Systems Thinking in the Workplace - An Action Research Approach

A Research Paper by Stanislaus Simon-Solomon


System Thinking insists that systems (of all kinds) must be analyzed as a whole in order to understand its emergent properties and the interrelatedness of its constituent parts (McDermott & O'Connor, 1997). Action Research is a research methodology that lay emphasis on researchers to work with practitioners rather than on them. The modern workplace requires systems thinking because it’s a complex whole that exhibits emergence and it is also in urgent need of expert guidance and knowledge that enables its inhabitants to become more productive and efficient. In the light of the bare minimum of options present for such possibilities, the author makes the case that action research can both teach and enable practitioners to incorporate systems thinking in their workplace. The paper gives a brief introduction to systems thinking and action research then makes the case for action research in the workplace and finally rounds off with strategies for conducting successfully action research.

Introduction to Systems Thinking

Reductionism was the dominant mode of scientific thinking in the early 20th century. Reductionist thinking and methods were the basis for many of the well developed areas of modern science like physics, chemistry and biology (Wikipedia, 2008). Reductionism is an approach to building descriptions of systems out of the descriptions of the subsystems that a system is composed of, and ignoring the relationships between them (Bar-Yam, 2000). However reductionist thinking struggled to explain properties that systems exhibited as a whole which their constituent parts by themselves did not exhibit. Systems thinking emerged in the 20th century through a critique of reductionist thinking (Flood R. L., 2007). Systems thinking viewed the world as systemic and its foundational tenant was that phenomena is understood to be an emergent property of an interrelated whole. Emergence and interrelatedness are fundamental properties of systems thinking. An emergent property of a whole is said to arise where a phenomenon cannot be fully comprehended in terms only of properties of constituent parts. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is the popularized phrase that explains emergence (Flood R. L., 2007).

From Reductionism to Systems Thinking

Systems thinking came to the fore as a valid alternative in the 1920’s when research into living things encountered limitations to the concepts and principles of reductionism. The brilliant Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, an Austrian biologist, demonstrated that concepts of reductionism were helpless in appreciating the dynamics of organisms. Existence of an organism cannot be understood solely in terms of behavior of some fundamental parts (Flood R. L., 2007). In this regard, Von Bertalanffy developed the theory of “Open Systems”. Open Systems Theory employs functional and relational criteria to study the whole, rather than principles of reductionism to study the simple elements. The different parts of an organism exist together as a whole and it co-exists in relation to its environment. The various parts are interrelated through feedback loops – both positive and negative. An organism achieves a steady state of being i.e. normal condition, through the feedback loops. Von Bertalanffy generalized the open systems concept for other fields of study and named it as General Systems Theory (Bertalanffy, 1976). The lasting impact of his ideas collectively came to be known as Systems Thinking. Systems thinking was readily taken up as the basis of a new form of social theory (Flood R. L., 2007). Taken into the fields of organizational analysis, systems thinking observe organizations as complex systems made up of interrelated parts most usefully studied as an emergent whole. Thus a modern organization is seen as a system that comprises of people, processes and information systems that facilitates communication, business transactions and so on. Management action is taken to hold the organization in a steady state through management functions that control activities and information within the organization, and also between the organization and its environment (Flood R. L., 2007).

Evolution of Systems Thinking

Cybernetic Theory, also based on systems thinking, came to the fore around the same time as Von Bertalanffy’s research in general systems theory. Cybernetics is traditionally defined as the science of communication and control in man and machine (Flood R. L., 2007). Cybernetics studied communication and control involving regulatory feedback in living organisms, machines and organizations, as well as their combinations. Cybernetics found its place in the management sciences in the guise of control theory, systems engineering and, information theory. As cybernetic theory grew, it began to influence practice and together with Bertalanffy’s open systems theory this endeavor became to be called as Applied Systems Thinking. The applied systems thinking methodology is an intervention that begins with problem identification and concludes with some final solution, with an expectation that things will attain a desirable condition (Flood R. L., 2007). The challenge was to find the most efficient means to get to this desired end. Jay Forrester, computer engineer and retired professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, advanced the field of systems thinking and created a new strand of thinking called System Dynamics. He defined it the following way: “System dynamics is a professional field that deals with the complexity of systems. System dynamics is the necessary foundation underlying effective thinking about systems. System dynamics deals with how things change through time, which covers most of what most people find important. System dynamics involves interpreting real life systems into computer simulation models that allow one to see how the structure and decision-making policies in a system create its behavior” (Forrester, 1999). Peter Senge, a student of Forrester at MIT, studied System Dynamics under him and through his book “The Fifth Discipline” popularized system dynamics for its contribution to organizational learning. Senge argues that five disciplines underpin learning organizations: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking. Systems thinking is the fifth discipline that provides substance to the other four disciplines and hence learning to the organization as a whole (Flood R. L., 2007).

