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Whole Systems Thinking - Are We There Yet?

I had the opportunity to speak at a NHS Conference about Diversity and Inclusion and ‘Whole Systems Thinking’.  It got me to thinking ‘Are we really thinking about Inclusion in a Whole-Systems Way?’

For me ‘Whole-Systems Thinking’ is a way of analysis and decision-making that looks at the interrelationships of all parts of a system rather than narrowly focusing on the individual parts themselves.

Why is whole-systems thinking important in the context of Inclusion and Diversity?  Because most of the challenges we face as a society represent a set of interrelated elements in broader and more complex systems.  These challenges can not be solved in isolation apart from their impacts on the rest of the system.

“You can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created those problems.” -Albert Einstein

We all know and appreciate that companies, schools, work environments are all smaller parts of society coming together and, therefore, the challenges, norms and assumptions we face within wider society will have an impact on where we work, learn and live.

So, if whole-system thinking works for other sustainable change... are we appliying this to Inclusion and DIversity?

The short answer is NO!  The slightly longer answer is that some companies and employers have picked up the baton and are treating Inclusion and Diversity 'shift' as what it really is... culture change!  However, many are still seeing Diversity as an Initiative, not sure how to measure Inclusion and not really thinking through the impact specific ‘initatives’ will have on the whole system and the adaptations that will be required further down the line as a result of isolated activities.

This got me thinking to a piece of research I conducted with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in 2012.  Within that research 74% of respondents stated that Inclusion and Diversity was central to their People Strategy and 54% felt it was central to their overall business approach.  However, less than half had incorporated any form or awareness or training into their plans for Line Managers and less that 40% had any way of measuring the impact of their efforts on the culture of the company.

Is this whole-systems thinking?  I don't think so.

I hope that the above has changed since 2012.  I don't hear many companies talking about the holistic approach they are taking to Inclusion and really making it front and central to their people and business strategies.

I do hope the tide will turn from ‘inititaives’ to ‘whole-systems thinking’ sooner rather than later... otherwise, we will be talking about the same issues in 10 years time.

If you would like to discuss how you could harness this thinking to progress Inclusion and Diversity in your workplace or would like further information about the research mentioned, please contact me on info@charlottesweeney.com


Comments (1)

  1. Letitia Davis:
    Jun 25, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    Charlotte, I think the statistics you mention suggest a long way to go. 54% saying they have D&I central to their business and less that 40% being in a position to measure it suggests an even smaller percentage can point to any positive actual result at all. Most companies saying they support D&I are doing so because they know they should, but there is little evidence that results are forthcoming.
    Regarding whole systems thinking, the problem for D&I is that every campaign group - be it women's groups, BAME groups, LGB groups, disability groups - they all focus on their own needs while promoting diversity & inclusion as a principle. This fragments the argument and means that sometimes when people talk about D&I, they think its related to one group or another. Diversity and Inclusion by definition should have no boundaries.
    (I purposely left the T out of LGBT because these groups focus on gay rights and exclude the needs of Transsexuals, an estimated 70% of whom are unemployed and still knocking on the door to even get into the D&I agenda).


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