Socio-Technical Perspectives in Information Systems – 14-15 October 2021, Trento Italy / online if needed


Socio-Technical Perspectives in Information Systems

Importance of socio-technical perspective in research and practice

A yearly workshop

Where: Trento, Italy / possibly online if needed

14-15. October 2021

This year, the 7th International Workshop on Socio-Technical Perspective in IS development (STPIS’21) will take place in connection with the Italian Chapter of the Association for Information Systems (itAIS), in Trento in Italy. If travel is not possible due to COVID restrictions, or you prefer not to travel, we will be flexible and allow virtual presentations. If needed, STPIS’21 will be held virtually.

A socio-technical perspective sees an organization as a combination of two components – a social and a technical one. The real pattern of behaviour in the organization is determined by how well these parts fit each other. While analysing system problems of getting things done, adequate consideration should be given to technology as well as informal and formal interactions of people.

Despite that a socio-technical perspective has been around for over a half century, it is often forgotten in the IS discourse today. Consequently, many “new approaches” appear to reflect on IS systems problems, such as modern IT systems poorly adjusted to the external or/and internal environment (e.g. market, organizational culture) of organizations in which they are (to be) deployed. We strongly believe that it is high time the social-technical perspective took its proper place in IS research, practice and teaching.

Interested in submitting?



Submission due16th Jul 2021


Author notification20th Aug 2021

STPIS 2021

STPIS 2021 starts14th Oct 2021

STPIS 2021

STPIS starts: 14. October, 09:00
STPIS ends: 15. October, 15:00
ITAIS starts: 15. October, 12:00
ITAIS ends: 16. October, 23:00

STPIS 2021 STPIS starts: 14. October, 09:00 STPIS ends: 15. October, 15:00 ITAIS starts: 15. October, 12:00 ITAIS ends: 16. October, 23:00

Socio-Technical Perspectives in Information Systems

UKSS 21st International Conference – UK Systems Society – Systems Research in the Digital Age, 21 June 2021 (online)


UKSS 21st International Conference – UK Systems Society
UK Systems Society

UK Systems Society

Promoting Systems Thinking for the 21st century

UKSS 21st International Conference

Systems Research in the Digital Age

The 21st UKSS International Conference will be online. The date is the 21st June 2021.


Please submit your paper to Systemist [] where it will be refereed and considered for publication in the next edition. It is worth remembering that papers published in Systemist will be open access and with the copyright remaining with the author.

We wish you good Systems practice 

Keep healthy 

Frank Stowell

President UKSS on behalf of the management team

Christine Welch, Ian Roderick, Gary Evans, Petia Sice

For information – download the conference flyer:

Advanced Notice – The Digital 21st UKSS International Conference


UKSS 21st International Conference – UK Systems Society

Critical Systems Thinking, GAPPS, EU Science Hub / Cynefin Centre | Mike C. Jackson | 2021/02

With the permission of Dr. Mike C. Jackson OBE, multiple blog posts that were published on LinkedIn have been reposted here, in the interests of scholarship. (A liberty has been taking with editorial paragraphing to introduce whitespace, in hopes of reducing reading fatigue).

Originally published on February 28, 2021 at

A Critical Systems Thinking overview of the ‘GAPPS’​ and the ‘EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre’​ guides to leadership in times of complexity

Dr Mike C. Jackson OBE
Centre for Systems Studies

Two reports have recently appeared (February 2021) aimed at improving the capacity of decision-makers to lead and manage in the face of complexity and crisis.

The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast the two documents and to subject them to an initial critique using critical systems thinking (CST). Both are worthy of closer attention and I’m sure they will receive this in the future.

The GAPPS framework argues that governments, organisations, and individuals are increasingly perceiving themselves as confronted by VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments. These environments arise from dynamic interdependencies, within and between systems, and the existence of multiple stakeholders with differing perspectives. The framework seeks to set out the competencies that leaders require to navigate in VUCA environments. The competencies identified are ‘performance based’ and describe the minimum acceptable performance a leader should exhibit in the workplace in “trying to get things done in the face of complexity”.

Lists of competencies are common in the ‘project professions’. The GAPPS framework draws upon previous work of this kind and a lengthy period of consultation and workshops involving significant numbers of experienced project professionals. Although not explicitly a ‘systems thinking’ document, it is reasonable to regard its underlying world-view as being that ‘complexity is the issue and systems thinking the way forward’. I should declare that my own systems thinking work was an input into the original ‘International Centre for Complex Project Management’ standards, upon which the framework draws, and my most recent book is included in the references of the GAPPS document.

At the heart of the framework are 5 ‘Units of Competency’ in the workplace, incorporating 22 elements of competency and 81 criteria of threshold performance.

  • The first unit, ‘Think Holistically’, is about applying appropriate systems approaches in the face of dynamic interrelationships and multiple perspectives, and emerging threats and opportunities.
  • The second, ‘Exercise Personal Mastery’, deals with the qualities a leader, confronted by complexity, should demonstrate in their personal behaviour, in building trust, and in leading sensitively.
  • The third, ‘Provide Conditions to Enable Decisions and Action’, concerns maintaining strategic direction, setting the minimal rules necessary to enable action (providing scope for autonomy and self-organisation), supplying data needs, and establishing control systems that contribute to learning. This unit also requires leaders to ‘act sustainably’, taking into account the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. In particular, attention must be given to the impact of decisions on individuals and teams, the community, diversity, society, and the environment.
  • Unit four, ‘Respond to the Environment’, demands that leaders establish flexible structures and processes, and continually review their assumptions in the light of new learning.
  • The final unit, ‘Engage Collaboratively’, requires close engagement with stakeholders, working across boundaries to ensure open communication, and collaborative teamwork which respects diverse perspectives.

To many working in the ‘project professions’, used to mandates on how to manage the project life-cycle, integrate ‘systems of systems’, etc., this may all sound a bit ‘airy-fairy’. But the framework makes it clear that it is concerned to set out ‘what’ needs to be considered in dealing with complexity, not ‘how’ things should be done. For this, it is to be commended. Experienced project professionals may feel that they have imbibed most of the lessons the framework seeks to deliver through their practice. But it is still useful for them, and even more so for those learning the ropes, to have them clearly articulated in a manner which acts as a reminder and enables them to be enhanced.

