Systems Practice by Professor Ray Ison is a radical departure from many management or systems practice books (e.g. teaching tools and techniques). Instead Ison’s focus is upon building praxis capability within individuals. Helping us to learn what it is to be a systems practitioner. And what it means to do theory-informed practice and practice informed theory. I view this book as critical for leaders, managers, technology designers and services improvement, transformation and change professionals.
Systems Practice is structured in four parts and set against the background of climate change. Too often when we encounter situations we bring with us our assumptions, beliefs, methods and tools that distort and limit our understanding (of the situation and people) and therefore the potential to help improve. To free us from this trap, the book treats the reader as a situation that is in need of systemic intervention. By inviting us to reflect upon a series of difficult and challenging questions (such as the wonderful ‘What is it we do when we do what we do?’) the reader takes an inwards-turn. And this helps us to reframe ourselves and our practice. As we develop critical reflexive learning skills this makes our interventions more effective.
Systems practice as process
One of Ison’s many notable achievements is how he makes visible fundamental core features of systemic inquiry. Using graphic illustrations (Isophors) he helps us to understand that all systems practice is a process made up of core features. Us as practitioners. The situation of interest. The system (and sub-systems) in which the situation of interest exists. The environment surrounding it. And a boundary of some sort. He helps us to see how the theoretic models that we carry with us shape our understanding of what we see and how we interact with the situation of interest.
The Juggler Isophor – Practice as a relational dynamic
Another notable achievement is the use of the juggler to help the reader understand and reflect upon the four interrelated and dynamic elements of practice: being (B), engaging (E), contextualising (C) and (M) Managing. [warning, your head may hurt when working through this concept]. Ultimately, it will help practitioners to surface issues and blind spots in their own practice. I invite you to give it a go and let me know what you learn.
Key ideas and themes
The book is packed full of core systems concepts, anecdotes, case studies, and wonderful drawings to help visualise important issues. The book is intended to accompany the Open University systems thinking module TU812. It can be read on its own.
- The difference between being systemic and being systematic
- Thinking in systems and systems thinking
- Living in language
- Positioning ourselves within traditions and lineages (one of the reasons I like Ison is that he acknowledges John Seddon and the Vanguard Method as part of a systems thinking tradition and lineage)
- Reification – turning ideas into things
- Social technologies – very important in studying services organisations
- Issues with projects – Projectification
- Isophors – Visual metaphor that draws attention to processes and dynamics
- The juggler isophor – core practice relational dynamics and practice as a peformance
- Systems practice and core concepts including boundary, environment
- Systemic inquiry
- Taking a ‘design-turn’