Whole System Learning and Evaluation

Persistent, dramatic changes are taking place that influence our work, communities, and personal lives and understanding what it means to learn, respond, and succeed will take changes in how we evaluate it all.

A key feature of change in a complex system is that once its shifted, it never goes back; there’s no ‘undoing’ what’s been done. We can change it again to something else, but we will not go back. Think of a salad: chop up all the ingredients and put it in a bowl with some dressing. You can’t deconstruct it and return all of what’s in the bowl back to the fridge and expect things to be the same. Now imagine putting that salad in a blender. It’s still the same ingredients, but it’s now unrecognizable (and probably horrible to the taste). These are system changes.

This is what is going on with our climate, the introduction of AI, and recovery from the widespread social, economic, and health effects of a global pandemic. Our relationships with work have changed, our health and wellbeing is different, and we are now using and learning from technologies that are redefining entire industries. We are not going back to the way things were, which means we need to learn how to learn from what we’re experiencing.

This kind of phase transition of sorts requires new ways to gather feedback to inform our actions. It needs a new way to evaluate.

(Re-) Defining a Whole System for Learning

I use the term ‘whole system‘ to refer to a set of boundaries that include interactions that influence our perception, decisions, and action space. This isn’t meant to refer to everything, rather it reflects the systems we set up for ourselves. Why I call it a whole system is that encourages thinking about what influences us every day in ways we can sense. For example, some far off economic policy change in another part of the world might influence my industry or community, in some way but it’s nothing I can sense. I am also uncertain (at present) about how to make decisions based on this.

Climate change effects – extreme heat, weather alerts, wildfire smoke — is something I can sense. I literally feel and breathe it and those effects influence decisions that I make. If I’m a leader in an organization, climate issues will affect how we staff, where we base people, our procurement, and what we do to care for people’s wellbeing. Decisions that require carbon-intensive actions (e.g., commuting?) might need to be evaluated against different benefits and risks.

What is helpful or useful and what is not will get re-evaluated based on what is included in the system we define. It’s our choice how we define the system and engaging in some reflective activities about where you are, what’s going on, and some foresight work to consider where we might be going is a good place to start.

The two key criteria are: 1) the relationships contained within these boundaries can be perceived and sensed, 2) what’s included in the system is useful (there is clear present or potential utility in including these things in your system).

Once this is defined, we can start paying attention to those relationships and what comes from and through them. Once we do this and begin to capture what we sense — actions, reactions, moods, activities — we start generating feedback.

Evaluation and Sensemaking

Sensing and sensemaking go hand in hand. What we sense and what it means is where evaluation and sensemaking come together. To borrow the example of climate change, let’s look at how we might bring these together in evaluating a whole system, once defined.

As a leader in an organization, I might regularly look at how climate-related issues influence our operations. This might include delays, postponements, interruptions of relations with partners, customers or clients, climate anxiety among staff, or visible health effects due to weather or atmospheric events. By engaging in an active sensemaking process, we can learn where we have information, where more or different information might be needed, and sort through what the feedback is telling us. It may result in our organization taking different actions than before or adjusting policies and practices.

For evaluation, we want to capture data on things that matter. Asking people what they are attending to and sensing is the start. Looking at what information — lessons, feedback, process or outcome assessments — can be attended to and used to make decisions is where we go next. This will determine what kinds of methods, tools and resources we need to undertake the evaluation.

While I am partial to using a developmental and design-driven approach to evaluation, many other approaches will work, too. Anything that encompasses utilization and evaluation use will support whole-system evaluation. Another recommendation is to include methods that reflect and capture the role, influence, and outcomes associated with relationships. This usually means understanding information flows, mutual influence and dynamism. These aren’t always network models, but they often include network data.

Active Attention and Learning

We can’t be passive in our leadership. The threats, changes, and opportunities that are presenting themselves to us are coming quickly, they are complex, and they are transforming our world — not just our organizations.

This means we need to pay attention. We cannot operate on autopilot. Evaluation is no longer a luxury because without insightful data tailored to our situation we will not have the means to make constructive decisions. Witness the rapid disintegration of entire industries right now that are affected by AI, climate change, or global conflict — fields that were fine just a few years ago. Think of what it means to copyedit, do illustration work, work as a film actor or screen writer in the United States, or be a commercial salmon fisherman in certain parts of the world. These are industries under threat and are being transformed underneath them.

Many white collar professions are about to be transformed, too. Workspaces have been fundamentally altered since 2020.

Paying attention, and giving time and care to what is going on around us is what will help us to make sense of what’s happening and prepare us for what is to come. Psychological and operational preparedness is what will ensure that some organizations and communities survive, while others don’t. This isn’t the time to be casual about this; it’s time to change.

Active attention allows us to learn. It’s why children learn so easily: they are active and engaged with the world. No one needs to teach children how to learn, they just do it. Learning instruction is for adults and organizations because we’ve forgotten and lost our ‘senses’ about the world around us.

Evaluation, sensing and sensemaking can reconnect us if we design it in.

This process can be set up by design. Let’s talk if you want help in doing this because this is what I do.

Image credit: Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

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