The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Training - event or part of a system?

Published by in Reflections ·
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

Published by in Reflections ·
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.

Bored doctors or well-trained doctors - your choice

Published by in Training design ·
A few days ago a friend of mine who works as a doctor in a local hospital called by for a cup of tea. She was just on her way home from a training course where she had been all day. Always interested in other people's experiences of training, I asked her how it had been. "Really boring", she said, "Just listening to somebody reading off slides all day."

I always find comments like this somewhat depressing. How is it that organisations these days can still think that it is cost-effective to take highly paid people, sit them in a room and make them listen to an expert talking on all day long. The direct and opportunity costs of an event such as that must have been considerable, and with the overall effect being to bore the participants.

My experience in quite a few organisations who rely on this type of training delivery is that they still think that the information transfer model (or what I call 'information dumping') is the best or only way to communicate content. I guess that a major reason why this happens is that people are familiar with lectures from their university days, where a person with all the knowledge attempts to transfer this to people with very little knowledge, like pouring water into an empty vessel, as the analogy goes.

The difference with training professionals is that they already know an awful lot, and really need to be able to integrate new information with what they already have, to refine their existing mental models.

Probably many of the people who are called on to deliver training of this sort will never have studied ideas about cognition, so concepts such as Kolb's learning cycle will be unfamiliar to them. The diagram below is a representation of Kolb's theory, and its familiarity to learning professionals means that it needs no explanation.

However, from a systems perspective one of the things that I have noticed about how this is normally presented is that it is portrayed as an individual activity: each one of the four stages is described as something which goes on inside one person's head. However, this is not what really happens in reality, because if it did there would quickly be no learning because each of us would eventually run out of the energy and inspiration needed to reflect and develop new conceptualisations.

Instead, what happens is that as we work round and round the learning cycle we draw in ideas from the world around us, in particular from other people. This new energy coming into our learning cycle is what enables reflection so that each iteration of the cycle improves our mental modelling. We can therefore represent what is happening as a networking of learning cycles, as in this diagram.

This is essentially the idea of the social construction of understanding, an idea attributed to the Russian psychologist Vygotsky. He reasoned that children learn by conversation and negotiation, which leads to a shared understanding of how to behave and how to do things.

This, I think, is why trainers who can let go of the control of the PowerPoint presentation and let people talk about stuff will usually get better results. I'm sure my daughter would have had a much better learning experience had she been able to engage with the trainer and other participants in discussions where she could talk about things she did not understand, listen to other explanations and so end up with a much better understanding of the subject.

I would certainly feel more comfortable lying on a hospital bed feeling that the medical staff looking after me have had the chance to really get to understand their subject, rather than having spent days being bored stiff by PowerPoint presentations.

Why use systems thinking approaches in training?

Published by in Reflections ·
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

Published by in Reflections ·
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.

Using workshops to promote informal learning

Published by in Informal learning ·
For the last 12 months I have been working on the dissertation for my Master's programme in systems thinking. That is a long time to be working on a relatively small area of knowledge, so it needs to be something about which you are interested!

As I was thinking around for a topic to examine, I reflected on how people attending training workshops always comment on how useful it is to meet other people who do the same work, and I often wondered if people chose to stay in touch with each other after the event, or if they were just 'ships that passed in the night'. So for my dissertation I started to do a lot of reading around the subject of social learning networks and communities of practice, to see if there were any lessons which could be learned which were of relevance to the process of workshop design.

Quite a few factors seem to be relevant. Official support is important, in terms of encouraging people to take time out to share knowledge and information and in providing practical, logistical support. Learning networks need to motivate their participants so that they continue to engage with the network, and this will often require injections of energy from some organising committee. People need to trust each other, to feel that it is okay to ask questions which might be seen as revealing ignorance.

So in my research I distributed on-line surveys to people in 22 different workshops, and asked them to assess various aspects of how the workshop had been run and to describe how they had stayed in contact with other participants after the workshop. The results showed that the key factor in making it more likely that people will stay in touch with each other after the workshop is trust: if the workshop is designed so that people get to know each other through discussions and other activities designed to promote social learning, the chances are much greater that they will stay in touch.

Staying in touch means enhancing informal learning, and this can be a powerful tool for enhancing the value of a workshop, but one which we rarely ever measure. Systemic approaches to evaluation is a subject I will return to on another day.

Thoughts from Educa 2015

Published by in Reflections ·
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?

Published by in Reflections ·
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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