Learning in and about complex systems


  • John D. Sterman

    1. Sloan School of Management, MIT, 50 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MA 02142, U.S.A.
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    • Professor of management science and director of the System Dynamics Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management.


Change is accelerating, and as the complexity of the systems in which we live grows, so do the unanticipated side effects of human actions, further increasing complexity. Many scholars call for the development of systems thinking to improve our ability to manage wisely. But how do people learn in and about complex dynamic systems? Learning is a feedback process in which our decisions alter the real world, we receive information feedback about the world and revise the decisions we make and the mental models that motivate those decisions. Unfortunately, in the world of social action various impediments slow or prevent these learning feedbacks from functioning, allowing erroneous and harmful behaviors and beliefs to persist. The barriers to learning include the dynamic complexity of the systems themselves; inadequate and ambiguous outcome feedback; systematic mispercep-tions of feedback; inability to simulate mentally the dynamics of our cognitive maps; poor interpersonal and organizational inquiry skills; and poor scientific reasoning skills. To be successful, methods to enhance learning about complex systems must address all these impediments. Effective methods for learning in and about complex dynamic systems must include (1) tools to elicit participant knowledge, articulate and reframe perceptions, and create maps of the feedback structure of a problem from those perceptions; (2) simulation tools and management flight simulators to assess the dynamics of those maps and test new policies; and (3) methods to improve scientific reasoning skills, strengthen group process, and overcome defensive routines for individuals and teams.