Critical systems thinking and practice

However, true competence reveals itself through responsibility. In a civil society, expertise alone is not a source of sufficient legitimation for the consequences that professional intervention may impose on citizens. In view of the ever-growing scope of professional intervention, professionals need new critical skills that enable them to identify such consequences systematically and to deal with them in a self-reflective and open way.

Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse

That is to say, reflective competencies as we just required them from citizens also need to become an integral part of our concept of professionalism. There exists a deep connection between the two concepts of competent citizenship and professionalism. Just as citizenship requires not only civil rights but also some critical competencies, competence requires not only expertise but also a proper understanding of citizenship.


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I therefore propose that we should teach future professionals to understand and practice their professional competence not only in terms of expertise but equally in terms of competent citizenship. Thus, only that professional will be considered a competent professional who also is a competent citizen, in the sense intended above. But of course, strategies of promoting critical competencies in professionals and citizens must rely on an approach that is sufficiently basic and general to be accessible to a majority of ordinary people. Critical systems thinking CST as I understand it offers us a way to develop such an approach, provided we are willing to pragmatize critical systems ideas adequately.

Reviving the Systems Idea. The question thus poses itself: What critical systems ideas, if any, might become a source of the envisaged critical competencies for a great majority of ordinary citizens and professionals? The core concept that I have in mind is fundamental to my own approach to critical systems thinking, an approach called Critical Systems Heuristics Ulrich, I mean the concept of a critical employment of boundary judgments Ulrich, , pp.

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It says that the practical implications of a proposition the "difference" it makes in practice and thus its meaning as well as its validity depend on how we bound the system of concern, i. Our judgment of the merits of a proposition e. With respect to this crucial issue of boundary judgments, experts are no less lay people than ordinary citizens are. For me, this concept is important as it implies that we need not be experts in the matter at hand in order to be able to contest an expert proposition of concern to us in a compelling way.

Boundary critique appears to represent a rare example of how systems ideas immediately translate into methodologically cogent forms of argumentation, i. The concept allows us to identify invalid claims by uncovering underpinning boundary judgments other than those intended or pretended by the proponent. Therein resides its critical power. It explains why and how ordinary citizens are capable of contesting propositions, and of advancing counter-propositions, without risking of being immediately convicted of lacking competence. Note that the concept is based on a genuinely systems-theoretical conjecture: we cannot conceive of systems without assuming some kind of systems boundaries.

Systems Thinking

If we are not interested in understanding boundary judgments, i. Systems Thinking as a Form of Critique. The previous conclusion means that neither the systems idea nor the idea of critique can be practiced independently. This is so because either idea implies some basic validity claims that cannot be redeemed, except with the help of the other.

Critique must be grounded, otherwise it is empty; but any attempt to ground it without systems thinking, that is to say, without overtly limiting its context of valid application, will lead into an infinite regress of grounding the underlying validity claims and thus will ultimately depend on ideal conditions of rationality, as Habermas' model of rational discourse illustrates well it is significant that rational discourse in this model depends on an anticipated "ideal speech situation".

On the other hand, systems thinking without critique amounts to the covert use of boundary judgments, the normative implications of which are not made a subject of systematic discussion; its claims to systemic understanding and comprehensiveness then merely cover its partiality. Hence, the systems idea and the idea of critique actually require each other. We need to bring them together so that systems thinking can be practiced critically, and critique can be practiced systemically. The concept of a critical employment of boundary judgments thus provides a crucial methodological link between the systems idea and the idea of critique.

This is an idea which the critical tradition itself has not forwarded as yet but which, I believe, provides a key to the task of pragmatizing Habermas' theoretically compelling, though pragmatically desperate, identification of rational discourse with an "ideal speech situation" in which undistorted communication would be possible. Instead of waiting for such conditions of perfect rationality to be realized, we better put the systems idea to work on the job of dealing critically with normal conditions of imperfect rationality cf.

Ulrich, , p. If it is fundamental, it must be possible to demonstrate its relevance in everyday situations of communication, debate, and decision making, in a language that ordinary citizens can understand. The challenge is to develop the didactic means that will allow us to explain to citizens the meaning and importance of systematic boundary critique, and to train them in identifying and using boundary judgments for the purpose of critical reflection, debate, and argumentation.

Apply critical systems thinking and practice to public and private sector policy issues

It is beyond the scope of this short introduction to explain in any detail how my work on critical systems heuristics CSH seeks to operationalize the basic idea of systematic boundary critique, much less to explain the underpinning philosophical framework. If this very brief introduction has aroused your interest, you may wish to consult some of the main sources on the project and the underlying framework.

The subsequent references and links will lead you to some relevant materials. Barbalet, J.

Vocational relevance

Citizenship: Rights, Struggle and Class Inequality. Habermas, J. The Theory of Communicative Action. Beacon Press, Boston, MA. Marshall, T. Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays. Ulrich, W. Haupt, Bern, Switzerland, and Stuttgart, Germany. Paperback reprint edition Wiley, New York, Critical heuristics of social systems design. Reprinted in M.


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Jackson, P. Keys and S.


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