Two Types Of Questions, IFSR Conversations 2010

Proceedings of the IFSR Conversation 2010, Pernegg, Austria
Discussion Paper (Team 3): Two Types Of Questions
Enrique G. Herrscher
The German poet and thinker Hermann Hesse told us, in his wonderful tale “The Journey to the East”6, that in our projects and enthusiasms we usually have a general aim (improve something, help others, save the world, etc.) and also a personal interest (in the case of Hesse’s protagonist, to see Princess Fatme with his own eyes).
So it may be with Team 3. In my case, the general aim is to learn from others, to remember what has been said about our theme in previous Fuschl conversations and other occasions or places, and to advance as much as possible in our assigned subject “LEARNING SYSTEMS FOR SUSTAINABILITY”, incorporating many different views from my team colleagues.
For instance, we may start reflecting about the two parts of our theme, “learning systems” and “sustainability”, and then focus on the relation between both (including the different ways this relation could be understood) as well as its problematique. This is the approach of PART I of this input paper.
As first part of my Input Paper, I venture to put forward the following 12 questions (all very much interrelated), under the premise that the initial inputs to Fuschl conversations may be questions rather than answers. To some extent I am following the structure of Hellmut’s summary. Some of the questions may be more relevant to Latin America (where I live), others may be more general. As opposed to the (most necessary) advancements of theory, most questions are practical-oriented, put forward by a practitioner.
Question Nr. 1. Are we speaking of LEARNING SYSTEMS or of LEARNING SYSTEMS? In the first case, the focus is on Learning, and we start by stating that it is a System, and that it should be seen and studied as such. This is the approach by Bela H. Banathy’s seminal work “Developing a systems view of education”, recently translated to Spanish and published by GESI7. In the second case, the focus is on Systems, specifically how it should be learned, i.e. taught. It is my understanding that this is the approach proposed by Alexander and Kathia Laszlo, leaders of Team 3. Our first task should be to confirm (or modify) this interpretation, or to dwell (separately) on both approaches (obviously closely related).
Question Nr. 2. Our second task should be (and I hope I’m not becoming too formalistic) to interpret “for sustainability”. Does it mean that the object of study is THE LEARNING (and teaching) OF SUSTAINABILITY? Or that THE LEARNING (and teaching) ITSELF SHOULD BE SUSTAINABLE? The first case is, I believe, what Helmut means by “learning systems should successfully teach how to plan, to design and to act sustainably”. The second case is, I believe, what Alexander means by “identifying the systemic principles relevant to formal and informal programs focused on sustainability”. Perhaps we should cover both, but separating clearly the two purposes.
Question Nr. 3. What would be the basis of NETWORKING WITH INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS, such as UN, UNESCO or diverse NGOs? What would we “give” them? What would they “give” us? Who are “we”?
Question Nr. 4. How would we handle the INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF GLOBAL AND REGIONAL CHALLENGES? To what extent should systemic principles on Learning/Teaching be universal, across borders, and to what extent should regional characteristics prevail? Who decides?
Question Nr. 5. How would a META ORGANIZATION dedicated to these issues be created? Based on what kind of representation? How would be its governance? It’s funding? Where would it be situated?
Question Nr. 6. To what extent should Learning (Teaching) be SELF ORGANIZING? What would be the obstacles? How could they be overcome?
Question Nr. 7. How do we cope with CHANGE? This refers both to changes in the society the Learning System is supposed to serve, and to changes in the Learning System itself. Formal education has not a good record regarding change.8 How can we change this?
Question Nr. 8. The vicious circle “POOR RESOURCES – POOR PERFORMANCE – POOR RESOURCES” is customary to many organizations, and is typical of many formal education systems in Latin America. How can we cut this loop? Where should we start?
Question Nr. 9. How can we reach FAMILIES that are not willing or not able to take their part in the Learning/Teaching process? Particularly when the family tradition itself is in crisis and, on top of all, its social support, the middle classes, are impoverishing in many places?
Question Nr. 10. WHO TRAINS THE TRAINERS (AND HOW)? This seems to be the key question9. Note particularly that – at least in most developing countries – any teachers still consider their task to be exclusively to transfer knowledge, not (also) to help creating values10.
