By Sara Tompson (Southern California Chapter) with input from Lorri Zipperer (Rio Grande Chapter)
Librarians and Information Professionals are missing a unique opportunity to improve their libraries—to become future ready—and the organizations in which they work! A systems thinking perspective and some systems thinking tools can enable us to lend the value of our information expertise to problem-solving and process-improvement efforts.
“Systems thinking” is a way to view the world, including organizations, from a broad perspective that includes structures, patterns, and events, rather than simply the events. Systems thinking includes:
- Seeing the behavior and the interaction of the parts within the context of the whole
- Building collective thinking for sustained change (AKA being Future Ready!)
- Learning from failure
- Working to dismantle the effects of silo-based activity
- Understanding and respecting how humans can affect the system
- Solving problems in non-linear fashion.
Systems thinking, developed by Peter Senge at MIT and others, draws from engineering process analyses to apply a set of principles for understanding complex-interacting wholes. It is best used to address complex problems where solutions seem elusive as well as problems that reoccur in an organization, especially problems for which past fixes have failed.
Systems thinking can seem, and sometimes be, rather complex, particularly with the use of the discipline’s hallmark loop diagrams – see a library example below from one of Lorri’s and my SLA CE workshops.
On the other hand, basic concepts of systems and the cyclical nature of cycles, and the loop diagrams to represent them, have been grasped by first graders! Check out this video from Systems Thinking in Schools.
Systems thinking enables looking beyond the library – a view that is necessary for survival and success. As SLA CEO Janice Lachance said in her column in the December 2009 issue of Information Outlook: “…people are not viewed as indispensable based on the function they perform but on the value [my emphasis] they deliver–specifically the clearly understood and essential contributions they make to the success of their organization.”
Employing systems thinking tools, librarians can utilize their time and strategic skills effectively while raising awareness of the importance of their work. Take a look at this “Habits of a Systems Thinker” handout from the Waters Foundation and take just a minute to contemplate how you could incorporate one or more of these habits at work. This could start you on the path of being one of we info pros who employs systems thinking to strategize innovative, sustainable solutions to long term, persistent problems in the workplaces, and thus moves more easily toward the future!
- Tompson and Zipperer recently published a chapter on systems thinking in ABC-Clio’s Best Practices in Corporate Libraries. Portions of the book can be read on Google Books.
- They will be teaching a day-long workshop on systems thinking as part of UCLA’s School of Education & Information Studies Friday Forum series on November 4, 2011.
- Systems Thinking Perspective – SLA Biomedical & Life Sciences Division Project
- Zipperer L, Tompson S. “Systems thinking: a new avenue for involvement and growth.” Information Outlook. (December 2006):16-20.
- Find Articles has posted the article as well.
Sara Tompson is a member of the SLA Board (2011-2013) and of the Southern California Chapter, and has held a number of offices in chapters and divisions. She is the Head of Library Instruction & Orientation Services at the University of Southern California. She has worked for years with SLA member Lorri Zipperer on systems thinking in libraries. For more information on some of their work, please see the links at the bottom of this post.