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Systemic Intervention

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Midgley, G., n.d. Systemic Intervention, in: The Sage Handbook of Action Research.
Because of the complexity of many of the
environmental, social and organizational
issues that action researchers engage with,
where numerous interacting variables need to
be accounted for and multiple agencies and
groups bring different values and concerns to
bear, it is not uncommon for people to call
for a systems approach (see also Chapters 41,
42, 43 and 57, in this volume). The desire is
for a ‘bigger picture’ understanding, both of
complex, non-linear
interactions and the
dynamics of multiple stakeholder relationships
and perspectives. To address this call,
I offer a set of methodological concepts that
I have found useful in my own systemic
action research practice.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This book chapter on systemic intervention suggest a methodological pluralism for social systems interventions. The point of departure is how actors relate to the system boundaries and the overarching principle for intervention is "boundary critique". Different groups of actors may define the boundaries and whats inside the system differently. In this there is a risk for marginalization and conflict.  The purpose of the intervention is to create a dialogue on the definition of boundaries to make the system more inclusive and effective for its objectives. The dialogue centers on values, as the author finds a close connection between the social boundaries and the values that people hold.

To work with such dialogues on values and boundaries the author proposes to be open minded to various possible methods that help define systems properties, values, boundaries and conflicts. A list of techniques is presented, including interviews, focus groups, use of pictures to stimulate ideas, planning tools, system visualizations, values mapping, small group, multi-agency planning.

The methodological pluralism proposed is emphasized by a walkthrough on possible methodological frameworks:

System dynamics to model complex feedback processes that make it transparent why certain system-level effects may occur
The viable systems model focusing on the institutitnal setup of the system through its operations, coordination mechanisms, support and control of resources and information, Intelligence for forecasting and survey of needs, opportunities and threats, and policy making for setting of goals and onjectives as well as maintianing the identity of the organization
Interactive planning to liberate the knowledge and creative abilities of everybody
in (and often including stakeholders beyond) an organization to produce a plan of the ideal future. This is done in a three stage process: 1) establish representative  planning boards, 2) generate desired properties of the organization´s  products/activities and 3) produce the plan itself. Participation in the planning board may have to be extended beyond the organization.
Soft systems methodology to facilitate dialogue among stakeholders This encourages participants to generate issues to address through ongoing explorations
of their perceptions, and it supports people in modelling desirable future human
activities. It is necessary for participants to relate them back to their perceptions of their current situation. In this way, possibilities for change can be tested for feasibility. The soft systems methodology proposes 7 steps for this process of mapping perceptions, visualizing the system, creating ideas for system design, mapping desired interconnected human activities, and testing them for feasibilty before designing the plan and implementing it. This process is not linear, but requires participants to take steps back and forth until the plan is ready for implementation.
Critical systems heuretics is founded on the notion of boundary critique and the thinking that values and boundaries are reciprocally creating each other. Hence, the focus of the dialogue is on ethical issues before evolving practical guidelines for planners and ordinary citizens can use to conduct boundary critique. A list of 12 questions cover four key areas of concern: motivation, control, expertise and legitimacy. This method is particularly useful in public sector action research.
Point of Strength
The methods for action research presented are clearly connected to the development of systems thinking in the groups engaged in the research, whether they are researchers, planners or ordinary citizens. They open for an inclusive  dialogue on systems design and change, which could be useful in a number of settings. The drawback is that it is based on old research which can make it difficult to find the sources for design of research and education.