of what seems to be constant uncertainty. So it is not surprising that we almost instinctively try to imagine that things around us are solid and unchanging.

When we reify our working practice it makes it very difficult for us to reflect on what we are doing when we do what we do. There are some professions where reflective practice is a requirement, for example medicine, but for most people it probably seems like some esoteric Eastern practice carried out by people who are more alternative than us, but in fact it forms an essential part of informal learning. If the daily pressures of 'getting things done' ease up for a moment, we can perhaps find an opportunity to pause and think about if we are doing these things the right way, or if we should be doing them at all. Maybe we can even take the time to discuss these dilemmas with some colleagues, and in this way potentially multiply the powerful effect of reflection.

It may be that one of the potentially most powerful ways of improving individual and organisational performance would be for us to institutionalise the process of reflective practice, rather than keeping our heads down, shoulders to the wheel, noses to the grindstone just in order to do what we have always done in the way that we have always done it. Which might not be the best way.

Thoughts from Educa 2015

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Earlier this month I attended the 21st Online Educa Berlin conference, and as always really enjoyed the chance to meet up with others having similar interests in using technology-enabled learning. These days one of the main areas of interest is in user-generated learning and other ways in which technology can support informal learning processes, but a common frustration expressed was how 'Training' within many organisations was failing to grasp this new reality and was still locked into the 'training as pizza' model:
  • Client: "We need a training course"
  • Training "How many days?"

Why this happens was a subject of some debate, but from my systems perspective a key issue I see is that the reductionist structure of many organisations forces training into a silo where it is difficult for training professional to see how they can promote informal inter-departmental learning activities. Instead their worth is assessed by the 'bums on seats'  logic created by such things as learning management systems, ignoring the huge potential added value such as strengthening social capital within the organisation.

Days spent with like-minded professionals is hugely stimulating, but spreading the message about how much better training can be is a key challenge for 2016.

What's this blog all about?

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For quite a few years now I have been slowly integrating systems thinking into the consultancy work that I do, but really accelerated this process back in 2010 when I registered for the part-time distance learning Master's programme "Systems Thinking in Practice" with the Open University. Five years later the end of the Master's is in sight (well, 2017), but I already have developed some techniques for using systems-thinking concepts such as complexity, viability and emergence into what I do.

But systems thinking is still little understood outside the world of systemicists, so I have decided to create this blog to try and help fellow training professionals understand how much it can help in such things as needs analysis, training design and evaluation. While it runs my aim is to explore chunks of systems thinking concepts and methodologies and show how to use them. By writing about them and (hopefully) stimulating some discussion through comments received I will be strengthening my own understanding as well, through the reflective practice that this entails ... which is one aspect implicit within a systemic approach, and which I will muse on at a later date.

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