Systemic Thinking: Emergence of Soft Systems Thinking

As systems thinking evolved and began to grow as a field of enquiry, researchers faced the issue of how to view the social world. Was the social world “real and concrete” that comprised real social systems or was it to be seen as “emergent” through the meaning people ascribed to the world? Systemic thinking grew out of this debate and rejected the belief in a concrete social world. Researchers such as Peter B. Checkland began to argue that “human systems” are different and that they should be understood from the meaning people give to the world (Checkland P. B., Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, 1981). Soft Systems Thinking is a form of systems thinking that saw social reality as a construction of people’s interpretation of their experiences, thus linking itself to interpretive theory (Flood R. L., 2007).

Action Research: Origins and Premises

What is Action Research?

Peter Reason, Professor of Action Research and Director, center for Action Research at the School of Management, University of Bath, England, defines Action Research as, “a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes, grounded in a participatory worldview which we believe is emerging at this history moment. It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities” (Bradbury, 2007). The method is being used increasingly because it is grounded in action, aimed at solving an immediate problem situation and at the same time, informing theory. Unlike other research methods, where the research seeks to study organizational phenomena but not to change them, the action researcher is concerned to create organizational change and simultaneously study the process. It is strongly oriented toward collaboration and change involving both the researchers and subjects (Ferrance, 2000). It is a clinical method that puts information systems researchers in a helping role with the practitioners (Baskerville & Myers, Special Issue on Action Research in Information Systems: Foreword, 2004).

A brief History

Action Research (AR) is an established research method in use in the social and medical sciences since the mid-twentieth century. Towards the end of the 1990’s it began growing in popularity for use in scholarly investigations of information systems (Baskerville R. , Investigating Information Systems with Action Research, 1999). Credit for the earliest modern thinking about putting science to use in addressing practical problems is often given to John Dewey, the American philosopher. Dewey believed that practical problems demanded practical solutions – ones that could demonstrate to produce desired outcomes in practice. However, Dewey did not coin the term “Action Research”. Credit for this is jointed held by two men who worked independently: John Collier and Kurt Lewin (Pasmore, 2007). Kurt Lewin developed a field-theory version of AR at the University of Michigan Research Center for Group Dynamics in order to study social psychology. The Tavistock Clinic (which later became the Tavistock Institute) independently developed an operational research version of AR to study psychological and social disorders among veterans of battlefields and prisoner-of-war camps (Baskerville R. , Investigating Information Systems with Action Research, 1999). Peter Checkland’s use of Action Research in the field of Systems Analysis is another landmark for the technique in the information systems community (Checkland P. B., Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, 1981). Action Research was explicitly introduced to the information systems community as a purely research methodology by Wood-Harper, who incorporated Action Research concepts into an action based systems development methodology called Multiview (Baskerville R. , Investigating Information Systems with Action Research, 1999).

Kurt Lewin's description of the process of change through action research involves three steps (Lewin, 1958):

Figure 1:Lewin's Process of Change

Essential Premises of Action Research

The underlying philosophy shared by most forms of Action Research is pragmatism (Baskerville & Myers, Special Issue on Action Research in Information Systems: Foreword, 2004). Pragmatism is focused on asking the right questions and seeking answers to those questions. Action Research is an interventionist approach to the acquisition of scientific knowledge that has sound foundations in the post-positivist tradition. Blum (1955) explained the essence of AR as a simple two stage process. First, the diagnostic stage involves a collaborative analysis of the social situation by the researcher and the subjects of the research. Hypotheses are formulated concerning the nature of the research domain. Second, the therapeutic stage involves collaborative change experiments. In this stage changes are introduced and the effects are studied (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). However, additional structure is usually imposed on AR to achieve scientific rigor. The most common description is a five phase, cyclical process consisting of the following steps:

which can be described as an ideal expression of the original concepts of AR (Susman & Roger, 1978).