Question Nr. 11. A traditional conflict area in formal education in Latin America is: “PUBLIC OR PRIVATE?”. One way or another, someone must pay. Is this a “small is beautiful” versus “no exclusion” dilemma? Or has it to do with Peter Drucker’s “more important than do things right is to do the right things”, depending on the purposes of education?
Question Nr. 12. Finally, a question that may comprise all other questions: what is QUALITY in the Learning/Teaching process? Does Quality equal Sustainability (as Robert Pirsig11 would say)? Has it to do with the purposes of said process? With the pay, training, motivation, selection or status of teachers? With the availability and ability in the utilization of new technologies? With the political, cultural and socio-economic context? Or with all above? Can we study it for all levels o level by level? How do we measure it? How do we improve it? What if it is excellent, but excludes a great part of the population?
As to my particular points of interest – always subordinated to the general aim – in this case they would not refer to meeting Princess Fatme, but to the following four areas, so as to learn from and share with those who may want to be involved, either within or outside the regular meetings.
The new president of ALAS12, Ricardo Barrera, now also Dean of the Faculty of Economic Sciences at the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia San Juan Bosco, has asked me to assist with the design of a Doctoral program for said Faculty. This endeavor may be a sort of casuistic practicum of application of a learning system for sustainability to a specific case.
The ideas for such program should answer the seven classical questions: what? why? what for? for whom? where? (in southern Argentine Patagonia), when? (as from 2012), how? (processes, steps, milestones, chronogram), how much? (tentative budget). And, as a result, the further question: what will make this program sustainable in time and space?
Since many years, I teach personal, social, corporate and especially entrepreneurial planning at several universities in the interior of Argentina and other LA countries. Theoretical, conceptual and practical aspects are all taught from a systems viewpoint (my textbook for the course is called “Systemic Planning – a strategic approach in turbulent times”, 2008, now complemented by “Administration: Think and Act”, 2009, both in Spanish, Granica, Buenos Aires). Mainly Ackoff’s, Gharajedaghi’s and Schwaninger’s ideas of the application of systemics to organizations are followed, with special emphasis on ethical considerations (ecological-, social- and human-friendly ways of doing business) and on viewing companies as part of society (as opposed to the take-over, competition aversion
and unlimited growth trend of many big corporations).
How can this approach be generalized? Many colleagues, at least in Latin America, still teach business administration on a solely corporate profit maximization basis. Profit is certainly essential for individual units’ sustainability, but is not enough, as unique guiding principle, for the sustainability of society, the context in which all those individual units operate. Some questions when addressing this sustainability issue:
Question A: Could we launch a program to promote a more integrated and society-friendly orientation for the teaching of business at graduate and undergraduate levels, where future entrepreneurs and corporate leaders are formed?
Question B: Should this endeavor be context-free or regionalized, for instance geared towards particularities of a certain region such as Latin America?
Question C: Can we support ontologically and epistemologically the shift in learning-teaching from “sustainability of business” to “sustainability of society”? Or should we say: “from viability of business” to: “sustainability of business”? In this way, the learning systems in this area of knowledge may come closer to provide solutions to the catastrophic situations of poverty, exclusion and inequality in Latin America.
Question D: What would be the tools, processes, steps and specific actions toward this end? For starters, I would venture to state – again using the “7 questions approach” (i.e. what-why-when-etc.) of the preceding section (1) above – that we may be concentrating too much on “how to” and too little on “why”, “what for” and “for whom”.
Question E: On the other hand – or perhaps on the same hand – are some universities too self-centered, an end in itself instead of a means for the improvement of society at large (also, particularly, of its local community)? Certainly, a university should be – as so well Robert Pirsig13 puts it – a “temple of reason”. Our students expect, in addition to this wisdom (or instead of it), a training of excellence for their career, profession or scientific track. However – especially in public universities – students are not the only beneficiaries of the academic activity: much of it should address the solution or at least the understanding of social problems. Not only through specific projects in research or extension, but also in each end every MBA course.
