SLA Biomedical and Life Sciences Division


Systems Thinking for Librarians / 2005
Adapted from Zipperer, Corliss, Tompson, Systems Thinking CE course, Nashville, June 2004

Statements or rules that explain what a group or individual generally believes. They explain the context of choices and behaviors. Assumptions are not visible or are verbalized; they develop and exist. Assumptions must be made visible and discussed before anyone can be sure of a collective belief. (Adapted from Argyris, Schon and Schein in Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, 1996)

A back and forth conversation where "the subject of common interest may be analyzed and dissected from many points of view provided by those who take part." ( 5th D2, 240).

"'In dialogue' ... a group accesses a larger 'pool of meaning' which cannot be accessed individually. 'The whole organizes the parts rather than trying to pull the parts into a whole." (5th D2, 240-241). Dialogue differs from "discussion" in that the focus of the conversation is to learn from the collected expertise to arrive at more informed conclusions and action steps.

Experience-based insights. Knowledge about what should happen based on knowledge about what does happen. (Davenport, Prusak. Working Knowledge. 2000)

"The mutually reciprocal effect of one system or subsystem on another. Negative feedback is when two subsystems act to dampen the output of the other. Positive feedback means that two subsystems amplify each other's outputs." (Edgeplace glossary). An example of negative feedback would result from a librarian's refusal to accept document and research requests via email because they want to increase traffic in their information center. As a result of what is perceived as non-client centered behavior, the mental model of the non-helpful librarian results in fewer patron visits to the library. An example of positive feedback is when a system of informing company leadership of new information in a targeted way feeds into marketing efforts by reinforcing the ability of the librarian to provide on-point research.

Five Why's
An inquiry technique to try to ascertain the root causes of a problem or underperforming situation. The reasoning is to ask "why?" several times in order to progress from the symptoms in order to solve the underlying problem. (Six Sigma Glossary). If there aren't five levels of questioning, the issue generally isn't perceived to be a complex one.

Concept core to the understanding of the systems thinking philosophy. It illustrates that each area within an organization is apt to have an effect on the others in the organization, no matter how far afield the work product or location. For example, a library altering the photocopying service within a hospital and its effect on the nursing staff's ability to utilize the evidence base for patient care.

Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values contextual information and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the minds of knowers. In organizations, it often becomes impeded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes practices and norms. Knowledge derives from information as information derives from data. (Davenport, Prusak, Working Knowledge. 2000)

Ladder of Inference
Often individuals are not aware of the deep-seated beliefs and mental models that affect their abilities to see things differently and work with other people. A person's largely untested self-generating beliefs based on conclusions inferred from what s/he observes, plus past experience. (Fieldbk1, 242-243). In essence, these assumptions are like rungs in a ladder that we work through in setting a course for decision making that may apply false clues to a situation unless recognized.

Learning Organization
An organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. (Garvin D. 1993. Harv Bus Rev. 71(4), 78-92.)

Principle that "small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they are in the right place." (5th D2, 64).

Leverage points
Places at which a person can pursue goals in ways that take advantage of, rather than work against, systemic structures (Fieldbk1, 347).

Mental models
In systems thinking, includes both the tacit "maps" of the world which people hold in long-term memory, as well as the short-term perceptions people build up as part of their everyday reasoning processes. (Fieldbk1, 237). For example, there may be a mental model that librarians are introverted and cannot be considered for a position requiring people and presentation skills.

Working together for the same goals with the realization that all involved have something to add to the success of the effort.

Personal Mastery
The central practice of personal mastery involves learning to keep both a personal vision and a clear picture of current reality before us. Accepting this goal will generate a force within a person who struggles with their current knowledge bank and how to expand it-with limited time and resources-to reach toward achieving that mastery. (Fieldbk1, 193-197)

A system is anything that takes its integrity and form from the ongoing interactions of its parts. Companies, nations, families, biological niches, bodies, television sets, personalities and atoms are all systems. Systems are defined by the fact that their elements have a common purpose and behave in common ways, precisely because they are integrated toward that purpose. (Dance3, 137)

Systems thinking
A discipline for seeing things whole. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static "snapshots." It is a set of general principles-distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management. It is also a set of specific tools and techniques, originating in two threads: in "feedback" concepts of cybernetics and in "servo-mechanism" engineering theory dating back to the nineteenth century. (5th D2, 68)

Team Learning
The process of aligning and developing the capability of a team to create the results its members truly desire. (5th D2, 236)

  1. Fieldbk. = Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1994).
  2. 5th D. = Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990).
  3. Dance = Senge Peter M, et al. Dance of Change. (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1999).
Rev. June 2, 2005