On convening across systems

One of the stranger performance measures that local government used to have to report to Whitehall in the early 2000s was on rough sleeping. Periodically officers would be required to undertake a survey, literally walking or driving around and counting the numbers of people they found. To what end were we collecting and reporting this data? The short-term need was surely to provide support to people in such a predicament and stabilise a life in crisis while the longer-term imperative was to understand the conditions and factors that led people to become homeless. Periodically counting numbers seemed to add little to either endeavour; it didn’t take an annual ‘census’ for local authority staff to know the scale of the issue in their locality. 

There are, of course, a wide variety of factors that might lead people to be more vulnerable than others to homelessness. Individual factors, such as poor physical or mental health, domestic abuse, or experience of the care system are compounded by structural ones including poverty and unemployment. Addressing them requires a nuanced approach that recognises homelessness as the product of a set of interacting, dynamic factors. The same is true of so many of the challenges we face today, such as low educational attainment, loneliness or obesity. To address issues such as these we require a different philosophy and approach, one that is not based on existing assumptions that problems can be clearly defined and solutions easily identified and provided. Indeed, that solutions even exist is the deepest assumption of all. 

To work on such multi-faceted challenges we need a collective effort and responsibility. This can be an uncomfortable bedfellow for those concerned with budgets and savings. It is a sign of trust, maturity and common-sense when those working across a system to address a common issue let go of traditional means of designing and delivering work. Yet the argument that an investment represents best use of public funding when looked at in the whole is a difficult one to make when potential savings accrue to a different budget-holder or organisation. And so we see that those working within public services seeking to effect systemic change run up against a myriad of similar obstacles. Navigating these tensions and challenges requires a relentless focus on the beneficiaries of the work and an awareness of the wider system. 

This is the work of our time. It is rarely taught in degrees or as part of professional qualifications. It is an approach taken by people who, more often than not, simply see the world as a whole, complex and inter-connected. In western societies we tend to have a harder time seeing the whole; it goes against the cultural grain. As Richard Nisbett notes, 

The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians’ broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors. The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context and with Westerners’ belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects’ behavior.

As a result, those who instinctively see the world from this contextual perspective are already facing a cultural challenge of acceptance, their thinking different from the mainstream. In all likelihood they are likely to be academically and professionally itinerant – people I think of as curious generalists. They are unlikely to be able to draw on the traditions of a single, clearly defined discipline, undertake CPD and accreditation or boast letters after their name. Indeed, new research by Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner suggests

You may not have heard about them; what they do is rarely in their job description. You may not even be aware of what they do; they tend to act as enablers rather than taking credit or seeking the spotlight. But they are here— working on sustainable change, across challenging silos, in complex social landscapes, amid changing circumstances. We call them systems conveners. They look at the landscape in which they operate—an organization, a city, a community, a country, the world—and they see unrealized potential that exists across traditional boundaries and silos. Many challenges today require learning that brings people together across different practices, different institutions, different goals, different cultures, different loyalties. They know that most challenges cannot be addressed by one person or even one group.

I recall giving a presentation to a senior leadership team of a secondary school in which I shared what I called a ‘quality of life’ profile of the community their students were drawn from – its social, economic and environmental characteristics. It was clear that the knowledge and expertise within the school gate didn’t extend to the context that existed beyond it. Yet when armed with a deeper understanding of their community, a range of new ideas and initiatives quickly surfaced. To me it was always clear that to address complex challenges we need the contribution of a range of people and services, to recognise that our piece of the picture was not the whole. My frustration at the time was in not having a language to describe the work I was trying to do. 

It turns out that a language is emerging. 

We are systems conveners. We are not alone in our work. This can feel like a relief. New language and labels can improve our ability to identify others doing similar work and to share our experiences in ways we all understand. Systems conveners, conclude Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner “see a social landscape with all its separate and related practices through a wide-angle lens: they spot opportunities for creating new learning spaces and partnership that will bring different and often unlikely people together to engage in learning across boundaries”. This recognition offers a degree of legitimacy to our work. 

As we seek new ways to organise around challenges such as the climate crisis, Covid-19 and its legacy and social justice we need people who can see the world through this wide-angle lens. This is the work of our time. We need more systems conveners. 

————— 

The RSA partnered with the Centre for Public Impact and Lankelly Chase to work with social learning pioneers Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner to develop a book about systems convening, Systems Convening: A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century. This research captures interviews with 40 systems conveners from around the world, featuring portraits of these individuals to illustrate the work of systems convening in practice.

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