The report is comprehensive, benefiting no doubt from the combined knowledge of the large number of contributors. It addresses the wide range of issues that CST sees as essential in managing complexity – strategic direction, responsiveness to the environment, stakeholder involvement, mutual understanding, sustainability, diversity, etc. That said, it also suffers from being produced ‘by committee’.

  • It sets out a long list of competencies which, despite the structuring around five ‘Units’, lacks overall coherence. For example, once the need to ‘Think Holistically’ has been established, the next unit, ‘Exercise Personal Mastery’, might have been more clearly related to this requirement. Further, from the point of view of CST, it fails to capitalise on the opportunity to show how the competence of fitting selected systems thinking approaches to the problem context can be realised. Although various systems approaches are mentioned, there is no explicit recognition that they have quite different strengths and weaknesses.
  • The competencies around ‘Provide Conditions to Enable Decisions and Action’ and ‘Respond to the Environment’ might usefully have been linked to the strengths of the ‘viable system model’ and ‘socio-technical systems thinking’; those around ‘Engage Collaboratively’ with soft systems approaches; and those concerned with ‘act sustainably’ to ‘critical systems heuristics’. Questions about how such a differentiated range of competencies can be exhibited together, might have been answered with some CST insight into how to work with different perspectives and manage a pluralism of systems approaches.

Finally, from the CST perspective, and the point has also been made from a complexity theory viewpoint by Dave Snowden (on LinkedIn), the list gives the impression that competencies are static, and that homogeneity is desirable. In the midst of a crisis, brought on by complexity, the appropriate leadership qualities are likely to be emergent rather than fixed and those dealing with the crisis better served if they display a diversity of competencies.

The EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre field guide advises decision-makers how they can best make sense of the world during crises and respond effectively. It therefore differs from the GAPPS framework in being praxis oriented. Its world-view is that complexity is the issue and decision-makers are better placed to navigate complexity if they employ a sensibility and methods derived from complexity theory. The field guide was written by Dave Snowden and Alessandro Rancati, and inspired by Snowden’s Cynefin framework. This ensures a certain coherence but means that other complexity and systems perspectives receive little attention. These include natural science variants of complexity (such as developed at the Santa Fe Institute or derived from Prigogine); social science variants (interactionist, radical change, postmodern, critical realist, etc.) developed during complexity theory’s promiscuous crawl through social theory; and cybernetic, soft systems, and critical systems approaches.

The Cynefin version of complexity theory is a ‘naturalising’ approach which seeks to be relevant to social- or anthro-complexity. It wants to bring ‘good science’ to bear to understand how humans interact with each other and engage with the world. Snowden is critical of existing science-based variants of complexity theory when they reduce the complexity exhibited by humans. Humans are not the same as ants, birds or crystals, he insists. Any complexity theory worth the name, and seeking to address anthro-complexity, must take account of human identities, values, intentions, and cultural practices. It is a difficult feat, I will argue, to remain ‘scientific’ while embracing those features of human systems that have been subject to multiple interpretations in the social sciences, leading to the paradigm wars with which other forms of complexity theory have had to become engaged.

Cynefin is about multi-ontology sense making but, as the field guide is concerned with ‘times of crisis’, its emphasis is very much on the ‘un-order’ domains of ‘complexity’ and ‘chaos’. Decision-makers are advised to navigate through crises by adopting a 4-stage approach – ‘Assess’, ‘Adapt’, ‘Exapt’, and ‘Transcend’.

  • ‘Assess’ starts with a state of confusion which involves deciding whether an apparent crisis can be managed using existing protocols or will demand radical change. If the latter, it is important to gain some initial control by adjusting the ‘constraints’ that are operating. In the case of Covid-19 (and this example is used to good effect throughout the document), this would translate into tightening them by closing borders, insisting on confinement, and encouraging social distancing and remote working. At the same time, it is crucial to start to move away from bureaucracy and conservative practices by delegating decision-making, creating more flexible boundaries to improve communication, and empowering informal networks. Decision-makers should start ‘journaling’ – capturing in notebooks, using sketches as much as possible, the principles they are applying and the new relationships that develop.
  • ‘Adapt’ is about managing ’emerging evolutionary possibilities’ (definitely not about designing some ideal future). This will require loosening organisational constraints and any narrative constraints which stand in the way of a wider variety of ‘stories’ coming forward. Overall co-ordination must be maintained but the organisation needs to become a distributed ‘human sensor network’ in which informal teams and various specialised ‘crews’ seek to reframe the problem space from diverse perspectives, react to weak signals, and seek out new opportunities. Prototyping of innovative solutions can begin but the overarching mantra is to keep options open. Journaling is essential as a means of recording lessons learnt and sharing insights. Decision-makers may still be uncertain what to do but a sense of urgency builds. At some point there is an ‘aporetic turn’, confusion begins to dissipate, and it becomes possible to produce a ‘map’ showing possible changes and how their impact can be monitored. Potential solutions are evaluated, and resources allocated to the most promising.
  • The third stage, ‘Exapt’, sees action begin in earnest. ‘Exapting’ is a process of “radical repurposing of roles, processes, paradigms, values”. On the basis of a thorough knowledge of the present, intervention strategies are designed which will create new processes and structures, and the new ‘conceptual scaffoldings’ necessary for the organisation to transform itself. To ensure that the questioning of existing practices and conceptual boundaries is radical enough, it may be necessary to temporarily enter the domain of ‘chaos’. Multiple contributions should be encouraged and orchestrated so that agreement is reached on actionable ideas which can be carried forward and tested.
  • By the time the ‘Transcend’ stage is attained, the organisation is likely to have changed dramatically.  It is necessary to consolidate and establish greater stability. The ‘new normal’ must build on the freshly developed activities, the shared learning that has been obtained, and the narratives and stories that correspond to and give coherence to the new present. People will be acting more in concert but must still maintain the ‘requisite diversity’ necessary to respond to the next crisis. They will be stronger for having learnt from past failures.

I am conscious that in summarizing, tidying up even, the field guide’s account, I have lost some of its dynamism and much of the technical vocabulary. In the original, the stages overlap, and myriads of concepts and methods compete for the reader’s attention, sowing a degree of confusion. Being generous, I imagine that this is meant to convey the urgency and creativity that must accompany an appropriate response to crises. But it’s now time to stand back and put on CST glasses.

