Tuesday, 22 September 2015

On maintaining relationships and absorbing variety: lessons from systems thinking for change at the Open University

The Open University (OU) is one of the great 20th century British institutions: visionary, democratic, free-thinking, innovative. It was founded in 1969, the year before I was born, and I've been privileged to work there for the past fifteen years. (I write in a personal capacity here, and only draw on publically-available sources.)

Like all public institutions, the OU has been hit recently by a combination of financial cuts and technological advances. Clearly these make change of various sorts both possible and necessary, and very many of these have been happening in recent years.

However, there is a plan to change it really radically, in ways that I fear may stretch it to breaking point. One of the glories of the OU is its regional structure – that we are not just a national institution, but one with a significant local presence. This is under threat with a plan to close seven out of nine regional centres in England, shifting the remaining two to a call centre model (along with a further call centre in Milton Keynes plus three offices in the national capitals of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Academics should use their expertise on their own institution at times (as my colleagues Ray Corrigan and Andrew Smith have done), and that’s what I’ll do in this blog post. Having taught and researched systems thinking for most of my time at the OU – I have authored on five modules using systems ideas, and written a book on the key thinkers in the field – it seems appropriate to ask: what can systems ideas tell us about the planned regional closures?

Image: National
Portrait Gallery
I’ll draw on the work of two classic systems thinkers, both British but from somewhat different areas of systems – Geoffrey Vickers, who applied general systems theory to management and public policy (following a long and distinguished career in law and human resources); and Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of cybernetics (who by profession was a psychiatrist with a deep understanding of the working of the human mind).

Vickers stressed the crucial importance of relationships as the most important part of human systems (which would include any group or organisation of people, formal or informal). He wrote (in a 1983 book, Human Systems are Different):
Of what then do systems consist? They consist of relationships. Surely there must be objects, entities which support these relationships? It seems probable to me that the relationships are more basic than the entities related; that we abstract or infer these entities solely from our experience of relationships. (Vickers 1983, p.15)
Organisations, in this view, are not principally about their strategic plans, or their finances, or their tools, or even their management. They are about the relationships between people – between staff members within the organisation, between staff members and their students (or service users, or clients, or customers depending on the organisation), between different service users gathered in a community, and between staff members and the wider world.

The Atomium, Brussels -
relationships in action
(Image: Mike Cattell)
Vickers did not deny the need for organisations to change – he wrote quite explicitly that an open system (one which is open to its external environment) “seldom preserves its form absolutely unchanged even for a brief period” (ibid., p.13). This is very clear at the OU – it has constantly been in flux throughout its history, in almost every possible way. Yet it remains fundamentally the same institution. This is partly because its mission and core values remain intact, but also because when it has changed its organisational structure previously, it has done so while keeping its basic form intact. And, crucially, it has managed to maintain the networks of relationships that maintained the organisation’s form.

Yet Vickers argues that relationships (both internal ones within the organisation and external ones to the outside world) can be fragile, and if pushed too far, irretrievably damaged:
All these relationships, both internal and external, have limits beyond which they cannot be pushed without escalating instability which may result in irreversible change or even dissolution of the system. Within these limits change can be accommodated sometimes almost unnoticed, sometimes welcomed. Unhappily it is often difficult to predict where these limits lie until they have been passed. (ibid., p.16)
And my fear is that in closing seven regional centres, with the staff either having to relocate or be made redundant, these relationships may be severed irreversibly, with the kind of damage which Vickers suggests. This is not just to do with the relationships within the regional centres – it also affects the relationships of those staff to other staff elsewhere in the university, to students and associate lecturers they support, and to wider stakeholders in the communities where the regional centres are based.

Image: Estate of Ross Ashby
Moving on to the work of Ross Ashby, author of the first textbook in cybernetics (Ashby, 1956) at a time when that field was at the cutting edge of technology and human sciences. The central concept in Ashby's book is that of variety: the number of possible states that a system can have. In a system with many different members with many relationships, the variety will be very large.

Ashby examined the question of how to regulate that variety, and formulated what he referred to as the Law of Requisite Variety. This law, which Ashby demonstrated mathematically, and which has been applied subsequently by many scholars, states that the only way to manage the variety of a system is if the regulator (the management part) has the same level of variety as the part of the system being regulated.

The implications for the OU arise from the reduction in the number of regional centres. The existing structure, with its set of relationships linking the university to the outside world, is able to absorb the variety of the world in which it sits. This variety will not be changed. However, shifting to two regional centres (plus the offices in Milton Keynes and the national offices) reduces the variety of the regulating system, the parts of the OU which are able to absorb that variety. It is only possible to continue the system's effective operation if the same variety in the regulating system can be maintained.

In summary: by reducing the regional centres so severely, the university perturbs the relationships which give it shape, possibly irretrievably, and puts itself at considerable risk of being unable to absorb the variety of the system with which it interacts. I have not written here of the effects upon the staff involved, which is considerable; nor of the people proposing the change, who are honourable and well-intentioned. Nevertheless an analysis from systems thinking suggests that these changes are extremely risky and likely to lead to considerable problems for the future of the university.

Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
Vickers, G. (1983), Human Systems are Different, London: Harper & Row.

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