From education to employment

Improving Political Parley

Collaboration, employee engagement

A recent issue of the Daily Telegraph (1) discussed events during the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. The issue’s editorial column notes a bold reassertion of Conservative values as Rishi Sunak pursues a high-risk strategy of ‘fundamental change’, adjusting almost every aspect of public policy, not least axing the northbound stretch of HS2 to Manchester and replacing A Levels with a new Advanced British Standards offering students more annual teaching hours. At best, teaching unions will be closely involved in devising the latter, given an uneconomic rate of early leavers among the profession’s recruits. This year’s conference was apparently far less febrile than in 2022 but critics might suggest its opaque language didn’t deliver attendees with any substance.  

Analysis by Telegraph staff Camilla Towney and Madeline Gwent read as far from complimentary: Conservative speeches criticizing a broken political system not working as it should ironically came from the very people in charge of that system. Two other correspondents (Melissa Lawford and Szu Ping Chang) believed the prime minister dodged a plan to help business, including the sector’s need for growth. One brownie point is a £36 billion saving on HS2 which can be invested elsewhere in the transport infrastructure, yet maybe overshadowed by a decision to abandon the route north and Rishi Sunak’s oratory style, issuing ‘bizzare phrases’ while talking to delegates in a manner mimicking the TV program Jackanory.  The words ‘men are men’ and ‘women are women’, as tautologies, are ultra safe because they don’t say much about anything.  

In a major political organization applauding ‘pragmatism and competence’, parley doesn’t have to be distractingly vague. Officials in both Conservative and Labour parties could adopt a different approach whose jargon focuses on investigating complex situations which are proving to be hard to define and rich with diverse opinions. One of several approaches for investigating ‘hazy’ organizational settings is Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), developed by Professor Peter Checkland and colleagues based at Lancaster University during their thirty- year research programme. His methodology helped tackle major projects in the private and public sectors, with university staff working on a consultancy basis. Learning from such experience in projects outside of Lancaster, a systems-based language was developed, one relying on English verbs assembled as user-friendly exploratory devices within the real-world muddle Homo sapiens experience.

Arguments about green energy as the main form of UK provision can illustrate Checkland’s approach SSM. I recall that, in April, the BEIS government assessment unit expressed concern over the lack of any over-arching energy plan, net zero being discussed in silos, subsidies which were too low, and the lack of attractive investment opportunities in green industries. Permit a hypothetical case study! After a review of documents, records of meetings, and interviews within the assessment unit, Checkland’s researchers draft a few systems models which will hopefully sharpen discussion among the people taking part. These high-level models could, in principle, be put into action by the host organization since each model declares purposeful behaviour as a handful of linked activities. Lest this seems too abstract, the notional activity Travel to work gets actioned by employees every contracted day. Some courageously choose to journey to their workplace by bike: that’s how they action the activity.  

Regarding worries over green energy, a model put forward in debate contains phrases which as a notional system supervises planning a mix of energy sources through time. Three of the seven phrases (Figure 1) are shown here. For practical reasons, SSM diagrams are usually displayed on low-tech A3 flipcharts as aids to serious discussion, not final designs. If a model fails to stir parley it should be (green) binned, and any criticism recorded as potential material can redirect research thinking along fresh avenues later in the study.

Arrows indicate logical dependency: plans can’t be tested (activity d) unless they are prepared (c) and, likewise, assembling a plan which details the use of resources (c) is dependent (in logic) on activity b, which agrees that mix. With an A3 flipchart easel and a small degree of tact, the model can be used as a base to question participants. Questions proving very useful in studies to date are:

  • How is each activity carried out?
  • Who is in charge?
  • How does performance get measured?
  • What would count as an improvement?

As many interested parties as possible should be encouraged to join the research process: Peter Checkland didn’t intend for SSM to become the private property of experts, while Charles West Churchman, one of the earliest professional exponents of this discipline in North America warned, ‘There are no experts in the systems approach’, implying the social world isn’t a jigsaw (or rail network) to be solved once and for all. Not a blueprint for success, SSM must be adapted to an organization’s practice and politics; for instance, HR personnel brought into the energy problem might suggest they help define the knowledge/skills needed to accomplish each of the activities, and, in addition, attempt to uncover the success or failure of computer models in testing (d) nationwide energy strategies. Will a bold maverick on the corporate payroll ask for research findings to be widely circulated? 

Unlike other branches of systems thinking, a diagram in SSM doesn’t claim to be a design towards achieving a clearly specified goal, rather it supports enquiry and movement towards modest change in scenarios which are poorly understood. This explicit process is recursive, each cycle of learning and debate at best helping to create relevant discussion among concerned personnel, never completely free from corporate tradition, internal politics, and the need to pay one’s mortgage and remain silent, even if the CEO is ambiguous.  

By Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton, West Yorks.

1  The Daily Telegraph  Wednesday, 5th October 2023  

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