In broad outline, we have an account of an organisation responding to changes in environmental circumstances by shifting from a mechanistic management system to an organic and then back again (Burns and Stalker, ‘The Management of Innovation’, 1961). The description is enriched with complexity theory concepts. The field guide also provides the 4-stage methodology, and many accompanying methods, for achieving such transitions. This is a significant advance for complexity theory. While systems thinkers have usually been willing to accept that complexity theory has introduced many novel ideas that help improve understanding of the VUCA world, they have been quick to point to the lack of overt methodologies for putting the ideas into practice.

  • In fact, the 4-stage approach closely resembles the methodologies developed by systems thinkers for translating systems ideas into practice. John Mingers (‘Systems Thinking, Critical Realism and Philosophy’, 2014) provides a generic version of such methodologies (‘appreciation’, ‘analysis’, ‘assessment’, and ‘action’) into which the field guide’s stages could be fitted without too much distortion.
  • In this respect, it is interesting to speculate whether Ralph Stacey, for example, would regard what the field guide presents as complexity theory at all. From his interactionist perspective (‘Complexity and Management’, 2000, with Griffin and Shaw), he would likely see it as too influenced by systems thinking and as falling into the contradiction of regarding decision-makers as acting on the basis of ‘rationalist teleology’, trying to manage complexity, while treating the organisation as subject to ‘formative teleology’, evolving according to a pattern set by some hidden order.

Returning to the main critique, the Cynefin approach echoes CST by insisting that there are no context-free solutions, that use of a variety of methods is necessary, and that no automatic assignment of particular tools and techniques to the different stages of a methodology is sensible. For example, attention to narratives and stories is essential throughout, as is continuous learning supported by journaling, and the maintenance of ‘requisite diversity’. The inevitable question arises, therefore, of why well-established systems approaches are absent from the toolkit offered by the field guide, even when they seem to offer the most obvious and proven resource for helping decision-makers with ‘managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis’. The primary ‘constraints’ the field guide concentrates on managing, throughout the 4-stage process, can be classified into the organisational and the conceptual.

  • The organisational issues of ‘coherent heterogeneity’, central co-ordination of delegated decision-making, balancing adaptability and stability, reallocation of resources, etc., are exactly those which Stafford Beer’s ‘viable system model’ (‘Heart of Enterprise’, 1979) can offer advice on and structure discussions around.
  • Conceptual matters, such as encouraging diverse perspectives, explicating existing narratives and challenging them, reframing the problem space, developing new archetypal stories, etc., fall into the arena of soft systems approaches such as Peter Checkland’s ‘soft systems methodology’ (‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’, 1981) and of ‘strategic assumption surfacing and testing’ (see Mason and Mitroff, ‘Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions’, 1981). The idea of ‘journaling’ as a means of promoting continuous learning would benefit from Checkland’s concept of ‘rich pictures’ and the method of continuously up-dating ‘Analyses 1, 2 and 3’ during a project.

There are, it seems to me, two plausible explanations for why the contributions systems approaches can offer are ignored.

  • First, there is a tendency for complexity theorists, when extending their ideas to the social domain, to want to claim that complexity theory is something new, different, and a step beyond systems thinking. Ralph Stacey describes his version of complexity theory as a radical alternative to the systems approach; a “decisive move away from systems thinking”. Dave Snowden, the originator of the Cynefin framework, has similarly sought to position complexity theory as a “new and emerging body of theory and practice”, based upon more up-to-date science, that is leaving systems thinking and cybernetics behind (on LinkedIn). In original formulations of Cynefin, systems thinking was identified with system dynamics and pinned to the ‘complicated’ domain. This allowed complexity theory to present itself as a new answer to the challenges posed by the ‘un-ordered’ domains. That said, Snowden has readily acknowledged the influence of Ackoff, Beer, and Checkland upon his thinking and so it is strange that the field guide fails to make any use of their tried-and-tested approaches to managing complexity.
  • Here, I think, the second reason comes into play. Snowden insists that Cynefin is a ‘naturalising approach’ – bringing good science to the understanding of how humans interact with each other and engage with the world. In other words, although he rightly insists that anthro-complexity is different, that humans aren’t the same as ants, birds, and crystals, he doesn’t see that this requires a radical shift in epistemology. By contrast, the soft systems tradition of work has abandoned natural science as a model for gaining understanding of and seeking to intervene in human systems. Geoffrey Vickers, for example, argued that the components of human systems, active individuals using ‘appreciative systems’ to attribute meaning to their situation, makes it impossible to study them using the natural scientific approach. Following Vickers’ insights, and drawing upon hermeneutics and phenomenology, Checkland rejected any attempt to understand problematic social situations in scientific terms, and developed ‘soft systems methodology’ as an approach that works with different perceptions of reality and facilitates a systemic process of learning that can lead to purposeful action in pursuit of improvement.

Snowden talks a lot about narratives, micro-narratives, and stories, and sees them as crucial constraints and enablers but, from his naturalising perspective, understands them and responds to them completely differently to soft systems thinkers (or second-order cyberneticians for that matter). [And, although it does not make an appearance in the field guide, the same argument holds for Snowden’s SenseMaker].

  • His approach is to invent a whole new technical language of concepts, derived from complexity science, which he hopes decision-makers will learn and come to understand the world through, thus responding to it more effectively.
  • Soft systems thinkers proceed, by contrast, by enabling decision-makers, and other stakeholders, to express themselves better (more openly and systemically) in their own language in a way that addresses the problems as they see them. The rationale is that change will come when they understand each other better and reach mutual understanding about what they decide it is feasible and desirable to do. For soft systems thinkers, providing decision-makers with better science will not get you anywhere because there is no ‘science’ of human systems.

To take an example, the field guide pictures narratives as acting as ‘strange attractors’ which bring human beings into coherent interaction and lead to co-ordinated action. I suppose this is a nice metaphor, but it is shared appreciations, values, and intentions, at the level of meaning, that actually leads human beings to act in consonance, not some weird compulsion. The attempt to understand anthro-complexity with concepts and tools drawn from the natural sciences acts as a significant constraint on the argument of the field guide.

