Strategy Development as a Critical Social Learning System

If you’ve managed to read the title of this post and still get to this point, well done! If you feel you need to know more, then suffice to say that in another life as an OU student, I am studying Systemic Inquiry. Where I struggle with this, other than finding that as an OU student you can’t go to the student union every night and get the worse for wear on cheap Yugoslavian wine (why, oh why, did I ever drink that stuff?), is in trying to put what I learn into the context of my day-to-day life in strategy formulation.

At this moment I’m studying about Critical Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. The big case in Critical Social Learning Systems goes back to Australian agricultural issues arising around Hawkesbury in the 1970s, but I’m more interested in the application in IT & business strategy where I suggest we could actually learn a lot.

Probably best if I try & say what a Critical Social Learning System (“CSLS”) is? Well, I’d actually describe it as a way that we all work together to develop our surroundings (I was going to say “environment” but I mean a wider sense than just eco-stuff); and in doing so we learn about ourselves & the changes we’re making so that we keep moving towards a mutually better world in which build up an understanding of how things interoperate & depend on each other. “Hmmmmm..?” as Greg Pfister would say, and “What has this to do with IT Strategy?” which, to be honest, he probably wouldn’t say.

Whilst CSLS is probably most suited to larger, social, situations, I think there are some key tenets that I could take here & suggest we should use when working on IT strategic development:

First up is the use of the word Critical, or applying Critical Thinking around what we do. This isn’t a negative thing, it’s about applying a set of thinking skills around what we’re doing in order to understand what we’re trying to do (in the wider scale of things) & what’s around to do it with. That latter piece: “What’s around to do it with” in IT strategy terms means trying to looks at the alternatives, evaluate them & then apply them to solve what we’ve originally set out to do.

Social brings about thoughts of more social entities, say, families or tribes but it actually applies to organisations; or communities of practice or interest. While I tend not to find a tribe of jungle dwellers dropping emails on me from time to time, I do get organisations and communities of practice of all sorts trying to communicate with me. For me however, the key here is that the communication is two-way in this model. In formulating our strategic thinking it shouldn’t be simply as a response to a challenge (“What is our strategy on cable radius, Russ?”…seriously!) but it should be co-operative across the business and set in the business context. After all, IT is following business strategy so it’s clear we should be working collaboratively.

And so to the elephant in the room…Learning. We do actually do this in our day-to-day work, “If I had known then what I know now….” but I’d suggest we don’t acknowledge it as a key part of what we do. Learning carries with it some bad connotations, “Why did it take you so long to find that out?”, and we’ve got to work past these and understand that we constantly are learning; and that in turns mean we may occasionally have to change our minds. This applies to strategy formulation and roadmaps – the world changes and so do our plans.

But learning actually carries a bit more with it as well, it’s not just about what I learned, but what I learned about how I learned so that maybe in future I can do it quicker or avoid a pitfall. It’s also about learning about how we see the world around us and how that affected what we actually learned this time. How much of what we create is a future plan or roadmap is actually constrained by what we believe to be so. Not good if we’re trying to be innovative with IT provision but our established view of the world cuts off potential solutions before we’ve given them consideration.

And so finally to System, or rather Systems. What is meant here is looking at the dynamics & inter-relationships between the components that make up the situation that we’re interested in formulating strategy for. In IT terms it can be thought about as between the computer systems themselves, but also the organisational inter-relations; and how the information delivery relates to process delivery relates to systems availability relates to organisational capability…..and so on.

In summary, what have we got?

Well, I think that we’ve got to think about IT strategy formulation in a much wider sense than simply looking through the binoculars and deciding which next hot technology to deploy. We’ve got to put what we do in context (yes, the Enterprise Architects will be saying they already do that…”All hail TOGAF!”); but we’ve got allow joint learning on all parts, not just keep this stuff in the dark, and we’ve got to be honest about it.

So now I’ve got that off my chest it’s time to go back to the academic dark side where there is a lot more structure about the use of language, I’ve been very lax in my descriptions above but hopefully I won’t get shot….yet. For me a see a new framework for doing what I do appearing, so watch this space….


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