Managing complexity with human learning systems

By Toby Lowe

Toby Lowe (biography)

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).

Biography: 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.

16 thoughts on “Managing complexity with human learning systems”

  1. Similar ideas have been discussed in the management literature and I would like to point out some more material for the interested reader. The idea of using systems thinking in developing learning organizations was introduced in the seminal book ,The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge, which is only very briefly cited in these HLS reports. The five disciplines are: Personal mastery, Mental models, Shared vision, Team learning, and Systems Thinking. These themes relate very closely to what is discussed in HLS. Senge´s work has resulted in an extensive literature on the topic, which is summarized in a handbook published in 2019. There is also the Journal of the Learning Organization published by Emerald.

    Systems Intelligence (SI) is a concept relevant in this context too. It is defined as “Intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction, dynamics and feedback“. It takes a grass roots perspective and emphasizes emotional dynamics in systems and the need to take action when searching for flourishment in systemic contexts. The concept is extended to cover organizational systems intelligence (OSI) too. Learning SI can be supported by the SI test which gives feedback to help the user to focus on key learning topics. Gamification is also found to be a very effective approach to improve team collaboration with SI.
    Örtenblad, A. (Ed.). (2019). The Oxford handbook of the learning organization. Oxford University Press.

    Material on Systems Intelligence can be downloaded from here:

  2. Dear Toby,
    You are solving an important problem. I am sure that your practical proposals will achieve certain results. You may be interested in my reasoning on the topic of two key terms of your message: “each person’s life is a unique complex system” and “think more effectively about improving people’s lives”.
    The term “each person’s life is a unique complex system” is more understandable to civil servants. It designates a variety of needs that civil servants need to take into account for improving people’s lives. In this case, civil servants have the right to independently determine the normative indicators of improving people’s lives. I want to draw your attention to the fact that the term “each person’s life is a unique complex system” is not the original one. This term is derived from the term “every person is a unique complex system”. Using the original term allows you to rethink the problem of improving people’s lives. In this case, the emphasis shifts from the diversity of needs to the diversity of types of people who determine the content of these needs.
    Using models of systemic transdisciplinarity, my colleagues and I conducted a study of the development of modern society:

    Mokiy, V. S., & Lukyanova, T. A. (2022). Sustainable Development of Nature and Society in the Context of a Systems Transdisciplinary Paradigm. Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering & Science,13, pp. 15-35, Special Issue: “Complex Resilience and Sustainability”.

    We have discovered that every modern person is initially a carrier of a strictly defined socio-cultural code. We have identified four socio-cultural codes. This allowed us to assert that the population of every modern state consists of representatives – carriers of these codes. The basis of the population of the state (its large number) is made up of representatives – carriers of a strictly defined socio-cultural code. These representatives form a “deep people”. Representatives – carriers of other socio-cultural codes are represented by a consistently decreasing number. The “deep people” defines the objective context in which the content of improving people’s lives is defined. Perhaps this strengthening of your concept will allow you to rethink the general problem of “think more effectively about improving people’s lives”, as well as supplement it with several practically useful points.

    • Hi Vladimir. Thanks for your very helful comment. I think your formulation that “every person is a unique complex system” is helpful.

      We framed this work in terms of “each person’s life is a unique complex system” in order to connect out conception with the dominant practice and theory in public management around “outcomes” – where the system that people care about is the one that creates particular desired outcomes. So, each person’s life can be a system which creates desired outcomes, or not. Our hope is that his framing enables those doing the work to connect to ideas of complexity more readily.

      I also really like your point about people being carriers of socio-cultural codes. That feels correct, and matches a bunch of work on learning systems – particularly the Critical Social Learning Systems work.

      I’ll check out the reference you gave too. Thanks again!

  3. For me there are two important takeaways in this article: 1) as Toby writes, many public service organizations have been delivering public services to citizens. That has meant that the central competence of and in the organization has been delivery capacity. Making the shift from delivery to shared experimentation, exploration and learning, the central competences must also change. Instead of delivery capacity what become essential is interaction capacity. 2) In my experience, the key and also usually forgotten decision in public policy making is to make sure there is someone taking the role of system steward. The qualifications Toby lists are needed, and the choice has to happen the same way the conductor of a symphony orchestra is often selected; the orchestra itself must at least accept the conductor beforehand. That kind of a process safeguards that legitimacy, resources and learning competences are fit for purpose.

    • As a former public service practitioner, I agree wholeheartedly with these two important takeaway points.

      In particular, I would see the need for a change of central competencies from delivery capacity to interaction capacity as a way of moving ‘upstream’ to play an effective enabling role. There is something here about what form of skillset is to be valued, which somehow goes beyond networking or convening, but is more strongly related to reticulist skills, as envisaged by John Friend some time ago (reference below), which could then lead to more fruitful forms of organising. At the same time, a variety of systems thinking approaches can help with learning competencies, to assist with remaining alert to systemic challenges and opportunities.