  • As other complexity theorists have found, the very different epistemologies found in social theory are essential to relate complexity thinking appropriately to human systems. I have made the case for the ‘interpretive’ sociological paradigm underpinning soft systems approaches.
  • An even stronger case can be made for ‘radical’ sociological paradigms which point in the direction of conflicts of interest, the exercise of power, systemic discrimination and disadvantage, etc., none of which make an appearance as issues in the field guide. Systems thinking has a methodology, ‘critical systems heuristics’ (Ulrich ‘Critical Heuristics of Social Planning’, 1983) which can help draw these matters to the attention of decision-makers and other stakeholders and suggest how they might be addressed.

Dave Snowden needs social theory to really get to grips with social complexity and the easiest way he can improve the field guide is to recommend systems approaches which have already translated the insights of the different epistemologies offered in social theory into practical methodologies. His naturalising approach to anthro-complexity is currently preventing him from seeing their value.

Readers of this article may want to know more about the CST which underpins this critique of the two reports. Details can be found in my 2019 book ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity‘ (use code ENG21 for a discount if ordering directly from Wiley). The main element of CST employed here is second-order critique – revealing the blind spots of particular systems and complexity approaches by comparing them to other systems approaches (accepting that the other approaches will also provide limited perspectives).

That concludes the LinkedIn post by Dr Mike C Jackson OBE on February 22, 2021.

For those interested in continuing discussion (82 comments, as of April 11), look further towards the bottom of

Since Dave Snowden publishes his own blog on the open Internet, readers are encouraged to jump to …

Naturalising narrated | Dave Snowden | March 21, 2021

In that article, Dave Snowden also refers to a lecture:

  • Webinar: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity | Professor Michael C. Jackson | Cranfield Webinar Series on Complexity and Strategy | 22nd March, 2021 at
  • “This talk discusses the nature of complexity, the development of systems thinking, the emergence of critical systems thinking, and how to conduct interventions on the basis of critical systems practice. The world has become increasingly networked and unpredictable. Leaders of international bodies such as the UN, OECD, UNESCO and WHO, and of major business, public sector, charitable, and professional organizations, have all declared systems thinking an essential leadership skill for managing the complexity of the interrelated economic, social, and environmental issues they face.”

Dave Snowden specifically posted on his blog on the open Internet for “more permanence”.

On Linkedin @antlerboy published a link at that (as of April 11) had 52 comments.

On April 8, Dr Mike C Jackson published a rejoinder on LinkedIn at .

Cynefin and Critical Systems Thinking (CST): A further contribution to the debate

Dr Mike C. Jackson OBE
Centre for Systems Studies

I recently wrote a CST review ( of the EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre Field Guide to leadership in times of complexity. Dave Snowden has written a detailed and considered response ( ), for which I thank him. It has helped me gain a clearer understanding of his ‘naturalising’ approach to complexity and of our differences. This contribution to the debate is meant to further mutual understanding.

Dave is right to see the nub of the debate as being about the adequacy of his ‘naturalising’ approach to sense-making in the domain of ‘anthro-complexity’.

  • I will seek to clarify my concerns with reference to a seminal paper from the systems thinking tradition – Kenneth Boulding’s ‘General Systems Theory: The Skeleton of Science’ (1956). Boulding provides a nine-level hierarchy of real-world complexity stretching from structures and frameworks, through mechanical and biological systems, up to people and socio-cultural systems. He notes that the characteristics of lower-level systems can be found in those at higher levels (e.g., feedback control) and so models developed to understand the behaviour of lower-level systems are still relevant at higher levels. Each higher level, however, presents emergent properties that cannot be understood simply in terms of the theoretical concepts employed successfully at lower levels – hence the need for new disciplines like biology, psychology, and sociology as complexity increases. A key issue that confounds understanding and predicting system behaviour at higher levels is the intervention of ‘the image’ into the chain of causality. As we ascend system levels, brains develop and organise information into images. Behaviour results from the structure and setting of the image rather than directly from some stimulus. Human images are extraordinarily complex and, furthermore, have a self-reflexive quality. People not only know but know that they know.
  • As Kant argued, in his ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ (1788), as ‘phenomena’ humans are subject to causal determinism. However, as ‘things in themselves’ (noumena), they are beyond the reach of scientific knowledge and it is legitimate to regard them as possessing freedom. Of course, we know much more nowadays about constraints on that freedom. Nevertheless, the basic insight remains sound and, at the people and socio-cultural levels of complexity, a quite different kind of understanding of behaviour is necessary.

Boulding advocates taking advantage of what he calls the ‘inside track’ – the fact that “we ourselves are the systems we are studying”. This nod in the direction of phenomenology and interpretive social theory had a decisive influence on Geoffrey Vickers, who knew Boulding well, and through him, on the development of Peter Checkland’s ‘soft systems methodology’.

How is this relevant to the debate?

  • First, it reminds us that any ‘naturalising’ approach is in danger of reductionism; of employing a level of theoretical analysis below the level of complexity of the system of interest. Dave is well aware that humans are not ‘ants, birds or crystals’, and sharply criticises those who build models on the basis that they are, but he cannot easily escape the charge of reductionism himself. This is my issue, for example, with ‘strange attractors’. The concept has a precise definition in the natural sciences which does not do justice to the complexity of human systems where, as I previously argued, it is shared appreciations, values, and intentions that actually lead people to act in concert. We need soft systems approaches, operating at the level of meaning, to help us construct and challenge shared appreciations.
  • Second, while Dave does indeed make extensive use of social science [My statement that “Dave Snowden needs social theory to really get to grips with social complexity” was too loose.], there is still a question about the type of social science he privileges. In his view, social science, to be valuable, must follow the model of the natural sciences. Crucially, explanations should be testable and “critically your experiments” must be capable of validation by other scientists. This criterion of repeatability is hard to apply in the social domain. Social situations tend to be unique and, of course, change as soon as you experiment on them. The examples Dave provides, studies of ‘inattentional blindness’, ‘exaptive practice’, and modern cognitive science, fit his naturalising perspective. Dave is seeking to use methods from the natural sciences, proven to yield knowledge about systems lower in Boulding’s hierarchy, to gain insight into systems of greater complexity. This is justifiable, in Boulding’s terms, because higher level systems do exhibit some of the same characteristics. It is important because it identifies constraints on the way humans behave. But it risks missing the ‘emergent properties’ that arise at higher levels of complexity. To put it crudely, we all possess physiological, biological, and cognitive limitations, but we adhere to quite different values, create widely divergent cultures, and create organisational forms of many varied kinds. It is with these matters that soft and emancipatory systems thinkers engage. They have abandoned the methods of the natural sciences and developed methodologies based upon interpretive and radical social theories which pay direct attention, respectively, to appreciations, values, and intentions, and to the exercise of power, systemic discrimination, and disadvantage.

