Systems thinking



John Seddon gave an inaugural lecture as a Visiting Professor at the University of Derby last night and I pitched along to see what he had to say.

I haven’t come across Seddon before but the leaflet for the lecture looked interesting. It proclaimed “current management works, but not very well; it needs re-inventing”. Seddon’s wikipedia entry describes him as an occupational psychologist and a management guru and he seems to be something of a darling of the Telegraph as he frequently attacks the government’s target driven approach.

I found what he had to say interesting, although a bit too general at times. I wanted to agree with him, but he dismissed the alternatives a bit too easily and didn’t present enough evidence. To be fair it was only an hour long lecture, but I left interested to find out more rather than convinced.

Broadly what Seddon argued was that most management thinking focuses on the relationship between the manager and the labour. It essentially asks “how do we sweat the resource” better. Usually the answer is to focus on the development of targets, appraisal, support and punishments for the workers to do more. Seddon argues that this is pointless and rarely achieves a significant improvement in output. He argues that you should focus on the systems rather than the people. If you look at the journey of a customer inquiry you find out a huge amount about how to improve it and improving this system is ultimately what saves you money.

One of the things that Seddon points to is the cost of poor systems. He argues that most of what a lot of public sector businesses do is manage failure. So you ring up to get help and they don’t help you because the frontline staff aren’t well enough trained and so they pass you along, assign you a number, put you into a system and you keep ringing back until the problem is solve or you give up and go elsewhere. If they could simply solve your problem you would only ring once and it would cost less. This might mean that you need better trained and higher quality people, but a lot less of them. This goes against the idea of fragmenting work, specialising it and developing economies of scale. Seddon is very opposed to the idea of economies of scale. You get economies he argues from improving flow rather than by increasing the scale.

This is all very interesting stuff and one of the main implications it suggests is that you need to look at the system within which people opperate rather than just trying to skill people up to be better at navigating the system. I’d argue that this would mean things like how to achieve organisational change and how to understand organisations and management become key career management skills. I’d also argue that it means that careers people have to look beyond the clients they are working with to examine the systems within which those clients operate. Once again I think that this should bring the careers world into dialogue with HR people.

All in all very interesting stuff. I’ll be investigating further and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about systems thinking.

The seven most important trends on the web

OK, so that is a bit of a naughty title. I’ll admit that it was designed to get your attention. I can’t promise to tell you what the most important trends on the web are, but I can have a stab in the dark and see if people agree. I’m trying to look at what the implications/opportunities of new technologies are for careers work, but in order to do that I need to come up with some kind of list of what is going on. What might offer the kind of work that I write about some kinds of opportunities. I’ve been reading around and I haven’t found anyone who has set this out very clearly. Tim O’Reilly’s What is web 2.0 is a pretty good, but it is too tech heavy for a mere mortal like me. I want to try and get my head round what the implications of current developments in technology are for the users rather than for those in the web business.


I also wanted to keep away from identifying trending technologies. It is easy to say that Twitter is the flavour of the month this month etc but we all know these things ebb and flow. I feel like I need to identify trends at a more conceptual level. So here goes – this is my attempt to identify the seven most important things that are currently out there. I’m doing this to be told that I’m wrong – so shoot away. I want you to tell me what the seven (or even better six or five) trends should be. I’d also be interested to be pointed to things that attempt to do similar things.


So my trends, in no particular order are:


1. Ways of talking: In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argues that the key issue in assessing the impact of the internet is whether people use it more like the television (alienating, individualised, consuming) or whether people use it more like the telephone (connecting, social, producing). It seems pretty clear now that the internet has become a super-charged telephone rather than a new television. A large number of the opportunities associated with new technologies are about finding new ways for us to talk to each other, both one-to-one (chatrooms, videoconferencing etc) and in groups and communities (every social networking site out there). If we are evaluating the opportunities offered by new technologies we need to recognise that people love to talk and we can now talk more than ever before. Furthermore we should recognise that the cost of developing and maintaining social capital has dropped as the systems that enable us to talk have got easier and cheaper to use. The new ways of talking are likely to revolutionise everything.

2. Together everyone achieves more: Current technologies allow us to harness collective intelligence in ways that radically alter the way we understand the role of expertise and the production of information. Systems, like Wikipedia, provide new ways of aggregating knowledge and support the development of a public sphere within which ideas can be shared, debated and synthesised together. The generation of huge amounts of user content and equally important of user metadata mean that services which are based on expertise and the possession of information are going to need to rethink their unique selling points pretty quickly.

3. Located in the cloud:  The trend for everything to be located in the cloud is enormously challenging for organisations that have spent millions of pounds developing their own resources, systems and applications. How do we own, control, regulate and safeguard? People want to be able to access their stuff from wherever they are, they don’t want to worry about firewalls, ownership and branding. They want to be able to move stuff from one bit or their life or identity to the next. They don’t want to use your system they want to use the one they’ve found that works for what they want it to work for.

