The Open University Systems Group has a thirty-five year history of world-class teaching, research and consultancy in the field of systems thinking and practice. We are one of the largest and longest-established groups in the field. We are currently composed of roughly twenty academic staff (including full-time researchers), along with several visiting researchers and research students, plus a number of secretarial and support staff.
Systems thinking and practice cannot be summed up briefly, but it is concerned with tools that help people to make sense of highly complex and interconnected situations. As we understand systems thinking, it emphasises participation rather than hierarchy, relationships and processes rather than objects, multiple perspectives rather than a single understanding. We find it more important to help people cope with messy, ill-defined situations than to look for simple, often superficial solutions to apparent problems.
Our research is concerned with the application and development of systems ideas, largely in the fields of sustainable development, information systems, organisational change, and waste management. Much of our work is carried out through action research: helping people in real-world settings to engage with poorly-structured or controversial issues. We have had several large research grants in recent years, and members of the group have written successful books, published widely in international journals, and edited special issues of journals. Most of our research is carried out through two research groups: the Open Systems Research Group, and Integrated Waste Systems.
Our courses have broken new ground in how to teach systems ideas, and have been studied by more than 30,000 people. We currently have two major undergraduate courses in systems thinking and practice, plus two postgraduate programmes (each with several courses) in environmental decision making and information systems. A further postgraduate programme in systems practice is under development. Members of the group also contribute to courses in a number of other areas, including environmental studies, public sector management, technology short courses, and information and communication technologies.
We have made several important innovations that blend research and teaching: some examples include the systems failures approach, our unique approach to systems diagramming, our early championing of information technology as an integral part of the learning process, and work on the history of systems thinking.
Over our thirty-five year history, we have had various organisational forms. We are currently part of the Communication and Systems Department
, within the Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology
. We have previously been an independent department and formed part of the genesis of the Open University Business School, and the departments of Technology Management and Development Policy & Practice.