To be clearer, my critique is not that Dave does not draw upon social science but that his commitment to a naturalistic approach prevents him from paying attention to the range of epistemologies available in social theory which are essential for getting to grips with ‘anthro-complexity’. By contrast, CST seeks to employ a set of epistemologies that, as ‘world hypotheses’ (Pepper, ‘World Hypotheses’, 1942) or ‘experiential gestalts’ (Lakoff & Johnson, ‘Metaphors we live by’, 1980) have proven useful to the human species over generations. And it is able to take advantage of different systems methodologies based on the variety of epistemologies available. It is true that this makes validation and evaluating interventions difficult but there are ways and, in a world of divergent beliefs and values, pervaded by inequalities, this difficulty can hardly be avoided. It certainly cannot be overcome using criteria apposite to the natural sciences.

I can now turn to Dave’s bullet point analysis of my review and pick up on what I see are important issues (Dave’s original numbering):

2. I argued that complexity theory has a promiscuous relationship with social science, attaching itself to any social theory going. Dave believes that it is allowing us to re-examine “a lot of the sterile debates of social science”. But the fact that there are as many versions of complexity theory as there are social theories suggests it is failing to resolve them. The ‘sterile debates’ are winning, not complexity theory.

4,5. I mentioned the apparent resemblance between the 4-stage methodology of the field guide and John Mingers’ ‘Appreciate-Analysis-Assessment-Action’ account of the generic structure of systems methodologies. I was seeking to highlight the novel (for complexity theory) methodological element in the guide. Dave is right that the resemblances are superficial in other respects.

8,9,10. Dave argues that systems thinking has had an impact in only ‘isolated pockets’ and that we have to take advantage of “new insights and understanding from science” to move forward. It might be argued that systems thinking was ahead of its time and people are only now recognising its usefulness. Perhaps its day has come. That is how it seems to me. Of course, we must acknowledge developments in science, but it would be wrong to think that these all favour complexity theory. For example, Carlo Rovelli, the well-known physicist, relates his version of quantum theory to the worldview of Alexander Bogdanov, an early Russian systems thinker (see ‘Helgoland’, 2021). Further, the new insights from science have failed to resolve the disputes in social science – perhaps because of the complexity of the social domain and perhaps because there is more than mere explanation at stake. CST engages with these disputes as long as they are relevant to practical concerns.

I do need to concede that the development of many strands of systems thinking has stalled. Systems engineering is in a quandary about how to extend its scope beyond purely technical problems; the ‘viable systems model’ attracts more devotees than innovators; very few are seeking to up-date and improve the soft and emancipatory methodologies. This leads to an unhealthy tendency to raise the works of certain systems gurus to the level of scripture. As in Soviet Russia, an apt quotation from a supposed authoritative source is seen to end all debate. It is hardly surprising that outsiders get the impression that the most exciting contemporary work is based on complexity theory. It is time to re-establish some rigorous systems thinking research programmes.

11. From a naturalising perspective, it is understandable that Dave feels the need for a sophisticated technical language that can help decision-makers grasp the nature of the world and act better on it. From an interpretive viewpoint, which sees actors as constructing their own social reality, it is important to remain close to the way the actors themselves see the world and articulate their own values and concerns; assisting them with achieving clarity, with understanding taken-for-granted assumptions, and explicating possible implications. Dave raises Heidegger’s thinking on the role of language in ‘world-disclosure’ to support his position. For me, there is an interesting debate to be had about whether Dave’s technical language is more ‘enframing’ than ‘revealing’. Although he diverged from his mentor Husserl, Heidegger remained a phenomenologist and I suspect that he would have agreed with Husserl’s late career conclusion that:

14. I do think Dave would benefit from engaging with the full range of social theory brought to the table in CST. CST is pluralistic and is not restrictive in terms of the social theories it engages with. It has a place for the naturalising approach, that Dave regards as essential, and much else besides. The only criterion for inclusion it employs is that the theories should make a difference to practice when translated into action through systems thinking/complexity theory methodologies.

15. The difficulty of scaling soft systems approaches can be exaggerated. Peter Checkland’s involvement with the ‘manufacturing function’ department of the Shell Group (‘Soft Systems Methodology in Action’, 1990) involved several hundred people. It would nevertheless be disingenuous to claim that this is not an issue. The solution for soft systems thinkers, however, must be consistent with their own philosophy of encouraging the most direct participation possible of those involved in a change process. It cannot be found by resorting to the statistical analysis of worldviews. There is work ongoing on scaling Beer’s ‘team syntegrity’ approach and there must be synergies worth exploring between the way soft systems methodologies and citizens’ assemblies operate.

As to Dave’s final point, I did make suggestions about systems methodologies that could support the intention of the Field Guide – the ‘viable system model’ for issues around organisational constraints and soft systems methodologies to address narrative constraints. I would add a rider here that they need to be used in a manner consistent with the philosophies they embrace. But that means they would explode Dave’s naturalising approach. So, perhaps I am not being particularly helpful. For me, of course, it is only CST that provides the theoretical and methodological variety to match the variety confronting leaders/managers in times of complexity.

I am conscious that, in trying to deal with difficult matters in a short article, I leave myself open to misinterpretation (my fault). And the same will be true for Dave. It is also the case that Dave’s most recent thinking, and mine since my 2019 book, is not yet readily available in written form in the traditional outlets. I would, therefore, welcome an open debate among those interested that would further clarify contemporary Cynefin and CST thinking and practice, and help us build from both the genuine similarities and real differences.

This concludes the April 8 rejoinder by Dr Michael C Jackson. Continuing on LinkedIn at , there are 31 comments (as at April 11).

