Evaluation5's Blog

February 9, 2011

Complexity versus System approaches in evaluation

Filed under: Evaluation theory, evaluation5.0 — evaluation5 @ 2:41 pm

Posted by Marlen Arkesteijn/CapturingDevelopment

Next week, on 25-26 January 2011 the GTZ Conference on Systemic Approaches in Evaluation will take place. Since we (Barbara/ WUR and I) will present ourReflexive Monitoring in Action approach there, Rosien, one of my Evaluation 5.0 colleagues asked : ‘Is this a counter movement against the Complexity Guru’s?‘. ‘I think’, said Bob, also an Evaluation 5.0 colleague, ‘you could see the complexity discussion as a branch of the systemic approaches.’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘I actually think, that the system thinkers are a branch of the complexity thinkers.’Mmm’, Bob replied, ‘this is an issue we could probe a bit further into.’ And so I do.

I started reading Bob Williams , a reknowned thinker on ‘Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation’. In the FASID document ‘Issues and Prospects of Evaluations for International Development’ (2010) he says something interesting: “The history of the systems field is (…) rooted in addressing complicated and complex problems with limited time and with restricted resources.”(pg 37) In my own words, it is a way of ‘dealing’ within M&E approaches with complicated and complex problems; looking glasses that help you to make sense of a situation. Mmm, can I think of any other M&E approaches dealing with complicated and complex problems? Oh yes, many constructivist methods deal with complicated and complex problems. So then, what does system thinking add that other approaches do not?

Williams also states in his new book “Systems Concepts in Action. A Practitioner’s Toolkit.” (2010, Stanford Business Books) that the principles of system thinking can be expressed by three concepts: The concepts of inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. I admit system thinking can give you a broader outlook on situations, because you do see developments in (non-causal/ non-lineair) relation to each other, and you see multiple perspectives.  But that is something a good Theory of Change exercise could do as well…. What then does system thinking really add? I cannot really find an answer in Williams’ writings.

In my own practice I definately see what the added value is of certain kinds of system thinking like Reflexive Monitoring in Action: Facilitating system learning, questioning certain systemic barriers (e.g. laws and regulations, market structures, norms and values), or reframing them into opportunities, questioning each others practices and maybe even more importantly, questioning your own practices.

I am curious what other practitioners see as added value of system thinking! After the conference I will get back to this fascinating issue!

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