Systems & complexity

Managing complexity with human learning systems

By Toby Lowe. Originally published on the Integration and Implementation Insights blog.

How can those in public service – be they researchers, policy makers or workers in government agencies, private businesses managers, or voluntary and community organisation leaders – think more effectively about improving people’s lives, when they understand that each person’s life is a unique complex system?

A good starting point is understanding that real outcomes in people’s lives aren’t “delivered” by organisations (or by projects, partnerships or programmes, etc). Outcomes are created by the hundreds of different factors in the unique complex system that is each person’s life.

In other words, an outcome is the product of hundreds of different people, organisations, and factors in the world all coming together in a unique and ever-changing combination in a particular person’s life. Very little of what influences the outcome is under the control or influence of those who undertake public service.

All of this means that it is not possible to plan to “deliver” an outcome in the same way as one can plan to “deliver” a workshop. The reality of creating outcomes in a person’s life requires a different approach to planning and organisation. It requires continuous exploration, experimentation and learning.

This continuous exploration requires an alternative paradigm for public management: human learning systems. Let’s review each aspect of this paradigm

Human – the moral purpose

Human learning systems is based on the belief that the purpose of public service is to support human freedom and flourishing. This provides the moral purpose for public service. It also provides a view of what it means to be human in a public service context. It means understanding human beings intersubjectively – as people who live in a web of relationships (a “system”) which helps to define who they are. In other words, understanding a human being requires understanding their world.

Learning – the management strategy

If each person determines what matters to them, and each person’s life context is a constantly changing system that is unique to them, how can public service help people create their own outcomes? This question demonstrates that the task of creating public service outcomes is complex.

In complex environments, learning is the only viable management strategy. Public service must build a learning relationship with the public – a relationship which seeks to understand the detail of each life context, and, together, continuously explores how the patterns of results (“outcomes”) in their “life as system” might change.

Systems – the unit of analysis

If the purpose of public service is to help people create positive outcomes in their lives, then public service needs to understand how outcomes are made. Outcomes in people’s lives are created by the workings of complex systems. In other words, outcomes are emergent properties of people’s lives as systems. Therefore, creating outcomes requires these complex systems to produce different patterns of results. Put simply, if we want good outcomes, we need healthy systems – systems in which people collaborate and learn together, because this is how outcomes are made.

Let’s explore learning as management strategy in more detail.

Learning as management strategy

The heart of learning as management strategy is enacting a process of understanding and experimenting with complex systems to try to get those systems to produce a different pattern of results (a better outcome). It is this learning process that researchers and managers are tasked with planning and organising.

Framing that process as a learning cycle is one way for researchers and managers to plan and organise this work. A learning cycle has five elements or phases of work:

  • Understand the system (that produces the desired outcome)
  • Co-design of experiments/explorations (to get that system to produce different outcomes)
  • Experimentation/exploration
  • Embedding and influencing (from the results of the explorations/experiments)
  • Managing and governing learning cycles (system stewardship).

Learning cycles exist at many different system scales:

  • A person’s life as a system (person/practitioner scale)
  • A team as a system (team scale)
  • An organisation as a system (organisation scale)
  • A place as a system (place scale)
  • A region/country as a system (region/country scale).

The task of creating and running learning cycles, and making sure they are managed and governed effectively, is called system stewardship.

The purpose of naming the role of system stewardship is to highlight that learning cycles do not create themselves. Learning cycles are processes that require planning and organisation: resources must be identified, time must be allocated, people must be engaged, and they will require some sense of the journey they are undertaking. It is the responsibility of a system steward to do all of this.

The task of system stewardship can be a role for a particular person, or it can be taken on by a range of people acting together. The key point is that this is a crucial leadership task – it must be someone’s role or an identified shared responsibility to ensure that learning cycles function as healthy systems, and this work must be recognised and valued within the organisation or partnership.

In order to play this role, system stewards require:

  • Legitimacy – they must be recognised by actors in the system as the appropriate person/people to play this convening role
  • Resources – they must be able to influence the allocation of human, material and financial resources to enable learning cycles to function
  • Learning competencies – they must have the skills, knowledge and curiosity required to recognise and coordinate effective experimental and learning activity.

Systems stewardship is underpinned by a shift in mindset and culture. It depends on nurturing intangible qualities such as empathy and trust. It requires humanising all aspects of research and other public service workplaces.

Concluding remarks and questions

Human learning systems was developed with government service provision in mind, but I think it works equally well in a research context. What do you think? Do you think researchers could adapt to become system stewards taking a human learning systems approach?

To find out more:

These ideas have been further developed in:

Lowe, T., Brogan, A., Eichsteller, G., Hawkins, M., Hesselgreaves, H., Plimmer, D., Terry, V., Charfe, L., Cox, J., French, M., Hill, B., Masters, J., Norman, R., Sanderson, H., Smith, M. and Wilson, R. (2021). Human learning systems: Public service for the real world. ThemPra Social Pedagogy: Allithwaite, United Kingdom. (ISBN: 978-1-9161315-2-1). (Online – open access):

Lowe, T., Padmanabhan, C., McCart, D. and McNeill, K. (2022). Human learning systems: A practical guide for the curious. Centre for Public Impact: London, United Kingdom. (Online – open access): (PDF 8.7MB).


Toby Lowe Toby Lowe PhD is a visiting professor of Public Management, Centre for Public Impact Europe, on secondment from Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK. He is interested in public management/administration, complexity and systems thinking.

Article source: Managing complexity with human learning systems. Republished by permission.

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Integration and Implementation Insights (also known as i2Insights) is a community weblog for researchers who are interested in sharing concepts and methods for understanding and acting on complex societal and environmental problems (problems like refugee crises, global climate change, and inequality). The blog is run by the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) team at The Australian National University.

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