Friday, June 17, 2005

Locking In

At the Tavistock Institute yesterday evening, to discuss some recent research on Service Design, presented by Paula Hyde based on her recent paper.

Paula Hyde & Huw Davies. Service Design, Culture and Performance: Collusion and Co-Production in Healthcare. Human Relations 57 (11). Available online until June 30

For a short discussion of this paper from a service-oriented perspective, see my Architecture blog.

Historically, the Tavistock Institute has played a leading role in understanding open systems from a sociotechnical perspective. One of the things I found striking about Paula's research was how closed the systems appeared to be, in the sense that the patterns of interaction were self-replicating and self-reinforcing, with no apparent room for external influence or innovation.

In the discussion, it was stated that prisons and mental health have made little or no progress over the past few decades although there has been significant progress in other areas such as healthcare and education. Why are some systems (more than others) incapable of learning? Why are some systems (more than others) locked-in to dysfunctional patterns?

Perhaps it is significant that the two systems that are most "locked-in" in a metaphorical sense are also those where not only the primary users of the service (patients, prisoners) but also the primary carers (nurses, prison officers) are physically situated behind locked doors.

Where the cybernetic community uses the term POSIWID, the Tavistock community uses the term "primary task". What is the system really trying to achieve? How should we evaluate the success of the system, and the success of interventions into the system?

In the case of both prisons and mental health, there is an ambiguity about the primary task: is it containment or care? When there is a fairly clear containment agenda (keeping people locked up) and a fairly vague care agenda (helping people return to being "good" citizens), it is not surprising if the clear agenda takes precedence over the vague agenda.

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