In practice, however, such methods often vary depending on the application. This approach first entails the setting up of a client-system infrastructure or research environment. The client-system infrastructure is the specification and agreement that makes up the research environment. A key aspect of the infrastructure is the collaborative nature of the process. The researchers work closely with practitioners located within the client-system (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). Knowledge gained when action research is conducted as mentioned above can be directed to three audiences. First, what Argyris and Schon called “double-loop learning”, the restructuring of organizational norms to reflect the new knowledge gained by the organization during the research (Smith, 2001). Second, where the change was unsuccessful, the additional knowledge may provide foundations for diagnosing in preparation for further action research intervention. Finally, the success or failure of the theoretical framework will provide important knowledge to the scientific community (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). Action research therefore attempts to link theory and practice, thinking and doing, achieving both practical and research objective (Susman & Roger, 1978).

Characteristics of Action Research

The following are the key characteristics of Action Research (Susman & Roger, 1978):

Does Systems Thinking and Action Research fit together?

Action research has been closely linked to systems theory from its inception although Susman, as cited earlier in this paper (Susman & Roger, 1978), made the earliest connections. As seen in the characteristics of action research, Systems Development is one of its key goals. Action research identifies that human action is systematic and that action researchers are intervening in social systems. Peter Checkland’s extensive use of Action Research in the methodology of systems development at Lancaster University is a landmark for the systems thinking methodology in information systems research (Checkland P. , 2008). Checkland’s view of human activity systems drew considerable IS attention to action research. Checkland not only used the approach extensively in developing the soft systems methodology, but action research concepts for gaining professional knowledge permeated that soft systems approach itself (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). The following are reasons how and why Action Research can be conducted in the field of Information systems (Baskerville R. , Investigating Information Systems with Action Research, 1999):

The domain of information systems action research is clearest where the human organization interacts with information systems. Action research aims for an understanding of a complex human process rather than prescribing a universal social law. The ideal domain of IS action research method is characterized by a social setting where (Baskerville R. , Investigating Information Systems with Action Research, 1999):

Soft Systems Methodology

The most thoroughly documented and discussed methodological example of action research and systems thinking is Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) which Peter Checkland created through his work in both the management and the academic world (Checkland P. B., Checkland, 2007). SSM is usually a seven stage process as listed below (Dick, 2002):

Figure 2: Seven Steps of Soft Systems Methodology

Strategies for conducting Action Research

Seven key strategies in conducting action research are known to improve the rigor and contribution of the research process (Baskerville R. , Investigating Information Systems with Action Research, 1999). They are:

Action Research and Consulting

Action research is often mistakenly branded as “consulting disguised as research”. At least four factors differentiate action research and consulting (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). They are:
These differentiations are not widely known and so even action researchers struggle to differentiate their work from consultation. Rapoport called this the role dilemma of action research. The researcher using this method often must remain particularly strong and loyal to their research rigor, since client interests tend to undermine scientific requirements.

Criticisms of Action Research

The common criticisms of action research are

The criticisms mentioned above are actually general problems of social science research (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). Action research shares these problems with other methods. The key to overcome these problems is to better prepare the action researcher.


As I was considering a topic to choose for this paper, I read about Action Research in another class which prompted this journey of reading all the literature in systems thinking and action research cited above. As someone who has worked in today’s information systems dominated workplace, there is a great need for practitioners to be not only equipped to think systemically, but also to reproduce such creativity and design in a longitudinal manner. It is my belief that action research offers a chance to the scholars to both exhibit and equip the practitioners with the skills required to do so. This paper has attempted to make the case for Action Research as a practical, viable means of conducting system thinking inspired research in the modern workplace. The culture, demands, needs, burdens and the pace of the modern workplace and its inhabitants has changed drastically. As the culture and needs change, does should the methods used to address them. Practitioners are the agents of both cause and effect – researchers are usually out-of-sync from the daily pressures that practitioners face. It is then a crucial need to not only educate the practitioners but also provide knowledge and insight that reaches the cubicles where they are most needed. As we saw, action research is context-bound but since theory arises from particular needs, action research is a fine theory discovery method (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). Action research is directed toward the development of action competencies of members of organizations, and can be described as an “enabling science”. Competence is developed in interpretation and judgment, in establishing problem-solving procedures, acting in contingent and uncertain situations, learning from one’s errors, generating workable new constructs from one’s experiences (Susman & Roger, 1978). More often than not, we continue to witness change driven from the top down, by the few with the power to control the many, without regard to the potential benefits of greater involvement by those who must implement the new way of operating. To challenge the dominant view will require a paradigm shift that elevates the quality of total human experience above measures of economic advancement as measures of the progress of society; that makes expert knowledge readily available to those who need it; that places speed of learning and adaptation above costs and efficiencies as ultimate measures of system performance and that are designed in accordance with the unique needs of those they serve (Pasmore, 2007).


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