Question F: The question arises: to what extent should the university determine what is to be researched or promoted at the community, or whether this should be left to the exclusive decision of each researcher or teacher? My opinion is that nothing, no theme or approach, should be forbidden to be explored, but that the universities should favor with special support and funding those projects most relevant to society. In the case of MBAs, this means particularly – from a very practical viewpoint – those related to values and critical thinking.
Some members of GESI, the Argentine group of systems studies, recently participated in the 5th International Congress of Complexity in La Habana, Cuba. We realized that, parallel to the “systems community”, a very active “complexity community” had developed, particularly in Latin America, influenced mostly by Edgar Morin’s books and personal activities.
It is my belief – and so I expressed it in a personal dialogue with Pedro Sotolongo, founder of the “Complexity” course at the Cuban Institute of Philosophy and creator of these biannual congresses – that both approaches are almost identical, differing at the most in the (graphic) direction of the outlook: in one case, a way of looking at a complex world of systems; in the other, focusing on a world of complexity being looked at. The same complex world and the same systemic look. However, both approaches developed side by side, each with its own institutions, its specific bibliography, its geographical scope (systemics more world-wide, complexity more Latin America–oriented) and its different “age” (systemics with more than a half century wisdom, complexity with the force of a younger generation)14
Is this a matter of sustainability? I believe it is, for the systems movement in general, and therefore also for the learning systems in particular. If we do not communicate, network, learn from each other, even with the diverse organizations maintaining their identity and their history, chances are that the systems movement may become “the older version” and decline, as so often happens with institutions that thrive on past glory. Not everybody will agree – variety being one of our valuable assets – but I think this issue may well be worth a “Banathian” conversation, either here or in a future occasion.
Finally, a further motive drives me, but it is not specific for Team 3. Last year we launched in Argentine Patagonia the idea of replicating the Fuschl initiative, with a Latin American orientation, as from 2011, in Ushuaia (the southernmost city of the world), by a biannual “Conversation at the extreme South” It is to be organized by ALAS (see note 2) and CESDES15, with the intellectual support of IFSR.
From my Fuschl experience of two years ago (2008) and now from this one, I hope to help organize this replica, following Bela Banathy’s philosophy and the rich Fuschl tradition. I will be thankful for any advice – probably during breaks – from those who organized past Fuschl Conversations. In some sense, this geographical spread of the Fuschl idea is also a matter of sustainability, if not of learning systems, of the overall mission of IFSR.
6 Hesse, H. Die Morgenlandfahrt, Fretz und Wasmuth, Zürich 1932
7 Grupo de Estudio de Sistemas Integrados, formerly Asociación Argentina de Teoría General de Sistemas y Cibernética, created by Charles François in Buenos Aires in 1973, and since then actively promoting the systems approach in Argentina.
8 The story goes round that if any professional from 200 years ago would visit us today, s/he would not recognize present work – except teachers. Alvin Toffler views present education as training some primitive people to survive at the border of a river – without realizing that a dam is being built upstream and that the river will not be there any more (conference in Córdoba, Argentina, some years ago).
9 GESI interviewed a former Minister of Educations and is trying to do the same with the present one, with the purpose of introducing Systems Thinking in the curricula of teacher’s and professors’ training.
10 This has been for many years one of the main messages of Charles François, to the extent that in many of his publications he states that what we call education is really only instruction.
11 Pirsig R. M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974, 28th. printing 1982), Bantam, New York, the most profound book on Quality I know.
12 Latin American Association of Systemics, created in Lima, Peru, in 1992 and activated at the ISSS meeting in Cancún, Mexico, in 2005.
13 Pirsig, R. M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974, Bantam, New York.. See Note 6.
14 Len Troncale calls this field of complex systems “the 3rd generation”. He states (in “Revisited: The Future of General Systems Research: Update on Obstacles, Potentials, Case Studies”, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Vol. 26 Nr.5, Sept. Oct. 2009, page 554) “This very active field continues to strive and has been more successful at attracting younger workers and serious funding than GTS”
15 Patagonic Center for Systemic Strategies of Development, a unit of the University mentioned in part I above