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Wednesday, August 5 • 13:30 - 14:00
Bridge the Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Teaching, Learning and Application of Systems Thinking in the Workplace

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This paper reports on a study looking at teaching, learning and application of systems thinking ideas for the workplace. It provides suggestions for designing learning systems to enhance the application of systems thinking in the workplace.

Drawing upon a qualitative interview process and action research methodology, the research looked at experiences of mature part-time students taking distance learning postgraduate core modules for the systems thinking in practice (STiP) programme at the Open University, UK. The study also investigated the experiences of alumni (from the same programme) as employees seeking to apply the learning from their studies in systems thinking in the workplace,  alongside the experiences of employers of the alumni.

The research was undertaken by a team of  5 systems practitioners involved with the design and delivery of the postgraduate STiP programme. There were three phases to the research. Broadly speaking, the first phase focused upon experiences of learning systems, the second phase focused upon the experience of applying systems ideas in the workplace, whilst the third phase looked ahead to examine better design in the application of systems thinking.

The results of the study in relation to the experience of learning about systems thinking suggested that whilst most students valued their study, there were a range of barriers to learning.  Students experienced challenges of making time and commitment for study and contact with tutors and other students, alongside difficulties with engaging in some of the more philosophical elements of module material and problems with language and the range and scope of case study materials. There were also some specific factors that supported learning that participants identified. These enablers included the high quality of study materials, the richness and variety of voices on the programme (including those of fellow students on online forums) and the integration within module activities to work on applying ideas in practice. 

Whilst some of these experiences of learning were shared, we also found that not all students encountered these challenges and enablers in the same way or in equal measure. In trying to make sense of the variety in experiences of students, we developed some outline sketches or archetypes of systems learners that provided an interesting heuristic account of the variety in which study on the module was encountered.

When the application of systems ideas in practice was discussed, we found that most of the participants who were attempting to apply the ideas in practice were doing so in something of an under-the-radar or behind-the-scenes manner. We found that explicit use of systems thinking in the workplace was somewhat limited, with many participants tending to work with systems thinking for individual sense making or off-line design work. For some of the practitioners, such an approach seemed to be experienced as a problematic constraint on the scope of their practice, whilst for others it was a more accepted part of organisational circumstance.

We found many factors that seemed to contribute to this approach to using systems thinking: employees understanding and sense of agency, the practitioners confidence in overt application, pressure for action that is 'practical' and within current 'frames' of reference and of course the employees learning from module material. We also found that employers had differing attitudes or modes of engaging with the employees skills in systems thinking which had some influence upon how systems thinking could be used by the learners.

The synthesis of this inquiry is emerging, including proposals for better systemic design in bridging the gap between teaching, learning and application of systems thinking in the workplace; for example, through promotion of action learning amongst alumni and coaching to employers of systems practitioners. 

Wednesday August 5, 2015 13:30 - 14:00 CEST
Stockholm 1 Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz, Gabriele-Tergit-Promenade 19, 10963 Berlin, Germany

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