What I understand, and mean, by the term “systemic”

When I did a post-graduate course on Systemic Management in 1998, no one seemed to know what ‘systemic’ meant! 16 years on, I’ve noticed that it is fast becoming part of workplace vocabulary!

However, in conversation, I have found that people attach very different meanings to this word. It’s been great to explore the various perspectives and to expand my understanding in the process.

This is an attempt to put in writing, my partial and evolving sense of what systemic means. Far from being an authoritative view, it’s an invitation to further co-create its meaning… a prologue* to more conversations. (*From the Greek ‘prologos’ – before-word… love it!)

For me, taking a systemic approach is about focussing on the  interconnected, interdependent and relational  nature of human systems. It is an interest, based on curiosity, in exploring human 

Equality and diversityinteraction, in particular, noticing relational patterns and dynamics, and making sense of how this creates our social reality/identity; and, in turn how this shapes and governs the micro human system to which we belong; and in turn how this affects the wider world.

An important commitment of being systemic is paying attention to, and illuminating social processes or workplace practice, that make inequality or abuse of authority, seem normal (Brookfield,2011).

It is also biblical idea. For me, an appreciation of 1 Corinthians 12 is a call to work towards organisational coherence in the context of the interconnectedness and interdependence between the many parts that make up an organisation. Systemic thinking and practice enables this celebration and leveraging of human diversity to happen.

In the academic arena, the systemic approach draws and builds on ideas and principles originally developed in family therapy. It offers an alternative to the:

  • industrial revolution legacy of organisations as ‘machine’, and,
  • historical enlightenment notion that people can only be understood through scientific methodology.

In contrast, a systemic perspective emphases the ‘humane’ nature of organisations, and draws from the knowledge we have about ourselves as conversationally and relationally competent human beings (Shotter, 1993).

Any enterprise that we call ‘work’ happens through interaction, in particular communication. It follows therefore that language is central to creating meaning and collaboration. In this connection, life-giving dialogical processes should be at the heart of organisation development strategy. This involves creating the conditions where life-enhancing, life-generating and collaborative dialogue and action can occur. It requires a move out of deficit language into an appreciation of what works well in an organisation – with the belief that you get more of what you pay attention to.

Systemic thinking has become an umbrella under which many ideas reside. It draws from social constructionism, linguistics, philosophy, family therapy, etc.

communityIt is not an explanatory theory, i.e. it does not explain why groups of people behave as they do. Rather it is a framework for observing and understanding the world in terms of the connections amongst its many parts.

For me, working systemically means being mindful that:

  • There are patterns of connection and disconnection in all human systems. No one is outside these patterns. Exploring connections amongst persons, communication, and context is important.
  • Language is a maker and doer of things. It plays a central role in the creation of social reality, eg, meaning, work, ethics, etc.
  • Meaning is continually emerging. Therefore, working with peoples’ contextual logic for meaning and action is important.
  • Multiple voices are present within situations. In this sense, organisations are polyphonic, i.e., multi-voiced. An important role of leadership is to actively listen, blend and align voices through participation, cooperation and collaboration. Without “followers” there can be no such things as “leaders”. Therefore, leadership has to be invitational and collaborative, NOT command and control.
  • Knowledge generation, acquisition, and sharing is a relational activity that involves communal ‘sense and meaning’ making.
  • Hierarchy exists in every human system. However, systemic thinking does not call for an inversion of hierarchy but rather the development of aesthetic and practical skills in managing power within a complexity of contexts. It is a commitment to distinguish between authority and authoritarianism.
  • There is an ethical dimension. For change to happen we need to be aware of how power works in society as well as in the micro realities of family, peer groups, communities and workplaces. In this connection, there is a commitment to illuminate social processes that make inequality seem normal.
  • No one theory of leadership can be applied across every situation because every context is different.
  • Individual/character trait theory of leadership is replaced by a concern with patterns of relationship, inclusion, coordination and co-construction. In this connection, a key leadership competency is the ability to be reflexive about what is being created in the process of leadership, i.e., what identities/realities of self, of others and of the organisation are being created as a result leadership paradigm used and behaviours exhibited.
  • Organisational opportunities and constraints are co-created in communication. It is through dialogical processes that we make sense of our ability to act, to participate, to take up positions and to make particular contributions.                                                                                                                                                                                              (inspired by Barge & Oliver, 2003)

Working systemically calls for the development of number of skills, including the ability to:

  •  initiate conversations that create mutual accountability and the co-creation of common ground in complex, interconnected and multi-faceted human systems;
  •  help co-create metanarratives that offers corporate/communal meaning to complexity and interconnections;
  •  call on, and coordinate different voices in a pluralistic context;
  •  notice recurring patterns of group behaviours, bring them to the consciousness of the community, and, collaboratively construct ways of changing unhelpful (toxic) patterns.


I am grateful to all my “systemic” friends (including textual companions) with whom I’m journeying with, and, from whom I’ve learnt so much. Everthing I’ve said here are echoes of your voices resounding in me. I apologise that I have not meticulously referenced your ideas in this blog. However, I hope to write this up in an academic genre and will definitely attribute everything properly there. In the mean time, here are some of the sources that I have drawn from:

Burr V, 1995, An Introduction to Social Constructionism

Barge, J. K. & Oliver C, 2003. Working with Appreciation in Managerial Practice. Academy of Management Review, 28, 124

Brookfield, S, 2008, Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice, Jossey Bass

Brookfield S, 2011, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions, Jossey Bass

Deeks, J, 1997, Another Brick in the wall: Business metaphor and educational practice, Seminar paper at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, on language, values and the global market

Draper, J A,19xx, Reading the Bible as Conversation: A Theory and Methodology for contextual interpretation of the Bible in Africa

Esteves de Vasconcellos, M J, 1999, Human Systems, Journal of Systemic Consultation and Management

Lang P, Little M,Cronen,V,1990, The Systemic Professional, Domains of action and the question of neutrality, Human Systems, Vol 1 No 1

Gergen J K & Joseph T, 1996, Organisational Science in a Postmodern Context, Journal of Applied Behavioural Science

Gergen J K, 2009, An invitation to social constructionism, Sage Publications

Mcnamee, S. & Gergen, K. J. 1999. Relational responsibility [electronic resource] : resources for sustainable dialogue. Thousand Oaks, Calif. ; London: Sage

Oliver, 2006, Reflexive Inquiry: A Framework for Consultancy Practice, Karnac, London

Oliver, C. 2005. Reflexive inquiry [electronic resource] : a framework for consultancy practice. London: Karnac

Pearce B, 1994, Interpersonal Communications: Making Social Worlds, Harper Collins

Richardson, L. 1990. Writing strategies : reaching diverse audiences, London, Sage.

Richardson, L, 2011, Writing, a Method of Inquiry from The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research

Shotter J, 1993, Conversational Realities: Constructing Life through Language, Sage

2 thoughts on “What I understand, and mean, by the term “systemic”

  1. This is revolutionary! In my life I experience the truth of many of your observations, having mostly worked without being employed by any organisation, and have discovered ways of being within systems and institutions that seem more creative (and sometimes more fruitful) than could be provided by a contract of employment. However, this way is poorly understood and I have found the need to invest heavily on my ‘inner’ journey, as I can rarely rely on external sources (pay, status, titles etc) to tell me who I am. Your writing fascinates me – it could lead us into a whole new world!

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