4. Getting beta and beta: Forget about launch dates. If you’ve got something that might be useful put it out there and see if people use it. Find out what they complain about and fix it. Even better, get them to fix it for you. This cycle of continuous improvement is a massive social change that business and the public sector will struggle with. Again it pulls against ideas of branding and of expertise, it breaks down the barriers between expert and amateur, professional and client and so on.

5. Beyond the computer: Next up is the reminder that technology is not confined to your desktop. The ways that people are accessing online services are becoming more diverse and more integrated. You can pull content off the web to your phone or TV. You can integrate your Sat Nav or fridge into your computer. How we utilise these opportunities in the delivery of services is going to determine what our services look like in the future.

6. Let’s play: Everyone keeps talking about gaming. I’m not a gamer, but I can spot a zeitgeist when it slaps me in the face. I can also recognise that I’ve been using face to face games as part of my everyday teaching and management practice for years. I haven’t figured how to move this online, but others have. People interact, entertain and learn through gaming and so it is not going to be possible for mainstream services to ignore this for much longer. It is also not going to be possible to pretend that only kids play games for much longer either.

7. Bringing it all together: Finally, I’d like to suggest that aggregation is a trending theme in technology. Things that allow you to bring stuff that interests you together to help you assimilate it and to build relationships between different things. The development of mashups and portals enables the user to personalise their interactions with individuals, organisations and information. Again this challenges ideas of branding and means that the often cited argument that organisations should become a “one-stop shop” or that we should practice “joined up thinking” become more meaningful at the individual level and less meaningful at the organisational level.


So there you go…


Suggestions please! Are these meaningful trends? Is this mix of technological, social and cultural trends a workable way to discuss what is happening? If not suggest some alternatives or argue with me about the trends I’ve found.

Manchester Humanities PGR Blog

I’ve been asked by the team at Manchester University to push their new Humanities PGR blog. So here goes…


Check out the Manchester Humanities PGR Blog as it is a good example of how you can use a blog format to support training and development activity.  The blog contains a mix of news and views and would certainly be worth all Manchester PGRs adding to their RSS feed.


The blog also regularly features articles that would be of interest beyond Manchester. A few of my favourites are



I’d be really interested to see how other careers and skills development professionals are using web 2.0 to publish content and interact with clients, and I’m very happy to give a shout out to anything that is as good as this blog.

Telling your career story in a web 2.0 world


To understand the impact of web 2.0/the social web on careers work it is important to do some thinking about how the web 2.0 world will impact on our careers. This post is just a starter for ten, I suspect that there will be more.

Technology has recently made two things easy that until relatively recently were quite difficult. The first is accessing information while the second is maintaining contact with people. We are now in a position where we can easily find and access information in ways that would previsiously required not only a library, but also a librarian. Alongside this we have seen the cost of maintaining personal and professional relationships fall dramatically. I no longer need to buy all of my friends a drink every few months to stay in touch with them. In fact I don’t even need to buy a Christmas card any more. Facebook, Twitter et al have expanded my personal networks meaning that I’m in touch with people I would otherwise have lost touch with and that I can find, access and possibly even gain social capital from these people. The world is changing and this must have implications for our careers.

Career is a sort of story that we tell to ourselves and to others. It is a way of linking up our learning, our work and our values in ways that are meaningful to those telling and hearing the story. We tell the story again and again and we tell it differently to ourselves as we develop our own narrative – but we also tell it differently to others depending on why we are telling the story.

My father (who has lived all of his life in and around London) has recently moved to a Leicestershire village. He was talking to me the other night about how he finds it odd that everyone in the village knows each other. What is more they have known each other since childhood. This community embeddedness clearly limits the extent to which they can reinvent themselves. Career stories do not become fixed by connections to others, but they do become more stable.

Our journeys through life often provide us with opportunities  to move on, change the environment and resituate our narratives. Most of us don’t live our whole lives in villages and we often enjoy the freedom to reinvent ourselves that this offers. This is not to say that there are not benefits to being embedded in a community. Rather it is to note that the retelling our our career story is dependent on talking to people who haven’t heard it all before.
Hopefully it is fairly obviously what this has to do with the web 2.0 world. The availability of information about us and the extension of the reach of our professional reputation mean that we are likely to have fewer and fewer opportunities to tell our stories to people who haven’t heard at least some of it before. This is not to say that there won’t be a need for stories. In some wasy the availability of ever more information makes the need for the development of some kind of narrative structure within which we can interpret it even more important. The process of articulating your career becomes about helping people interpret the various facts that they encounter about you online.

Our careers are currently like a secret diary. We show them to others when we trust them or when we want to engage their interest, but increasingly our careers will be given digital form through our activity online. Our role then becomes to tell and retell our stories in ways that can engage the interest of others and draw them into a relationship with our career.    

It is worth swinging sideways into how this might impact on recruitment. Why would employers ask for CVs/applications forms when they can just Google you? Why would they want a partial story when they can easily gain a wider sense of your impact on the world from looking at who you are, who you know and what you say and do? The price of headhunting just got a lot cheaper and the dialogue between employers and prospective employees may have just got a lot more complex.