2001 Conference (May 27-29)

Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Rosalind Armson and Ray Ison

If you're a fish, what can you know about the water?
Some reflections on doing systems when you are immersed in the context




The authors of this paper have been engaged in Systems Thinking, Systems Practice and Systems Teaching for many years. In this paper they reflection their experience of engaging systemically with their own organization in order to bring about change. Re-structuring the Systems Department of the UK's Open University to create new sites for emergence of fresh ideas, interests and enthusiasms raised questions about meaning and purpose as well as theoretical questions about practice. What does it mean to facilitate systemic change in a context one is deeply embedded in and how do Systems Practitioners recognize and account for the traps set by their own traditions of understanding as they struggle to understand their own milieu?

Based on our experience of working for change within our own academic department, we find that a number of issues emerge when systems practitioners work in their own milieu. The emergence of meaning is an on-going process so we do not claim a final resolution of the issues we address. We do claim, however, that these issues need to be accounted for by the systems practitioner as part of the complex 'real-world' situation he or she is working with. We further claim that epistemological awareness is essential for taking such account. We find the themes of managing for emergence, epistemological awareness, community of practice, and communities of conversation recur as we braid theory and practice within our own context. These concepts are frequently articulated through metaphor.

The following observations and learnings emerge for us from our engagement with our own context.

  • This paper's narrative of our engagement with our own academic department is only one of many possible stories we can tell about experiences. We have chosen to describe our engagement in terms of a selection of 'critical incidents'. It is only one of our own possible narratives. Other people in the 'real-world' situation we have described would tell yet other stories.

  • Our engagement with our own situation has an ethical meaning for us. We take this meaning from a struggle for coherence between our theory, our practice and our teaching about theory and practice. This has led to the emergence of the concept of the systems practitioner as a central theme of our teaching and research.

  • A number of metaphors for our own practice in this situation have recurred in our conversations and continue to carry meaning for us. These metaphors concern the 'braiding of theory and practice; conversation - 'turning together'; and 'communities of practice'. Making our metaphors explicit supports us in maintaining an awareness of our own traditions and transcending the limitations they impose on our thinking.

  • The braiding of theory and practice needs explicit attention if it is to happen effectively. We have experienced this through communities of conversation in which cycles of action and reflection on shared experience supports theoretical development and thoughtful action.

  • We experience epistemological awareness to be of fundamental importance. Epistemological awareness enables us to identify a much wider range of systems of interest than we believe we would be able to otherwise identify. We also believe it enables us to access a much wider range of possible options for purposeful action. Epistemological awareness also gives us access to a distinction between ourselves as systems practitioners and change agents and ourselves as stakeholders. This enables us to examine critically our perceptions of the situation we are working in.

  • We have experienced difficulty in maintaining an ongoing conversation with our colleagues about epistemological awareness as the valuing of difference. If, as other authors have suggested, epistemological awareness cannot be 'transferred' to others, are we risking the creation of an 'incrowd' and an 'outcrowd'? This question carries both theoretical and practical implications for our relationships with our colleagues. What are the political implications of this? What are our ethical responsibilities? It also raises the possibility of 'group think' between ourselves.

  • We experience working within our own milieu as emotionally as well as intellectually demanding. Our own short-term goals and political agendas as stakeholders need separate management from our systemic aim of managing for emergence. This is emotionally draining. We have experienced this physiologically in terms of tiredness and aching, tense muscles as well as in depressed spirits. The emotions and the emotional needs of the systems practitioner are not external to the situation, nor are their stakeholdings. They are part of the experienced complexity of the situation and therefore need to be accounted for and managed.

  • External assistance is an important option. We have experienced the input of a trusted external facilitator as a crucial turning point on occasions when the separation of our own agendas (and our own emotional needs) could not be separated from the task of facilitating emergence.

  • We claim that what we can know about a situation we are immersed in ('what the fish can know about the water') is greatly enhanced when we know about our knowing.


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