Systems thinking in the public and private sectors: applications of methodological innovation in Australia and New Zealand
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Hull
Unit of AssessmentBusiness and Management Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Policy and Administration, Political Science, Sociology
Summary of the impact
Hull-based research on critical systems thinking has been used for
public, private and community benefit in Australasia, due to pivotal
partnerships with the International Centre for Complex Project Management
in Australia and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR)
in New Zealand. Benefits include: the reconciliation of economic and
environmental imperatives in NZ water management, valued at NZ$1.7bn of
economic growth; NZ$6.2m for ESR projects serving government clients;
improved stakeholder consultation on NZ science investments; the
development of new systems thinking capacity in the Victoria Department of
Primary Industries (Australia); and 5% cost savings in key Australian
Two systemic intervention paradigms emerged between 1950 and 1985. The
first involved the development of quantitative methodologies for
understanding and intervening in complex social and organisational
problems. The second focused on methodologies for structuring dialogue
between stakeholders with different perspectives to enhance their
appreciation of complexity and facilitate better mutual understanding. By
the mid-1980s, these paradigms had become unhelpfully polarised, and the
Centre for Systems Studies (CSS) at Hull played a leading role in
transcending the paradigm divide and further enhancing the utility of
CSS staff initiated a research programme on critical systems thinking
(CST). This featured two substantial theoretical and methodological
developments, with key innovations published post-1993:
Boundary critique: theory and methodology for understanding
connectivity, multiple perspectives, stakeholder conflict and power
relations when exploring complex issues. In particular, substantive
research has been undertaken in CSS on processes of marginalisation
during stakeholder engagement and how these can be addressed in systemic
interventions (e.g., Midgley et al, 1998; Midgley, 2000).
Methodological pluralism: methodology for creatively mixing
methods drawn from different paradigms when seeking to address complex
organisational, social and environmental problems. In particular,
several influential books have offered theory and frameworks for
understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a range of systems
methodologies, and they offer guidance on designing bespoke systemic
interventions that are responsive to the local context (e.g., Jackson,
2000, 2003; Midgley, 2000).
CST research has developed systems theory and methodology alongside its
application in systemic interventions to address complex issues and
deliver benefits to organisations and their stakeholders. New theory has
been tested in practice, and reflections on the latter have given rise to
further theoretical and methodological developments.
Over 50 systemic interventions have been undertaken by Hull staff and PhD
students since 1993, and income for CST research has been received from a
range of funders, including the ESRC; EPSRC; Office of the Deputy Prime
Minister; British Council; National Natural Science Foundation of China;
KPMG Ltd; Rowntree Foundation; Leverhulme Foundation; Hull City Council;
the Children's Society; and Manchester, Salford & Trafford Health
Action Zone. Innovations in boundary critique and methodological pluralism
were generated in all of this externally-funded research. CST has informed
decision making in government, industry and voluntary organisations since
its inception, and significant impacts have been experienced since 2008,
particularly in Australia and New Zealand.
Members of CSS involved in the underpinning research have included:
- Robert Flood (Professor 1989-1998)
- Amanda Gregory (Research Assistant 1990-1996, Senior Lecturer
- Wendy Gregory (Lecturer 1989-2001, Senior Lecturer 2001-2003)
- Mike Jackson (Lecturer 1979-1988, Senior Lecturer 1988-1990, Professor
1990-1994 and 1999-2012, Emeritus Professor 2012-present)
- Gerald Midgley (Research Assistant 1990-1992, Research Fellow
1992-1997, Senior Research Fellow 1997-2002, Reader 2002-2003, Professor
2010 to present)
- John Oliga (Research Fellow 1993-1996)
- Norma Romm (Research Fellow 1993-1996, Senior Research Fellow
- Jennifer Wilby (Research Assistant 1994-1996, Research Fellow
2000-2004, Lecturer 2004-2011, Senior Lecturer 2011-present).
- Zhichang Zhu (Lecturer 1995-1997 and 1999-2001, Senior Lecturer
2001-2007, Reader 2007-present)
Other staff, PhD students and international visitors were also more
References to the research
1. Flood, RL & Romm, NRA (eds.) (1996) Critical Systems Thinking:
Current Research and Practice. Plenum Press, New York.
