The importance of being process by David Blockley

This is the first article of our web-based reading group:

Blockley, D. I. (2010). The importance of being process. Civil engineering and environmental systems, 27(3), 189-199.

The full text of this journal paper can be found through this link, and its abstract is posted below.


The purpose of the paper is to outline the particular interpretation of systems thinking developed at the University of Bristol over the last 30 years. The importance of process and uncertainty are central themes. Put at its simplest, systems thinking is joined-up thinking. It is getting the right information (what) to the right people (who) at the right time (when) for the right purpose (why) in the right form (where) and in the right way (how). The three ideas at the heart of delivering systems thinking are thinking in layers, thinking in connected loops and thinking about new processes. Everything has life cycle and hence is a process – but one that is set in the context of a system containing other connected processes – some at higher and some at lower levels of definition. All processes have attributes that are characterised using why, how, who, what, where, when. There is a need to integrate hard and soft systems. This requires us to be very clear about the meaning and usage of the terms subjective and objective when we argue that engineering judgement is both valid and important. It is argued that truth is to knowledge as the inverse of risk is to action. The three attributes of uncertainty are stated as FIR – fuzziness, incompleteness and randomness. Robustness and its inverse, vulnerability, are crucial, though often ignored. Systems thinking is not simply an engineering approach; rather it is a philosophy for solving many practical problems such as joined-up government, social work, dealing with climate change and terrorism. Finally it is argued that our journey to 2030 requires us to adopt an evolutionary observational approach using systems thinking.

Please join our discussion by leaving comment below.


Have you read something exciting and related to this paper? Why not make a suggestion by leaving a comment below or use the contact form here to email Helen and Shaofu. If you have difficulty getting the access to the full text of this paper, we might also be able to help.

10 responses to “The importance of being process by David Blockley

  1. I like David’s view about “everything has life cycle and hence is a process.”
    System thinkers see everything as a process, even physical, material things. And the process is to achieve quality, while quality is defined by the purpose of this system.
    I don’t know if it’s easy or difficult for an engineer to see a physical entity as a process, but I found it’s quite easy for an educationalist to forget the importance of the purpose. Currently too much emphasis on measurements, such as test results, but not enough on the transformation of the learner, the purpose of education.

    Anyone read this paper? What do you think?

  2. Like shaofou, to me the idea of purpose is crucial – it helps us to define the parameters of a system and also to define quality. Why = how(who, what, where, when). So the purpose of a hospital is to make people better but the measurement of quality is throughput! Out of sync. It also provides us with a language for pedagogy as learning design rather than pedagogy as script. And philosophically it challenges the dominant worldview because time is now a core concept…and it also problematises agency, which I think is important when we apply systems thinking to the social sciences.

  3. It is strange that I have randomly happened across “systems” twice today. I am researching the impact of learning outcomes on student learning and was looking for the best way to start presenting back my findings. Something is clearly directing me towards this. Must read more..

    • Lisa – you might like to get in contact with Mark Moorhouse at Matthew Moss school….it is run entirely on systems principles (based on the work of Deming). Ruth can make the introduction for you (Matthew Moss school is participating in some of Ruth’s current research), or I am sure he would welcome a random email :) I understand that the impact of this approach on learning outcomes is quite remarkable.

      • That sounds like an excellent plan. Thank you. Could you direct me to his email address or if Ruth could follow me @lisajaneashes I’ll private message her mine?

  4. David and I have had some interesting conversations about ‘process’ and ‘purpose’ and I look forward to exploring this further during the MSc and beyond. Ruth, Stafford Beer used to say “POSIWID” – the Purpose of a System is What it Does….. in which case, the purpose of some hospitals could be to give people MRSA? And the measure of quality might really be about ‘single throughput’ (e.g. not having to readmit people repeatedly where this could be avoided in the early interventions). There are analogies with recidivism in the prison system, of course. Again, a system with multiple possible intended purposes, and many emergent ones (e.g. is it to punish, rehabilitate, educate….?)

    I find the two views of “Purpose driving process” v. “Purpose emerging from System” to be very interesting. The first seems to be nearer the ‘hard systems’ view of the scientist/engineer; while the latter is nearer to that of the social scientist/biologist take on the world (which seems to embrace messiness and uncertainty more readily). While these views, at first, appear contradictory, if you can hold each one in either hand and use both at once, it really enhances your understanding of the world. One moment you believe that you can change the world, if only you develop the processes to deliver a shared purpose to that end; and at another moment you find yourself observing with great curiosity as the world reveals itself yet again to be more complex, uncertain – and wondrous – than you had expected!

    I believe that a great deal of the value of practicing Systems Thinking is that it helps us to cope with – even to understand – the dualities and intellectual tensions of different paradigms and modes of thinking. Once we become aware of what these models are, we are free to try on different ones and slip in and out of different mindsets – to find what helps most at any given moment in time.

  5. James Llewellyn

    As someone who works for an engineering company, I certainly agree that the “hard” systems view of purpose driving process is the one that predominates in the that particular professional mind set.

    The problem is that when “performance” is judged by financial metrics purpose becomes hugely distorted. Most of the business plans produced by my colleagues (and there are an amazing number of them) state that our objectives are to increase turnover and profit. Purpose is not defined in terms of delivering what our clients want, what the public wants and what the environment needs.

  6. What interests me about this paper is how it gives us some conceptual tools to understand schools as complex systems…if the purpose is student learning and achievement (to be agreed by the community) then the how involves leaders and teachers focusing on pedagogy which achieves that, and the challenge is to explore the core processes and the relationships which influence that outcome then focus on those…so in our ESRC bid we have identiifed teacher learning, leadership learning (including community)and student learning as core processes and we are stimulating the system at all three levels around a shared purpose…and we have seen from teh LF research that if schools take their eye of the purpose and, say focus on the project, rather than the purpose of student learning, then they don’t realise the goal of enabling self-regulating learning in their students. So I find this a really helpful paper…

  7. Paul Hollingworth

    On the subject of purpose v process, Dr Deming was typically succinct, he said “Without an aim, there is no system”.

    Deming also said “”Focus on outcome is not an effective way to improve a process or activity”.

    I wonder how others would compare and contrast these two statements?

  8. i think this is a very pertinent question. I have come to view the idea of purpose as critical to systems thinking – it enables us to know where to draw the boundaries of concern. but i’m not sure how to contrast the two statements. i wonder if the fact that in the second statement, outcome is singular, not plural, is significant. A purpose means there must be an outcome or outcomes which matter, and which can then help to define the process. So I think I might argue that a focus on outcomes – as a definition of purpose – enables us to then determine which of many processes might be appropriate…and which we can then focus on. So the two statements seem to be contradictory and as such maybe they just reflect different underlying ontologies and epistemologies.

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