In watching the film Mindwalk, I took away two main points: 1) systems are living organisms, not machines (models of things), and 2) systems are interconnected.
On Mistaking the Model for the Real Thing
We certainly see mistaking the model for the real thing in the tax policies that affect our economy. The current proposed tax plan in Congress is a good example, with many proponents citing supply side economics as the justification for cutting corporate taxes at such a high and permanent rate. Yet, at a recent Wall Street Journal event for CEOs, few raised their hands when asked if they would reinvest the tax savings in their companies (enabling trickle down). Instead, most stated that they would simply pass it on in dividends. No trickle down there (unless the stockholders are the only ones that count). So, the theory behind supply-side economics is failing to predict the likely outcome of the proposed tax cuts either because the theory itself is false or because those who are citing it are misapplying it. Not only are our legislators mistaking the model for “the real thing,” they may not understand the model in the first place.
Applying the concept of mistaking the model for “the real thing” to library systems, experience shows that much like in Congress, the people who control the funding and make the decisions about libraries often do not seem to understand library systems at all. Thus, they make decisions that negatively impact all the other systems to which the library system is connected. For example, it is a commonly held belief among non-library users (who often happen to be the decision makers) that libraries are repositories of books. A good example of this is illustrated in a recent USA Today article about jobs that won’t exist in 2030. The number one job that the author listed was librarian. He states the following:
“More and more people are clearing out those paperbacks and downloading e-books on their Tablets and Kindles instead. The same goes for borrowing — as books fall out of favor, libraries are not as popular as they once were. That means you’ll have a tough time finding a job if you decide to become a librarian. Many schools and universities are already moving their libraries off the shelves and onto the Internet.”
Clearly, the author’s model of a library system is one of a book repository—a building full of books. He fails to understand the the broader purpose of the library as a public good. Dietmar Wolfram, president of the Association of Library and Information Science Educators (ALISE), responded with a letter to the editor of USA Today outlining the value and purpose of library systems and providing counter-evidence to the article’s bold declarations. For example, Dr. Wolfram states that libraries are places that connect people to information and to each other. In a public library this might be seen in library programming, such as book and hobby clubs. In school and academic libraries this might be seen in homework clubs, study groups, and/or maker spaces. Returning to Mindwalk, this illustrates the other main point of the film—interconnectedness. Library systems serve as an example of interconnectedness in the way that they connect to and serve both macro-systems (schools, business, communities) and micro-systems (people).
The planning process for the systemigram depiction in class was both enlightening and overwhelming. It was enlightening because it showed the importance of being able to identify the components (people) of the system and conceptualize how they are connected to each other through both chain of command and flow of information (or resources). That bigger picture represents the system’s structure, and without an understanding of its structure, there would be great difficulty in pinpointing where in the system a problem is occurring or where a barrier is present that is impeding the flow of information, resources, or decision making. Planning and pre-research is everything in the analysis of a system.
However, while the exercise clearly showed the importance of planning the process, the resulting depiction on the whiteboard in the image below is overwhelming to look at. As a standalone image, it means nothing to me. I only understand what it depicts because I followed along during the exercise. My own thinking tends to be much more systematic. For me, the planning of my own system of interest will require a neater representation of the organizational structure of the system. Sketching it out on paper might be the beginning of the process, but I think that I will need to create the organizational structure in Systemitool first, then transfer it to a Word document and add bullets, comments, and so forth. Then, I will be able to print it out and study it, making additional changes as necessary.
Transforming the information in the image above into a story helped simplify the content into something that made sense. I am beginning to get the hang of that process. The second image below shows the results in systemigram form. To me, this is basically linear concept mapping that describes one aspect of the system in a long sentence. The aspect of the system that we discussed in class was the process that impacts course availability in the College of Information at the university. During class, we ended at the “departmental resources” node. I continued the sentence to the end by adding the nodes and links between “departmental resources” and “lack of course availability.” This made me realize how important it is to understand the inner workings of the system—not only how the general process of course enrollment works but also the barriers in the process that may result in lack of course availability. If I were developing this systemigram from scratch, I would need to interview the people in the system (from various perspectives) to get a good grasp of the process.
The systemigram above reveals that resources are the primary driver of course availability, and lack of resources in any area may negatively impact course availability. For example, if a faculty member leaves the department, he or she may take the only expertise available for a course, leaving a gap in course offerings. If student enrollment in any course is too low, that course may be dropped for the semester (that happened to me this semester). Budget drives the minimum enrollment rule. Constant threats to course availability may impact student enrollment. Students may drop out or transfer if they cannot enroll in the courses they need in a timely manner. This may lead to a poor reputation for the degree program, hampering student recruitment. Budget and expertise are the primary factors that impact course availability, so it would behoove the decision makers (e.g., administrators) to consider strategies for limiting the negative consequences of lack of course availability. For example, when hiring new faculty, care should be taken to match the real needs of the department with appropriate candidates. Additionally, the impact of a minimum enrollment rule should be evaluated within the department. What drives the number, and is it the norm at competing universities?