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
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.
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):
- Unfreezing: Faced with a dilemma or disconfirmation, the individual or group becomes aware of a need to change.
- Changing: The situation is diagnosed and new models of behavior are explored and tested.
- Refreezing: Application of new behavior is evaluated, and if reinforcing, adopted.
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).
- Action planning
- Action taking
- Specifying learning
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):
- Future Orientation:
In dealing with the practical concerns of people, AR is oriented towards creating a more desirable future for them.
- Collaborative in Nature:
Interdependence between the client system and the researcher is an essential feature of AR.
- Implied Systems Development:AR encourages the development of
the capacity of a system to facilitate, maintain, and regulate the
cyclical process of diagnosing, action planning, action taking,
evaluating and specifying learning. Developing new knowledge about
system processes is a key element of the research method.
- Situational Implications:
The action researcher knows that many of the relationships between
people, events, and things are a function of the situation as relevant
actors currently define it. Even though relationships are not invariant
and the situations are prone to change, appropriate actions do not
depend upon previously observed relationships between actors and
outcomes. It is based on knowing how the current actors define the
current situations and on achieving consensus so that planned actions
will produce their intended outcomes.
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
- Action research aims to improve understanding of an immediate,
complex social system. The IS domain is both complex and multivariate
- Action Research simultaneously assists in practical problem solving
and expands scientific knowledge. This helps both the IS practitioners
by intervention and IS research by providing knowledge.
- Action Research is performed collaboratively and enhances the
competencies of the respective actors. Action researchers do not work
on research subjects but rather with them (Schein, 2007).
- Action Research is primarily applicable for the understanding of
change processes in social systems – which is a pressing issue needing
research in the IS domain.
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):
- The researcher is actively involved and the expected benefits are for both researcher and the organization.
- The knowledge obtained can be immediately applied.
- The research is a process linking theory and practice.
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):
Emergence of a problem situation with which actors involved feel uncomfortable and feel the need to make improvements.
- The problem situation is expressed taking care to avoid structuring
the situation as it would close down original thinking and hence the
- Stage 3 recommends systemic thinking about the situation. Root
definitions of the relevant systems are defined in this stage. Human
Activity systems are named that might offer insight into the problem
situation, and may generate debate leading to action for improvement.
Human activity systems are systemic models of the activities that
people undertake in order to pursue a particular purpose.
- Stage 4 elaborates on root definitions by drawing up conceptual
models. Conceptual models are the minimum set of verbs necessary to
describe the actions of the human activity systems. The verbs are
ordered systemically, drawing out the feedback loops that describe the
interactions of the human activity systems.
In stage 5, the conceptual models, which are the results of systemic
thinking about the real world, are taken into the real world and are
compared to the problem situation expressed in stage 2.
- In stage 6, the change proposals are thought through in
two ways – first, the desirability of the human activity system
captured in the systems model is discussed and secondly, the issue of
feasibility is explored in the context of the problem situation,
attitudes and the political interactions are that involved.
- Stage 7 seeks to explore possible accommodation between
contrasting opinions and interests that surface in the process of SSM.
Implementation of agreed upon change proposals gives rise to another
problem situation and so the process of SSM continues (Flood R. L.,
Figure 2: Seven Steps of Soft Systems Methodology
Strategies for conducting Action Research
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:
Consider the paradigm shift:
Since AR does not occur in the traditional positivist philosophy of
science, the action researcher should make sure that the method is
appropriate for the research question and will be accepted by the
Establish a formal research agreement:
Ensure that the human subjects of the study give “informed consent”.
The researcher should also clearly arrange for the warrants that will
authorize the research team to initiate action within the organization.
Provide a theoretical problem statement:
The theoretical framework should be present a premise for the research,
otherwise the interventionist action is no longer valid as research.
The diagnosis document should include explicit theoretical foundations.
As the research progresses, the emergence of theory should be recorded
carefully in the research notebooks.
Plan data collection methods:
Action research is empirical although the collected data is typically
qualitative and interpretive. Data can be collected through audio-taped
observations, interviews, action experiments, and participant written
cases. Researchers or teams can also keep structured diaries.
Maintain collaboration and subject learning:
Action research requires careful preservation of collaboration with
subjects, as they will have key knowledge, both of theory and the
practical setting. Researchers should avoid dominating the diagnosis
and the action planning stages.
Action research is typically cyclical. Action failures in terms of the
immediate problem situations are often as important and in some cases
more important action successes. Action should continue until the
immediate problem situation is relieved.
The generality of theory developed in action research are founded in
deductive generalizations. Generalities should be tempered with an
interpretation of the extent of similar settings to which the theory
can be expected to apply.
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.
- Action researchers require more rigorous documentary records than consultants.
- Researchers require theoretical justifications while consultants require empirical justifications.
- Consultants operate under tighter time and budget constraints.
- Consultation is usually linear – engage, analyze, action, disengage – while the action research process is cyclical.
Criticisms of Action Research
The common criticisms of action research are
- The supposed lack of
impartiality of the researcher has led to the rejection of the action
research method by a number of researchers. This however is not a
problem singular to the action research methodology.
- Some of the Action Research offered to the scientific community
lacks rigor. This makes it difficult for the work to be assessed. The
loss of rigor may be due to the researcher’s propensity to overlook the
scientific necessities of the research and focus on the actions and its
- Action research is context bound and is not context free. This is
due to the fact that action research is more deeply engulfed in any
multivariate social experiment than other methods.
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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