What the term ‘systemic’ means to me, and how I’m using it in the context of Organisation Development (OD)

I’m prompted to write this because it seems like the meaning of ‘systemic’ is becoming obscured by its popularity! It’s crept into the world of management and is being used to mean just about anything.

Having opened with this, it probably behoves me to ‘own’ my bias before I go on. I acknowledge that what follows is my personal perspective. In fact, I don’t think that it is possible for anyone to be completely objective, merely to try to gain “a greater or lesser awareness of one’s biases” (Rose, 1985, p.77). But, I do hope that being reflexive about what counts as knowledge, especially truth claims, will actually facilitate, rather than obscure learning. My love affair with the systemic thinking began when it dawned on me that it was a generative alternative to managerialism because of the latter’s ideological, gendered, elitist, and consumerist legacy, much of which continues to be in evidence today.

My understanding of the term ‘systemic’ has been formed as a result of many conversations over a good number of years with wonderful friends (both in the flesh and textual) – starting with those at the Kensington Consultation Centre, the Taos Institute and Kings College London, where I did various post-graduate courses, and most recently with my lovely cohort and supervisors at the Post-Graduate Research Centre, University of Bedfordshire where I am in the process of trying to gain a professional doctorate in systemic practice. The conversations I’ve had in these various contexts has shaped my understanding of the term systemic, and therefore, how I am using it as a Human Resource and OD practitioner.

The overarching philosophical framework of systemic practice is social constructionism. Systemic thinking is based on the notion that everything is connected. It is a way of understanding the world in terms of the connections amongst its many parts by focussing on the interconnected, interdependent and interactional nature of human systems. It is not an explanatory theory, i.e. it does not explain why groups of people behave as they do (Simon and Chard, 2014). Rather, it offers a view that human systems are a collection of many realities — a multiverse, rather than a ‘universe’ (Campbell et al., 1994) – relating, and therefore creating social worlds, through particular assumptions of how the world works.


In this sense, being systemic is about noticing what is socially constructed as a consequence of our taken-for-granted assumptions; and, taking responsibility for this, especially if it results in unethical, discriminatory, unconstructive or autocratic practice.

What I love about this ‘school’ of systemic thinking is its passionate commitment to ethical practice. In particular, with regard to noticing patterns of relating with a view to uncovering discriminatory or subjugating practice or patterns of behaviour that systems/society accept as normal.

For example, in the modernist approach to management, uniformity is often privileged over diversity, as evidenced by unitarist mission statements and vocabulary such as “fit”, “team players”, “right people on the bus”, “focus”, “aligned”, “can do”, “on message”, etc. For all the politically correct rhetoric about valuing difference, diversity is often only encouraged within the confines of a strategic plan or managerial system. In other words, diversity is encouraged in the context of ‘how’ employees do their work but not ‘what’ they do.

Contrary to this, systemic organising/management/leadership privileges the ethical coordination of diversity in a way that co-creates a sense of coherence, purpose and going on, within the diversity and complexity of human relationships. Another way of putting this is that human systems (organisations) are heteroglossic. In this sense, organising is about the “blending of worldviews through language that creates complex unity from a hybrid of utterances” (Bakhtin, 1981). This emphasis on diversity replaces the notion of individual rationality with “communal negotiation, thus placing importance on ethical social processes… the social practical function of language, and the significance of pluralistic cultural investments in the conception of “the true and good” (Gergen and Thatchenkery, 2004). In OD terms, I like to think of systemic thinking as a verb, i.e., it is the communal act of sense-making and action.