      There is thus a significant ambition to be achieved to expand traditional organisational management skills (still necessary, but not sufficient) towards a more progressive form of management skillset. The latter would recognise the everlasting need for experimental inter-organisational learning to help address situations of complexity with more authenticity, sensitivity and humility.

      Friend, J. K. (1997). Connective Planning: From Practice to Theory and Back. In E. Trist, F. Emery & H. Murray (Eds.), The Social Engagement of Social Science, Volume III. The Socio-Ecological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (pg 450ff).

      • Thanks Cathy – your points about comptencies are very well made. Sadly, it seems as if trainnig programmes for public servants are quite a long way behind this thinknig. (I’d be very happy for people to provide counter-examples which disprove this!)

        • Yes indeed, Toby, but there are promising developments at least. In the UK, the Systems Thinking Practitioner Apprenticeships have been a huge step forward (
          Also, this is happening in the UK Civil Service on the subject of Systems Leadership:, along with a suite of guidance documents about systems thinking.
          There’s a way to go yet though in terms of understanding that the above can be applied to ‘upstream’ learning, and not only associated with traditional forms of public service ‘delivery’… which takes us back to the inherent value of ‘interaction capacity’ as a core competency.

        • I’d say my undergrad (Human Services in the US) was very “up-stream” and systems focused. Our theory classes were organized by systems level across two years (personal, dyad, small group, community, nation, global). Grad program (Public Administration in US) was much more traditional. As a state-level public servant I’ve found we all have different backgrounds and approaches to change-making. We definitely need a conductor!

          • Thanks for your comments Heather based on your US experiences. It is an interesting point that public servants all have different backgrounds and approaches to change-making.

            I wonder, do you have any further thoughts about how your ‘upstream’ undergrad programme could be followed through into the grad programme, i.e. perhaps blending or synthesizing the Human Services content with the more traditional PA?

      • We try to explore this a little in a chapter of our most recent book. Rather than competence, we focused more on capabilities and drew on the work of Treece to explore stewardship, coordinative, and adaptive capabilities which we’ve noticed are exhibited by people working in a HLS way. It would be very useful to take this further in research and understand how these capabilities are demonstrated competently.

        They are included in a Systems Thinking Practitioner Level 7 Higher Apprenticeship that we are designing in the hope that many of these themes will contribute to wider workforce development.

        Reference: French, M., Hesselgreaves, H., Wilson, R., Hawkins, M., Lowe, T. (2023). Harnessing complexity for better outcomes in public and non-profit services. Bristol: Policy Press.

        • Thanks, Hannah. These are crucially important points about stewardship, co-ordinative and adaptive capabilities.

          Your comment led me to reflect about the differences between capacity, capability and competence in practice. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, but this reflection itself could perhaps form a series of questions for deliberation and discussion about Human Learning Systems within a local context (for those who are willing), such as:
          If we were operating, or wishing to operate in a Human Learning Systems way:
          – What does it now mean to be competent in our work (e.g. a comparison between a tradition of service delivery and the need for shared experimentation, exploration and learning)?
          – How do we make the capacity to be able to do this work competently under current circumstances? (i.e. enable time/space capacity for interaction)
          – Which capabilities are important in doing this work in our locality (e.g. stewardship, co-ordinative, adaptive)?

          In other words, this is not a generic form of intellectual argument about definitions, but specific questions that could be valuable to discuss within a local context, leading to practical action that can be taken to improve effectiveness and help identify and acquire the necessary expertise to do so in a tailored way. These questions would be relevant at team, departmental, organisational, inter-organisational levels etc., of those engaged in the local governance of public service (whether public, private or Voluntary and Community sectors), and could begin to strike at the root of an approach that Patricia Shaw has championed – as a “more improvisatory way of approaching how we might go on together.”

          Shaw, P. (2002), “Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change,” Routledge. Pg 5.

    • Thanks Olli-Pekka. Exploring the role of System Steward in more depth is, i think, one of the crucial next areas of Human Learning Systems resarch. I am particuarly struck by your thinking on the competencies and capacities required to be a Systems Steward.

  4. Taken to heart, the application would be that government organizations NEVER spend money on specific projects or outcomes! (GOOD!!!), but sparingly use public funds to facilitate a community’s engagement toward common goals. Then let the community also decide how and when to fund it. Giving money away (that isn’t really yours to give anyway) is NEVER a good (or even effective) way to develop “healthy” societies, as the article refers to them. Let the community (individuals) retain more control over the funds that they allocate to “public” projects.

    • Hi Steven. Intersting point. Could i ask you to expand on the idea of community that you’re talking about here? I’m particuarly intersted in the relationship between community and individual that you’re describing.

  5. I somewhat relate to this post: a long time ago, I got into hot water with the teacher’s union steward at my kids’ school for saying: “there’s no such thing as teaching, only learning facilitation”.


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