#cynefin, #mike-c-jackson-obe

The Manifesto of Ontological Design | by Daniel Fraga | DataDrivenInvestor


The Manifesto of Ontological Design | by Daniel Fraga | DataDrivenInvestor

The Manifesto of Ontological Design

Daniel FragaFollowMay 27, 2020 · 10 min read

Ontological design is the design discipline concerned with designing human experience. It does so by operating under one essential assumption: that by designing objects, spaces, tools and experiences, we are in fact designing the human being itself. And the ability to design human beings is going to be central to survive the technological shifts of the coming decades with even a semblance of agency.Cognitive computing – a skill-set widely considered to be the most vital manifestation of…As its users, we have grown to take technology for granted. Hardly anything these days is as commonplace and…

The feedback loop

The key assumption of ontological design is this: when we create the objects and contexts that surround us, we are in fact designing our very selves. In other words: first, we design our tools, and then they design us in return.

This feedback loop is ontological design’s central idea as a discipline. It constitutes its chief operative principle. Here’s how it unfolds:

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The Manifesto of Ontological Design | by Daniel Fraga | DataDrivenInvestor

Improving the Systems Thinking Skills of the Systems Architect via Aesthetic Interpretation of Art – McDermott and Salado (2017) – and A perspective on systems thinking, architecting, and art (2019)


(PDF) Improving the Systems Thinking Skills of the Systems Architect via Aesthetic Interpretation of Art

Improving the Systems Thinking Skills of the Systems Architect via Aesthetic Interpretation of Art

  • July 2017 INCOSE International Symposium 27(1):1340-1354

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(PDF) Improving the Systems Thinking Skills of the Systems Architect via Aesthetic Interpretation of Art

A perspective on systems thinking, architecting, and art

Tom McDermottAlejandro SaladoFirst published: 02 September 2019 9Read the full textPDFTOOLSSHARE


Systems architecture has been considered as both an art and a science. The systems architect uses heuristics, stories, and models to communicate complex architectural concepts to stakeholders. Since the earliest times, master building architects have developed their skills broadly across the technical, business, and fine art domains. Why should engineering be different? Principles and practices of systems architecture are exhibited in the creation of film scores, fine arts, and building architecture. Why not teach art as a core skill of the systems architect? In this work, we explore a formal competency model linking art, systems thinking, and systems architecture. We associate competencies across these domains with the concept of elegant design. We explore formal education in the arts as a way to bridge the communication problems that technical architects have with their stakeholders. The goal is to improve the competencies of systems architects and systems thinkers by bringing the methods of the art studio class to systems education.


Cynefin and Critical Systems Thinking (CST): A further contribution to the debate | Professor Mike Jackson on LinkedIn


Cynefin and Critical Systems Thinking (CST): A further contribution to the debate | LinkedIn

Cynefin and Critical Systems Thinking (CST): A further contribution to the debate

  • Published on April 8, 2021

Status is reachableDr Mike C Jackson OBECentre for Systems Studies9 articles Following

I recently wrote a CST review ( of the EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre Field Guide to leadership in times of complexity. Dave Snowden has written a detailed and considered response ( ), for which I thank him. It has helped me gain a clearer understanding of his ‘naturalising’ approach to complexity and of our differences. This contribution to the debate is meant to further mutual understanding.

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Cynefin and Critical Systems Thinking (CST): A further contribution to the debate | LinkedIn

High Tech Heroes, #10, part 2: Heinz von Foerster and Cybernetics – YouTube

High Tech Heroes, #10, part 2: Heinz von Foerster and Cybernetics

High Tech Heroes, #10, part 2: Heinz von Foerster and Cybernetics – YouTube

Patrick Hoverstadt, ‘Strategy at the speed of thought’ – YouTube

Patrick Hoverstadt, ‘Strategy at the speed of thought’ SD 480p

Patrick Hoverstadt, ‘Strategy at the speed of thought’ SD 480p – YouTube

A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers – Integration and Implementation Insights – Moon and Blackman (drawing on their 2014 article)


A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers – Integration and Implementation Insights

A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers

May 2, 2017

By Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman

Katie Moon (biography)

How can understanding philosophy improve our research? How can an understanding of what frames our research influence our choices? Do researchers’ personal thoughts and beliefs shape research design, outcomes and interpretation?

These questions are all important for social science research. Here we present a philosophical guide for scientists to assist in the production of effective social science (adapted from Moon and Blackman, 2014).

Deborah Blackman (biography)

Understanding philosophy is important because social science research can only be meaningfully interpreted when there is clarity about the decisions that were taken that affect the research outcomes. Some of these decisions are based, not always knowingly, on some key philosophical principles, as outlined in the figure below.

Philosophy provides the general principles of theoretical thinking, a method of cognition, perspective and self-awareness, all of which are used to obtain knowledge of reality and to design, conduct, analyse and interpret research and its outcomes. The figure below shows three main branches of philosophy that are important in the sciences and serves to illustrate the differences between them.

Social science research guide consisting of ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives. When read from left to right, elements take on a more multidimensional nature (eg., epistemology: objectivism to subjectivism). The elements within each branch are positioned according to their congruence with elements from other branches so when read from top to bottom (or bottom to top), elements from one branch align with elements from another (eg., critical realist ontology, constructionist epistemology, and interpretivist philosophical perspectives). Subcategories of elements (ie., 3.5a–c and 3.6a–c) are to be interpreted as positioned under the parent category (ie., 3.5 interpretivism and 3.6 critical theory).

(Source: Moon and Blackman 2014)

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A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers – Integration and Implementation Insights

Power dynamics: A systemic inquiry | by Anna Birney | School of System Change | Medium


Power dynamics: A systemic inquiry | by Anna Birney | School of System Change | Medium

Power dynamics: A systemic inquiry

Anna Birney

Anna BirneyFollowingJan 20 · 17 min read

Why this article? Purpose and position

The word power keeps popping up wherever I turn. Through my ten years of doing my doctorate action research it was all over my notes and reflections. I kept pushing it out of what I was writing about and feeling scared to even go there as if the power of it itself was too much to face or to look at, as if it was just too complex and unknown. In the end I could not ignore the question and did reflect on what it meant for the work I had been doing. I concluded that the field of systems change did need to really integrate it more into its work. Fast forward a couple of years and the question kept on slapping me in the face, not literally but in the questioning of who you choose to facilitate a session, how you frame the work, make decisions and so forth — saying to me — come one you said it was important to what the hell are you doing about it!