A great way of creating genuinely collaborative cultures is to reframe leadership from the commonly accepted notion that it is about directing employees by diagnosing and evaluating their performance, to that of co-creating work through generative dialogue. In this connection I have found the following frame for understanding the difference between diagnostic and dialogic approaches illuminating:

  Diagnostic Organising(Individualist) Dialogic Organising (Relational)
Influenced by Classical science, positivism and modernist philosophy Interpretive approaches, social constructionism, critical and postmodern philosophy
Ontology and epistemology Reality is an objective fact

There is a single reality

Truth is transcendent and discoverable

Reality can be discovered using rational and analytic processes

Reality is socially constructed

There are multiple realities

Truth is immanent and emerges from relating

Reality is negotiated and co-created

Constructs of change Collecting and applying valid data using objective problem-solving methods

Change can be created, planned and managed

Creating containers and conversational processes to produce generative ideas

Change can be encouraged by mainly self-organising

(Bushe and Marshak, 2009, p.357)

The challenge here is how to encourage senior colleagues to change their leadership model from that of evaluation to valuation, when they:

  1. believe that diagnostic evaluation is what professionals do;
  2. have the institutional/status/expert power to reject alternative suggestions;
  3. don’t want to give up this privileged status.



 “Say, Pooh, why aren’t you busy?” I said.

“Because it’s a nice day,” said Pooh.

“Yes, but—”

“Why ruin it?” he said.

“But you could be doing something Important,” I said.

“I am,” said Pooh.

“Oh? Doing what?”

“Listening,” he said.

“Listening to what?”

“To the birds.  And that squirrel over there.”

“What are they saying?” I asked.

“That it’s a nice day,” said Pooh.

“But you know that already,” I said.

“Yes, but it’s always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too,” he replied…

(Hoff et al., 1982)

Systemic practice is dialogical in that it is based on the notion that human beings understand and give meaning to our lives through story and storying. It is the primary way humans make meaning (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000). Dialogical approaches are those that focuses on the meanings that people ascribe to their experiences, seeking to provide “insight that (befits) the complexity of human lives; and attending to the ways in which stories are constructed, for whom and why, as well as the cultural discourses that the stories draws upon (Trahar, 2006).

In my OD work, I am drawn to the use of a process called Practice-based Social Constructionist Research (PSCR), a form of narrative inquiry devised by Kevin Barge, Carsten Hornstrup and Rebecca Gill. I like it because of its commitment to systemic principles, namely:

  1. The upfront acknowledgement of the manager’s biases and presumptions will inevitably shape and influence the social system (Barge et al., 2014).
  2. The notion that reflexivity involves managing conversations between and among people in ways that are relationally responsive and responsible.
  3. The use of difference as a resource for meaning making and action (predicated on the notion that every perspective is partial). This deliberate privileging of difference in management co-create more complex and nuanced descriptions, interpretations and conclusions of lived-experience (Barge, Hornstrup and Gill, 2014, p.206).


Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays by MM Bakhtin (M. Holquist, Ed.; C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Barge, J. K., Hornstrup, C. & Gill, L. (2014). Conversational Reflexivity and Researching Practice. In: Simon, G. & Chard, A. (eds.) Systemic Inquiry: Innovations in Reflexive Practice Research. Farnhill: Everything is Connected Press.

Bushe, G. R. & Marshak, R. J. (2009). Revisioning Organization Development: Diagnostic and Dialogic Premises and Patterns of Practice. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 45, 348-368.

Campbell, D., Coldicott, T. & Kinsella, K. (1994). Systemic work with organizations, London, Karnac Books.

Clandinin, D. J. & Connelly, M. (2000). Narrative inquiry : experience and story in qualitative research, San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass.

Gergen, K. J. & Thatchenkery, T. J. (2004). Organization Science as Social Construction: Postmodern Potentials. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 40, 228-249.

Hoff, B., Shepard, E. H. & Timur, F. K. (1982). The tao of pooh, EP Dutton.

Rose, P. (1985). Writing of women : essays in a renaissance, Wesleyan University Press.

Simon, G. & Chard, A. (2014). Systemic Inquiry: Innovations in Reflexive Practice Research, UK, Everything is Connect Press.

Trahar, S. (2006). Narrative research on learning : comparative and international perspectives, Oxford, Symposium Books.

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