2. Jackson, MC (1999) Towards Coherent Pluralism in Management Science. Journal
of the Operational Research Society, 50, 12-22.
3. Jackson, MC (2000) Systems Approaches to Management.
Kluwer/Plenum Press, New York.
4. Jackson, MC (2003) Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers.
5. Midgley, G, Munlo, I and Brown, M (1998) The Theory and Practice of
Boundary Critique: Developing Housing Services for Older People. Journal
of the Operational Research Society, 49, 467-478.
6. Midgley, G (2000) Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology,
and Practice. Kluwer/Plenum Press, New York.
References 1, 3, 4 and 6 are fully refereed books with reputable
publishers. References 2 and 5 are in a journal rated 3* by the
Association of Business Schools. Primarily, books have been chosen for
this list because each one represents a key advance in CST inquiry. These
books have been widely cited, and have been read by many non-academics
(later, evidence is presented that the CEO of Environment Canterbury read
book 6, and this was pivotal in the delivery of an impact).
Details of the impact
This case study focuses on impacts in Australia and New Zealand (NZ) that
were enabled by two CSS researchers working with non-academic partner
organisations. The model for impact generation in both countries was:
In Australia, Professor M Jackson has been working with the International
Centre for Complex Project Management (ICCPM). The purpose has been
to improve the delivery of complex projects by applying systems thinking.
Jackson's research on CST was strongly influential in the design of
ICCPM's Complex Project Manager Competency Standards, Version 4.1,
2012 (see especially Preface, Foreword, `Projects as Systems' and View 1:
`Systems Thinking and Integration'). The CEO of ICCPM can attest to the
influence of Jackson's research on the Standards .
Jackson's work was also central in the design of an Executive Masters
Programme in Business (with streams in `Complex Project Management' and
`Strategic Procurement'), launched in 2008 and jointly developed by ICCPM,
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Defence Materiel
Organisation (DMO). The aim was to provide a vehicle to educate senior
project managers in the Standards. Jackson's 2003 book is a core text on
the programme; Module 1 (`Systems Thinking') is based on his CST research;
he has authored a `Learning Guide' and case studies for this module; and
regularly teaches on the degree. The DMO has formally audited the
programme and identified "a 5% cost/benefit realisation if graduates from
the program are placed on major DMO projects after completing the program"
(letter from the General Manager Commercial, Australian Government
Department of Defence, 30/5/2011 ).
Finally, the ICCPM Executive Education course `Systems Thinking and
Complex Project Management', the most popular of its foundation courses,
was developed by Jackson; it uses his 2003 book; employs a `Learning
Guide' authored by him; and Jackson, as an Associate Partner of ICCPM,
frequently delivers the course. Since its launch in August 2011, this
course, for which Jackson has intellectual property rights, has been
taught to over 250 delegates. There have been 11 deliveries in Australia
to 325 delegates from organisations such as DMO-Maritime, DMO-Land
Systems, Defence — Joint Logistics Command, Australian Submarine
Corporation (ASC), Boeing, Australian Aerospace and Airservices; with
further international deliveries in Canada (Thales), the USA and the UK
(BAE Systems, twice). The CEO of ICCPM, can evidence this .
