The word ‘model’ has a range of colloquial and technical interpretations, so we need first to establish the way in which this course uses the term. As a start, we might suggest that a model is a simplified representation of reality, but even that simple definition raises some quite significant philosophical questions.
A profound question is ‘what is reality?’ and we will briefly mention the distinction between modern and postmodern views of this later as an aside. Without getting into such deep philosophical water, it is important to recognize that in general, a model is usually a rather personal or subjective thing.
It may be better to define it as a simplified representation of some person's or group's view of some situation. We also need to expand the simple definition further, to stress that the sorts of models we are dealing with here are intended for some purpose. That purpose could be as limited as ‘to summarize my understanding of something’, but in the present context, we are specifically concerned with modeling as part of the skill of thinking and acting systemically.
For this course, a fuller definition of a systems model, and the one we are going to use is:
A simplified representation of some person's or group's view of a situation, constructed to assist in working with that situation in a systemic manner.
Although you may not immediately think of them as such, we regularly use models in everyday life. For example, maps and plans are models of the layout of the roads, rivers, buildings or other features of our physical environment.
An architect's sketch, or an engineering drawing is a model of some artifact which is to be constructed. Prior to constructing that artifact, we may be shown a scale model of it in order to test our reactions, or to see how it might operate.
Photographs are models of the scene that the camera user saw when the shutter was pressed. Sculptures or paintings are also models, in that they are representations of some aspect of the world as it is interpreted by their creators. The graphs and tables used to sell financial products are models of the expected performance of those products, and at the national level, we are told that Government has a model of ‘the economy’ on which it bases decisions about tax rates, interest rates and other aspects of fiscal policy.
At a more fundamental level, all our interactions with the world around us depend on our internal, mental models of how we perceive that world. It is worthwhile pausing for a moment to consider the importance of this.
We all have mental models of the world in which we live. We have mental models of ‘how X will react if I ask her to do a particular job’, of what would be ‘a nice holiday’, ‘what should happen if I turn up the thermostat on this heater’ and so on. Virtually all these models are so taken-for-granted that we do not even realize that they are models, i.e. that they are simplifications of the complexity around us.
The significance of these implicit mental models is that they constrain and determine what we perceive in the world about us - how we think about situations, people, organisations and problems. This in turn affects how we act, often with important consequences. Box 1 gives two examples of implicit mental models affecting behaviour.
You should now read "Box 1- Implicit mental models", in the section titled 'Extra reading materials’.
These examples are comprehensible because you and I are probably not caught in the mental models involved. We can, at least in theory, take the position of a dispassionate observer and see how the complex relationships in which these people lived were poorly represented by their way of thinking about them.
But all our conceptualizations of the world are like this, they constrain the way we can think about things. All our categories, our beliefs, ideas, theories are, and have to be, simplifications of the complexity in which we live.
The ways in which these implicit mental models constrain us only become apparent when compared to a different model or categorization or theory. I remember being quite startled when I was told that the Inuit of North America had many different words for snow.
Here was a thing (one thing) in my conceptualization of the world, which another group of people found helpful to divide into many different categories. As another example, there are over 100 different species of grass in the UK although to most of us, a field of grass just looks like a uniform carpet of similarly shaped leaves.
So we all have these implicit mental models of things, people, organisations and so on. Because these models affect our perception of the world they become self-sealing. By this I mean that the mental model dictates the type of information that the person will perceive and that these perceptions will then reinforce the original belief.
"A paranoid man in Australia believes that everyone is out to get him and that no one likes him; as evidence he points out that people are not friendly towards him, do not come and visit him and are often argumentative with him".
"If you knew him you would probably find it hard to like him and would get drawn quite quickly into an argument with him!" That's what self-sealing systems are like. And we are all affected by systems of this type all the time - we just do not see them because we are ‘in them’.
At this point you may be following the logic of what is being said but feel rather dubious about some of the grandiose conclusions that are being drawn. Box 2 and Box 3 give more recent examples much closer to our own time and culture that make the same point.
You should now read "Box 2- An example in education", in the section titled 'Extra reading materials'.
This example illustrates how important are our implicit models of other people. Although most people can see how a teacher's opinion of a pupil could have a major influence on the child's development, they are much less willing to see or understand that their own mental models of members of their family and work colleagues largely determines the quality of these relationships.
In practice the quality of people's lives is dominated by the implicit models they hold of those with whom they interact most regularly - and they will have hoards of evidence to persuade you that their models of these people are correct.
You should now read the document "Box 3- An example from management", in the section titled 'Extra reading materials'.
The last example explains something of why we have labored this topic within this modeling pack. One of the significant benefits from any kind of systems modeling activity is that it enables implicit models to be made explicit to some degree. Often, those implicit models that most constrain our thinking, perception and behaviour, are the ones that will benefit from becoming explicit, open to question, discussion and development. By making implicit models explicit people can often find ways out of the traps and difficulties in which they find themselves, and this is one reason why modeling is such an important part of systems work.
The idea of making explicit our implicit models of ‘reality’ is central to understanding the distinction between modern and postmodern outlooks, as explained in Box 4.
You should now read the document "Box 4- An aside ‘ reality’ in modernism and postmodernism", in the section titled 'Extra reading materials'.
Think of some activities or events with which you are currently involved. Identify an example where you have found yourself acting on the basis of a mental model that you now recognize (or even recognized at the time!) as inadequate, and resulting in a ‘self-sealing’ outcome.
Your answer to this will depend on your experience, but most interactions in organisations can provide examples. Individuals within an organization often have official or unofficial roles, such as ‘manager’, ‘administrator’ (or, from another perspective ‘bureaucrat’), ‘shop-floor worker’, etc. Each of these roles carries with it certain expected behaviours, and the actual behaviour of an individual is then often interpreted in terms of these expectations. An example is our rather pejorative use of the word ‘bureaucrat’ rather than ‘administrator’.
We tend to see administrators as persons who have to have a complex set of rules governing all activities, and to be unable to show any flexibility in interpreting these rules. So, when we want to do something which we suspect does not appear to fit within the given rules, we try to avoid consulting the administrators on the grounds that they are bound to say no, and try to work round them. This sometimes works, but sometimes creates all sorts of unexpected difficulties with other aspects of administration, thereby confirming our prejudices.
However, when we have abandoned these stereotypes, and actually consulted some administrators, they have often been able to point out that there are perfectly acceptable and legitimate ways to do exactly what is needed!
Another area of self-sealing models often occurs in gender or racial stereotypes, leading to misinterpretations and prejudice.