Concerns with the way systems thinking is used in evaluation | Michael C. Jackson, OBE | 2023-02-27

In a recording of the debate between Michael Quinn Patton and Michael C. Jackson on “Systems Concepts in Evaluation”, Patton referenced four concepts published in the “Principles for effective use of systems thinking in evaluation” (2018) by the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group (SETIG) of the American Evaluation Society.

The four concepts are: (i) interrelationships; (ii) perspectives; (iii) boundaries; and (iv) dynamics.

At 16m36s into the recording, the debate turned to Jackson for a response.

[16m36] Thanks, Barb. I’m concerned with the way in which we use systems thinking in evaluation. I’ll try and pick out some issues that I see with the Systems Concepts approach, which means the use of interrelationships, perspectives, boundaries, and dynamics in evaluation practice.

[17m00s] And to make the case for what I think is the clearer guidance that Critical Systems Practice can give.

[17m09s] A problem with the concepts is that they don’t reflect the full range of systems thinking or the full range of systems approaches.

[17m20s] They’re actually a relatively narrow set of concepts if you look across the systems field.

[17m30s] If you were to take one of the best known system thinkers, Peter Checkland, he comes up with a notion that the key consistent concepts are communication and control (cybernetic concepts) and emergence and hierarchy.

[17:47] Patrick Hoverstadt, who is the the chair of System and Complexity in Organizations, the UK professional body for systems thinking, comes up with 33 systems principles in his recent book The Grammar of Systems.

[18m05s] I think it’s not doing systems thinking justice, and possibly not doing evaluation much good, just to stick to four concepts out of the very many that exist in systems thinking, all reflecting upon different systems approaches. So that’s my first point.

[18m26s] My second point is that I feel that the the concepts can be interpreted very differently by different people, according to their existing world views, and that concepts on their own, separated from the world views or the historical theoretical traditions which make them meaningful, are actually relatively empty, and meaningless.

[18m56s] You have to see concepts within a system of signs, a language game, which gives them meaning.

[19m07s] So for example, the concept of interrelationships in System Dynamics, that means causal relationships in feed forward and feedback loops.

[19m18s] In Soft Systems Methodology, interrelationships refers to the relationships between different stakeholders and their particular world views.

[19m30s] And so totally different to meanings there. And I could say the same for all of the concepts.

[19m36s] So boundaries in System Dynamics means all those things which you regard as endogenously influential on the system.

[19m48s] Boundaries in Critical Systems Heuristics means what values are, what facts are included, in a particular decision to change something some way, and which are excluded, and what the impact that has upon stakeholders.

[20m05s] So, unfortunately, I think the the concepts are pretty meaningless unless you take them back to their root metaphors or the intellectual traditions from which they emerge.

[20m14s] Now the danger of that, for me, is that the people who are using these concepts are likely to interpret them according to their existing world views.

[20m25s] And as we know, the tradition in much of evaluation and in much management theory is to go back to the mechanistic perspective.

[20m33s] And I feel that people will have no difficulty whatsoever interpreting these concepts according to a mechanistic worldview that they already have.

[20m43s] Therefore, I argue that the clearer guidance offered by the range of systems methodologies which are Incorporated within critical systems practice can provide clearer more precise guidance and is a better way of using systems approaches and evaluation.

Most listeners would not be aware that, with root metaphors, Michael C. Jackson is referring to Root Metaphors described by Stephen C. Pepper, or Root Metaphor Theory.