In New Zealand, Professor G Midgley has been working with the
government-owned Institute of Environmental Science and Research
(ESR). In 2003, he took up the full-time position of Senior Science Leader
in that organisation. For 7 years he led and contributed to ESR's systemic
interventions in both New Zealand and Australia. He also mentored ESR
social scientists in the application of CST before returning to CSS in
2010. ESR continues to use the ideas from his Hull research to inform
applied projects for the benefit of government, stakeholders and
communities. An impact on ESR of using Midgley's research to inform
funding bids is income from 2008 to 2012 of NZ$6.2m. Knock-on impacts for
ESR's government clients and communities include the following:
In 2010, ESR undertook a project in partnership with Environment
Canterbury (ECan), the Regional Government, to identify strategic water
management options for Canterbury, NZ. The methodology for the project was
selected through reflections by the CE of ECan on Midgley's 2000 book,
plus discussions with the author (the CE may be contacted to provide
verification ). The CE has said that the project was pivotal in
the successful development and adoption of the Canterbury Water Management
Strategy (CWMS), which is designed to balance economic growth and
environmental protection into the future. Beneficiaries include farmers,
the Regional Council, environmental groups, a Māori tribe, and all water
users in Canterbury. Prior to the CWMS, there were entrenched conflicts
over water allocations and water quality, plus costly court cases and
decision paralysis in the Council. The ESR project identified options that
all stakeholders could live with. Prior to ESR's work with ECan, a
forecast was commissioned of the economic impacts that a CWMS would have
if it was able to overcome the stakeholder conflict. This was valued at up
to NZ$1.7bn of additional GDP for NZ (Harris, 2009) .
In 2007/8, Midgley undertook an evaluation of the process of producing
four `Roadmaps' for 30 years of national investment in biotechnology,
nanotechnology, energy and environment research. The client was the NZ
Ministry for Research, Science and Technology (MoRST). The evaluation drew
upon research on boundary critique (e.g. Midgley et al, 1998; Midgley,
2000) to inform both stakeholder identification and the design of a
participative workshop to develop recommendations for change. "The final
evaluation report... was discussed by the Ministry's Senior Management
team in a debrief of the direction setting process and influenced thinking
on how best to communicate the rationale for future direction setting
documents" (testimonial from the CEO of MoRST ). A key
recommendation from the evaluation was that stakeholder engagement should
happen before a 1st draft of a Roadmap is produced. This "had
an immediate impact on how further direction setting work was undertaken.
A follow-up Food Roadmap took into account the need for stakeholder
engagement before too many decisions were made, and paid more attention to
explaining how any information from those consulted would be used" (CEO of
MoRST ). Immediate beneficiaries were MoRST (who had the means
to make the Food Roadmap, and subsequent direction setting documents, more
responsive to stakeholders than previous roadmaps) and science and
industry organisations (who were offered greater influence on the framing
of the Food Roadmap).
In 2009, Midgley was commissioned by the Department of Primary Industries
(DPI), Victoria State Government, Australia, to externally review the
DPI's systems thinking programme of activities. He also gave public
lectures on his research to over 600 policy makers; facilitated 3
workshops with DPI staff on how to use CST ideas in their practice; and
met senior managers to discuss how the DPI's systems thinking program
could be further developed. These engagements all drew heavily on
Midgley's (2000) research. The impacts on DPI included renewal of funding
for systems thinking capability development (AU$250k); agreement by senior
managers that systems thinking should be listed as an `essential skill'
for staff; and two DPI projects worth AU$470k applied Midgley's ideas to
facilitate knock-on impacts for rural communities. One project facilitated
farmers in influencing the State Government's strategic spatial planning;
and the other is supporting 6 local governments in collaborating on
regional development (see testimonial evidence from the Centre Leader,
Department of Primary Industries, Parkville ). This case
illustrates a `domino effect': Midgley's research underpinned ESR work
with the DPI, which in turn used the ideas to generate their own impacts
in local communities.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- The CEO of ICCPM can attest to the influence of Jackson's research on
the ICCPM's Complex Project Manager Competency Standards. He may
- Letter of support to QUT from the General Manager Commercial,
Australian Government Department of Defence, 30/5/2011, attesting to a
5% cost saving in defence procurements. Available on request.
- The ex-CE of Environment Canterbury (now a professor at the University
of Canterbury) can be contacted to verify the information given
concerning the influence on the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.
- Harris (2009). Economic Modelling: A Tool to Assist Evaluation of
the Canterbury Water Management Strategy and Trial Scenario 1
Assessment. Harris Consulting, Aqualink Research, Agribusiness
Group & Butcher Partners: Christchurch, NZ.
- Testimonial from the CEO of MoRST. Available on request.
- Testimonial from the Centre Leader of DPI Parkville. Available on