This article therefore is trying to pull together some of the thread of the last four or five years of looking at the journey so far and what I have learnt. I have put off publishing this for eighteen months as if the final answer or way to present it will come, but that I also realise is a putting off — so here is some of the messy journey of stumbling around in the dark.

This article there has a few elements to it.

  • Firstly how the issue of power relates to the systemic sustainability challenges we are facing — from climate change, deep inequalities that through the mirror that is our time in Covid has been seen even more acutely and how we might see the way they interrelate and are part of the same issues.
  • Secondly exploring the concept of power and how it relates to systems change;
  • Thirdly, looking at some of the insights about what makes up the dynamics of power, that are based in both our histories, and wider context as well as how that manifests in us individually and needs work all levels;
  • Finally starting to explore some framings of the strategies we might take to work with power.

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Three forms of meaning and the management of complexity. – Peterson (2013)

Not wishing to trigger anyone, but. Here this is.


Three forms of meaning and the management of complexity. – PsycNET

Three forms of meaning and the management of complexity.

Peterson, Jordan B.


Peterson, J. B. (2013). Three forms of meaning and the management of complexity. In K. D. Markman, T. Proulx, & M. J. Lindberg (Eds.), The psychology of meaning (p. 17–48). American Psychological Association.


We live in a sea of complexity (Peterson & Flanders, 2002). The boundaries of the objects we manipulate are not simply given by those objects. Every object or situation can be perceived in an infinite number of ways (Medin & Aguilar, 1999), and each action or event has an infinite number of potential consequences. We frame our objects by eradicating vast swathes of information, intrinsically part of those objects and categories but irrelevant to our current, subjectively defined purposes (Norretranders, 1998). How do we manage this miracle of simplification? This chapter addresses this question from a neurodevelopmental and evolutionary perspective. The world manifests itself to us in the form of meaning. Such meaning, however, does not take a single form. Instead, it makes itself known in three different classes. The first class includes the most basic, universal and evolved forms of functional simplifications. This class, meanings of the known, familiar, or determinate world, includes the meanings of individual and social identity that simplify and structure the world. The second class includes those that arise to challenge the integrity of our current known or determinate worlds. This class, meanings of the unknown, foreign, or indeterminate world, includes the meanings of anomaly or novelty—the unexplored world. The third class includes those that arise as a consequence of the integrated interaction of the first two classes. This class, meanings of the conjunction of the known and the unknown, includes the meanings arising in the course of voluntary exploratory behavior. These are the existential meanings intrinsic to individual experience. Consideration of all three classes provides a comprehensive, differentiated portrait of meaning, free from paradox. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved)


Reduction: the Cheshire cat problem and a return to roots | Schaffner (2006)

David Chapman: “It is not entirely clear that anything can be reduced to anything else”


Reduction: the Cheshire cat problem and a return to roots | SpringerLink

Reduction: the Cheshire cat problem and a return to roots

Synthese volume 151, pages377–402(2006)Cite this article


In this paper, I propose two theses, and then examine what the consequences of those theses are for discussions of reduction and emergence. The first thesis is that what have traditionally been seen as robust, reductions of one theory or one branch of science by another more fundamental one are a largely a myth. Although there are such reductions in the physical sciences, they are quite rare, and depend on special requirements. In the biological sciences, these prima facie sweeping reductions fade away, like the body of the famous Cheshire cat, leaving only a smile. … The second thesis is that the “smiles” are fragmentary patchy explanations, and though patchy and fragmentary, they are very important, potentially Nobel-prize winning advances. To get the best grasp of these “smiles,” I want to argue that, we need to return to the roots of discussions and analyses of scientific explanation more generally, and not focus mainly on reduction models, though three conditions based on earlier reduction models are retained in the present analysis. I briefly review the scientific explanation literature as it relates to reduction, and then offer my account of explanation. The account of scientific explanation I present is one I have discussed before, but in this paper I try to simplify it, and characterize it as involving field elements (FE) and a preferred causal model system (PCMS) abbreviated as FE and PCMS. In an important sense, this FE and PCMS analysis locates an “explanation” in a typical scientific research article. This FE and PCMS account is illustrated using a recent set of neurogenetic papers on two kinds of worm foraging behaviors: solitary and social feeding. One of the preferred model systems from a 2002 Nature article in this set is used to exemplify the FE and PCMS analysis, which is shown to have both reductive and nonreductive aspects. The paper closes with a brief discussion of how this FE and PCMS approach differs from and is congruent with Bickle’s “ruthless reductionism” and the recently revived mechanistic philosophy of science of Machamer, Darden, and Craver.


Epistemological and empirical challenges of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory: an interview with professors Álvaro Pires and Lukas Sosoe


Epistemological and empirical challenges of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory: an interview with professors Álvaro Pires and Lukas Sosoe

Epistemological and empirical challenges of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory: an interview with professors Álvaro Pires and Lukas Sosoe


Álvaro Pires, Interviewees1

Lukas Sosoe, Interviewees2

Lucas Fucci Amato, Interviewers3

Marco Antonio Loschiavo Leme de Barros, Interviewers4  5

Gabriel Ferreira da Fonseca, Interviewers6  7

1 University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

2 University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg

3 University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

4 University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

5 Mackenzie Presbyterian University, São Paulo, Brazil

6 Estácio University Center of Bahia, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

7 Salvador University Center (Uniceusa), Salvador, Brazil


Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) built one of the most encompassing and abstract sociological theories of the 20th century. Bringing to sociology the radical constructivism developed by transdisciplinary scientists such as the mathematician George Spencer-Brown, the physicist Heinz von Foester, and the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Luhmann renewed the bases of understanding society and its subsystems – including law, science, politics, economy and many others. Two decades after the death of this German sociologist, his views on world society, communication and functional differentiation have given rise to an immense body of literature that focuses on analyzing a variety of questions. But how to deal with the scale and abstraction of this theory and apply it to the understanding of localized legal phenomena, such as crime and punishment, or ethics and courts?

