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The trajectory of systems research and practice: A Fuschl conversation (2008)

Posted on April 21, 2009 by daviding

Over the past 28 years, the International Federation for Systems Research has hosted a meeting that has become known as the Fuschl Conversation. The conversation was designed as an “anti-conference” by Bela H. Banathy. Rather than centering on presentations of completed papers, small groups meet in a low-stress setting to engage in generative conversation, creating new knowledge. To focus and energize the conversations, position papers are developed by each individual before the meeting, and proceedings are published following.

For 2008 — my third Fuschl Conversation — I was privileged to spend four days with Gary Metcalf, Jennifer Wilby, Allenna Leonard and Leonie Solomons. Here’s an abstract of our conversation:

For this Fuschl meeting in March 2008, a group was formed based on a call for individuals with experiences in both (a) systems research and practice, and (b) applications in industry, academia and/or public policy. All of the participants in Team 2 have exercised systems thinking applied in the social sciences, both in research/educational contexts and in applied/practice contexts. In the discussion, we shared a rich base of collective experiences working in multiple countries across four continents.

In retrospect, the conversation drew out insights in three areas:

  • 1. Where does systems knowledge figure into the practice of social science practitioners?
  • 2. How is systems knowledge applied with domain-specific knowledge?
  • 3. When are domain-specific issues providing entry points into which systems knowledge becomes valuable?
  • 4. How is the nature of systems knowledge coevolving with institutions (public, private, not-for-profit) and technology (wikis, blogs, voice over Internet)?

This report concludes with a reflection on the conversation process itself, in the setting of Fuschl.

A 7-page summary of the conversation is published in the downloadable proceedings of the meeting. As a teaser, here’s an outline.

1. Where does systems knowledge figure into the practice of social science practitioners?

  • 1.1 A systems perspective can help in understanding how individuals and organizations do and don’t change
  • 1.2 A systems approach can be applied for problem-solving, in moving from current practices
  • 1.3 Systems theory can be a foundation for finding patterns that may be reapplied elsewhere
  • 1.4 Systems thinking can aid in formation of a desired end, with reflexivity into premises
  • 1.5 Systems relations can enable integrating multiple perspectives
  • 1.6 Across social science practitioners, systems theory may or may not appear explicitly

2. How is systems knowledge applied with domain-specific knowledge?

  • 2.1 When integrated with domain knowledge, systems knowledge can be categorized in levels of explicitness
  • 2.2 The appropriateness of articulating systems knowledge can vary by the role played in engagement

3. When are domain-specific issues providing entry points into which systems knowledge
becomes valuable?

  • 3.1 Continuing professional development of systems knowledge was difficult from a conceptual entry point, and easier as history of science
  • 3.2 Developing a curriculum for a new science of services systems leans on systems science as an entry point apart from existing disciplines
  • 3.3 Facilitating multi-faction negotiations on regional ethnic conflict has presented systems models as an entry point for sustainable resolution
  • 3.4 The development of skills and methods for analytical business professionals uses systems as an entry point to bridge hard and soft approaches

4. How is the nature of systems knowledge coevolving with institutions (public, private, not-for-profit) and technology (wikis, blogs, voice over Internet)?

  • 4.1 Messy social-economic-political issues are an opportunity for continuing development of systems knowledge
  • 4.2. Presenting systems knowledge to a new generation of thinkers represents a potential for another rebirth of the systems movement

Interested readers can refer to the full proceedings. Being together in Fuschl am See is a personal experience, and the written summary doesn’t do full justice to the shared learning. Our report ended with a reflection on the experience:

Epilogue: Our appreciation to the IFSR and the continuing Fuschl conversation

With all of the preceding points on a changed world, these participants of Fuschl Team 2 acknowledge the continuing value of the Fuschl conversation, and its sponsorship by the IFSR. The Fuschl conversation, both in its setting and its style, represents an enduring institution in the continuing development of systems research.

As the world becomes faster, face-to-face communications in a loosely structured agenda has proven to be effective for post-graduate learning — both at the level of individuals and in groups — in an unstructured / emergent way. A large degree of diversity in participants is helpful in evolving ongoing work, and generating new directions and collaborations.

In addition, artifacts of prior conversations are helpful as references for ongoing research. Ideas from a conversation in 2000 (i.e. on aporetic conflict) resurfaced in 2008, and are being revisited in current research. The path from idea generation to initial documentation to published research to application is ambiguous in its direction and duration. The combination of easily-accessible proceedings and in-person availability of prior participants improves the transmission of knowledge.

Interactions within small teams, with periodic reports and visits to other teams, represents an effective inquiring system where new ideas can be combined with an emerging network of ideas that continues to regenerate and refresh the systems movement.

In addition to this topic, three other groups worked in parallel on other interests, including:

  • Informing the Development of Systems-Oriented Curricula at the University Level: The Systems Education Matrix
  • Disseminating, Accessing and Communicating Systems Knowledge
  • Quality & Excellence in Systems Research

Most recently, the pattern for meetings has been an invitation to an event every other spring, following the European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research . If I’m fortunate, I’ll be invited to attend again in spring 2010.

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