Observations on a Systems Thinking eTMA

Today is a bit of a landmark for me. It is the cut-off date for my first Post Graduate assignment. It’s all submitted now. The eggs have hatched… the birds have flown.

As regular readers of my blog will know, I am currently in the early stages of taking an MSc Systems Thinking in Practice with the Open University.

The module that I am currently working on is TU811 Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change. As someone who is completely new to Open University (OU) ,and distance learning in general, I thought I would take a little time to write up some observations on my experience so far.

Time is deceiving

Yes, yes. I know. This is one of those things EVERYONE warns about when it comes to distance learning courses.

I took this warning to heart and was fairly well-disciplined with my time. Plus or minus I was pretty on par with the recommended timetable provided by the OU. That is until I came to the actual TMA. Then all my carefully laid plans went right out of the window.

I didn’t realise how much rework I would end up doing. It appeared to me the last two weeks just became a blur!

The inherent danger in thinking about Systems Thinking

Turns out that all this holistic thinking is both a blessing and a curse. Messy topics are… messy. I found I needed a large amount of mental discipline (and the help of my long-suffering husband) to ensure I was keeping within the boundaries I had set for my topic. Boy am I glad of those boundaries! Without them my causal diagram would have been enormous! It would have looked much like this famous example that was dismissed as a PowerPoint fail in the New York Times.

Evidently keeping an eye on your topic is vital for these assignments. This leads me nicely onto…

Answering the actual question – not your version of the question

This is a big trap – especially for students that haven’t had the rigour of being students for a long time.

My main diagram went through 14 iterations before I was happy it actually identified the variables pertinent to the chosen situation (we will find out how well I did on that in a few weeks I guess!) I lost count of numbers of times I reworked my answers because I had disappeared off on some tangent.

Can you teach someone else what you have learned?

Seriously – I cannot advocate this one enough.

If you cannot explain your thinking process and your diagram to someone with no experience of Systems Thinking, then you probably don’t understand it yourself.

I ‘demonstrated’ my causal loops to several people. The first time I did this …it was HARD! I ended up questioning my own understanding of the methods. I realised that while I had read and applied the principles, I had not totally understood what I was doing. The diagram wasn’t actually wrong… I just couldn’t explain why it was right!

It was only once I could reliably explain the principles to several people, and they subsequently felt able to question and challenge some of my variables, that I felt confident in my workings.

The word count…the horror!

Okay – this one was a difficult one for me. I have always had problems with restrictive word counts. I am a fairly verbose person – and I write in a similar way to the way I speak. My blog probably shows ….

That approach is not going to work in one of these assessments. You need to get used to stripping out all the flowery language and keeping it concise. I wrote most of my TMA in Google Docs. I found the GradeProof AI app rather helpful with this as it provides helpful suggestions on ‘improving’ language.

I did all the word count and formatting in Office 365 however as the TMA needs a.doc file extension – you can get a student copy if you have a live student email.

Questioning yourself

I did this a lot towards the end of the assessment – had I answered correctly? Had I even understood the question? Did I have evidence or was it just my opinion?

Part of this is natural, but I think the course actually exacerbates this one somewhat. The People side of the course (which frankly I find fascinating) teaches you that you don’t ‘know’ as much as you think you do, and that your experiences colour your judgement. Knowing this made it much easier to get caught up over-examining your answers; are they ‘fact’ or just created by your perspective.

To conclude…

This was an eye-opening experience and it certainly was a shock to the system after being out of academia for so long. This being said, now that first TMA is submitted, it is onto the next one. I will have to wait another few weeks before I find out how well I understood the subject!

The bugbear of being Back Office

The recent hoohah over the WannaDecrypt / WannaCry ransomware debacle, and the subsequent shamefaced admittance from a number of institutions that they have not been maintaining and /or future-proofing their systems properly, has once again brought one of my personal ‘bafflements’ into sharp focus.

My background in the IT space has most often been supporting the backroom admin functions. You know? The un-sexy necessities of any large-scale organisation; systems which pay the employees or suppliers, which keep records, that calculate tax, book leave or track the never-ending annual appraisal cycles. These are systems that frequently have to run regression-based Waterfall methodologies due to heavy customisation and monolithic architecture. The ones that look longingly at DevOps Agile approaches, sigh melodramatically, and then pragmatically just get on with the job. Giving credit where it is due, some companies are slowly, slowly! moving towards modernising these unwieldy applications as an inability to migrate these type of customised services into the Cloud highlights some pretty deep cost inefficiencies.

Maintenance of these type of older systems is easily brushed under the carpet; ‘we haven’t been hacked so far, why should we feel any urgency now?’ Or in some cases it is not brushed under the carpet and it is scoped, but then it has to ‘wait’ for a suitable opportunity to test it before it can be put live.

I am not taking a Systems Thinking course for nothing though – so I thought it would be an interesting thought experiment to step away from my own perspectives and look at some others.

In the private sector, budgets are shaped by the bottom line – what is going to MAKE the business money. The company has a finite amount of money to invest and it wants to do so with the biggest return it can get. In this environment, back office systems that handle internal data and files are inevitably going to be low on the pecking order when up against the survival image of the business in its sector. Customer systems are going to get a lot of TLC because of the absolute necessity of a good customer experience. I find this a bit of a catch 22 situation – you need the customers to make the money, but how good will the customer experience be if all of your staff disappear due to a payroll error.

In the public sector the problem is bigger than just back office systems; the constant squeeze from government leaves everyone competing for a piece of an ever shrinking pie. (An ever shrinking pie that seems to pay some pretty incredible sums of money to contractors for their IT systems as well I might add. I have been witness to a few public sector ‘contracts’ and colour me utterly bamboozled by the procurement process!) Taking the beleaguered NHS Trusts as a prime example, choosing between replacing some antiquated systems that seem to be working okay, or paying to keep the lights on and patients moving through their appointments appears to be a no-brainer (especially in view of the ever tightening hospital waiting list targets). But this approach just defers the problem. And defers it. And defers it. And then something goes …ka-boom!  Also – who on earth would hack a hospital… amiright?

Still – the kerfuffle will bring some much needed attention to these darkened corners. No bad thing. However the cynic in me asks – will we learn from it? Or after the buzz has died down, will those bad habits start creeping back in? I would be interested in hearing some other opinions and thoughts about this mess – feel free to post if you feel so inclined.