In this interview, this discussion was posed to two leading Luhmannian scholars who work specially in the Francophone academy. Álvaro Pires, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa (Canada), and Lukas Sosoe, Full Professor at the University of Luxembourg, were interviewed in São Paulo, on August 22, 2019. Professors Pires and Sosoe have parallel academic trajectories, having worked together in some projects and symposiums. Professor Pires conducted pioneer works on empirical and criminological research with systemic approaches. Professor Sosoe works with legal theory, ethics, contemporary political philosophy and European studies. He has worked on translations to the French of many books by Niklas Luhmann. In this interview, both scholars explore the limitations and potentials for addressing empirical and historical questions within systems theory and present their views on the epistemological innovations that radical constructivism brings for socio-legal studies.

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An Interview About the VSM – John Beckford interviewed by Prof. Mike Jackson and Dr. Roberto Palacios Rodriguez – YouTube

The primary audience were 3rd year undergraduates at The University of Hull working on a module called SMART: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity

End of March update – events at SCiO | Systems and complexity in organisation | UK, Belgium, DACH, Espana, Nederland

You can also click here to see all the events in a browser. Note that we have moved into summer time and all meeting times therefore are GMT+1 or CET+1.



SCiO UK “Metaphor” Special Virtual Development Event – April 2021

Mon 12 April 2021 19:00–21:00 GMT +1

This Virtual Development Event will be a Metaphor Special.   SCiO’s Development Days offer an opportunity to draw upon the collective expertise of SCiO members in a friendly and supportive atmosphere. By taking Development Events online, using the Zoom meeting platform, we aim to make them accessible to more SCiO members Development Events are both for members who are just starting out on a journey to explore Systems Thinking approaches, and for those who have many years of exploration and practice….

Members only; FREE to members; Online event (Zoom); English; Book now

SCiO UK Virtual Open Meeting – May 2021

Mon 17 May 2021 18:30–20:30 GMT+1

Virtual Open Meeting: A series of presentations of general interest to Systems & Complexity in Organisation’s members and others. SCiO organises Open Meetings to provide opportunities for practitioners to learn and develop new practice, to build relationships, networks hear about skills, tools, practice and experiences. This virtual session will be held on Zoom, more details will be confirmed nearer the time…

·         topic to be confirmed – Ben Simpson,  Denis Bourne

·         The Arts and Systems Thinking  – Tom McDermott

All welcome; FREE; Online event (Zoom); English; Book now

“Later in the bar” – SCiO UK May 2021

Mon 24 May 2021 19:00–21:00 GMT+1

“Later in the bar” is a SCiO UK networking event where we try to recapture some of the features of meeting in the bar after an open meeting. This is an opportunity to mingle freely (online) and set your own agenda. These social networking events are different from the open days (speakers and discussion) and member-only development days (each agenda slot filled set by members for learning discussions). Social networking events combine some initial small group work and provide completely open opportunities to mingle as individuals and groups. The format will vary slightly based on numbers.

All welcome; FREE; Online event (Zoom); English; Book now  


  SCiO Belgium

SCiO Belgium – digitale meeting editie april 2021

Wed 28 April 2021 18:00–20:30 CET+1

Virtuele meeting (Zoom) waar we telkens inzoomen op één topic gebracht door een inspirerende spreker, waarna we een mind-openende én verdiepende dialoog houden. 19:00 Welkom & introductie 19:20 Netwerk moment SCiO-stijl 19:30 ‘Reorganiseren voor groei tijdens Covid’ – Wim Focquet – DPD – HR Directeur (Nl) 20:30 Verdiepende dialoog 21:15 Conclusies & dankwoord. Het Belgische netwerk is een Nederlandstalig netwerk. SCiO is een breed netwerk van professionals in organisatie ontwikkeling, organisatie design, en de systemische bege….

Members only; FREE; Online event (Zoom); Dutch; Book now


   SCiO DACH (Deutschland, Österreich, Schweiz)

SCiO DACH: One System – One Hour: System 3*

Fri 16 April 2021 17:00–18:00 CET+1

Moderiertes Diskussionsforum über die Eigenschaften und Aufgaben des Systems 3* im VSM. Basis der Diskussion sins die Bücher “Viabilitiy of Organizations Vol. 1-3” von Wolfgang Lassl.

Members only + Guests; KOSTENLOS; Online event (Zoom); German; Book now

SCiO DACH: Kybernetik-Stammtisch

Fri 21 May 2021 17:00–19:00 CET+1

Offenes Format zum freien Austausch und zur Diskussion über Themen wie Systeme, Systems Thinking, Organisationsformen und -Entwicklung, Viable System Model, usw. Alle Interessierten sind herzlich willkommen!…

All welcome; KOSTENLOS; Online event (Zoom); German; Book now


cid:image009.jpg@01D6F33A.541CE1C0  SCiO Espana

SCiO Espana – La evolución organizacional – Abril 2021

Tue 27 April 2021 19:00–21:00 GMT+1

La evolución organizacional La esencial triple pregunta de los seres humanos, “quién soy, de dónde vengo y a dónde voy”, es perfectamente aplicable a las organizaciones que, en definitiva, no dejan de ser agregaciones de personas conformando un sistema complejo. En este pequeño espacio  vamos a realizar un rápido recorrido a las tipologías organizativas, sus estados de evolución y cómo descubrir “dónde está” cada una, aspecto fundamental para valorar cuáles son sus posibles opciones de transformación y evolución desde una perspectiva consciente y sostenible.  Presentado por Pedro Martín de Hijas.

All welcome; FREE; Online event (Zoom); Spanish; Book now


  SCiO Nederland

SCiO-NL April 2021 meeting – Imagineering

Fri 9 April 2021 14:00–16:00 CET+1

This month SCIO-NL will be hosting a presentation on Imagineering. People most commonly associate ‘imagineering’ with Disney, but this is definitely too limited a view.  Imagineering includes elements of complexity theory and systems thinking and uses this knowledge specifically in a human-oriented approach to change. The presentation will be given by Iris de Jong, who has a degree in imagineering and uses it successfully as an independent contractor. The presentation will be in English, so international members are more than welcome….

Members only + Guests; FREE; Online event; English; Book now

A May event is to be posted. Please check on the website.