Professionalising Systems Thinking in Practice: what's not to celebrate?

Reynolds, Martin (2023). Professionalising Systems Thinking in Practice: what's not to celebrate? In: 67th Annual Proceedings of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, ISSS 2023, 16-23 Jun 2023, Skukuza.


2020 marked a significant landmark for professional recognition of systems thinking in practice in the UK. Government approval was secured for a new Level 7 (postgraduate) Apprenticeship Standard associated with an occupational role for a systems thinking practitioner (STP). Further professional recognition for a STP might be celebrated on several counts; primarily with installing greater confidence amongst users of, and potential commissioners for, systems thinking in practice. But professionalization also prompts potential systemic downsides. The paper provides a systemic inquiry into the professionalization of systems thinking based on a lite-touch framing with simplified questions associated with the four sources of influence from critical systems heuristics (CSH): who gets what (motivation)? who owns what (control)? who does what (knowledge/ expertise)? and who suffers what (legitimacy)? The framing opens up conversation and questions regarding four corresponding key stakeholding issues: (i) what value is generated by systems thinking as a profession and for whom? (ii) what are appropriate governance structures for steering systems thinking as practiced? (iii) how might the increasing emergent diversity and creativity of systems thinking be guaranteed and (iv) what ethos of professionalism might circumscribe purposeful development of systems thinking as professional practice? On this last question, the paper contrasts two models of possible direction – conventional ‘client professionalism’ and ‘civic professionalism’, with an advocacy of the latter over the former. Drawing on the four CSH sources of influence, civic professionalism suggests systems thinking in practice as ultimately generating value as a ‘public good’ (source of motivation), through ‘public work’ with appropriate governance to allow for autonomy (control) enabling trusted expertise based on resonance and relevance as much as reliability (knowledge), and adaptable for variable contexts informed by an ethos of social justice and ‘public service’ (legitimacy). The latter ethos ought not to be confused with serving only work recognized as belonging to the ‘public sector’. The two models can be considered as occupying opposite poles on a systematic - systemic spectrum of professional development, with client professionalism caricatured as a Systems-industrial complex and the more systemic civic professionalism retaining features of a Systems-adaptive complex. Maintaining ongoing conversation around features of each model may help mitigate concerns around systems thinking in practice losing her ultimate transformative power – similar to the Ancient Greek tragedy regarding the God of Fire - Prometheus Bound.

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