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Critical systems thinking, theory and practice : a case study of an intervention in two British local authorities

Munlo, Isaac


Isaac Munlo



This thesis reports an intervention informed by critical systems thinking. The intervention drew upon a variety of systems and operational research methods to systemically explore the problems facing housing services for older people. Stakeholders were then supported in developing a response to these problems in the form of an integrated model of user involvement and multi-agency working. The methods used in this study included Cognitive Mapping, Critical Systems Heuristics, Interactive Planning and Viable System Modelling. Following a description of the project and its outcomes, the author's practical experiences are used to reflect back on critical systems thinking. Five innovations are presented in the thesis:

First a new method called 'Problem Mapping' is developed. This has five stages: (i) interviewing stakeholders to surface problems and identify further potential interviewees; (ii) listing the problems as seen through the eyes of the various stakeholders; (iii) consolidating the list by removing duplicate problems and synthesising similar problems into larger 'problem statements'; (iv) mapping the relationships between problems; and (v) presenting the results back to stakeholders to inform the development of proposals for improvement. Reflection upon the use of this method indicates that it is particularly valuable where there are multiple stakeholders who are not initially visible to researchers, each of whom sees different aspects of a problem situation.

Second, Problem Mapping is used to systemically express the problems facing housing services for older people in two geographical areas in the UK. This shows how problems in the areas of assessment, information provision and planning are mutually reinforcing, making a strong case for change.

Third, a process of evolving an integrated model of user involvement and multi-agency working is presented. The model was designed in facilitated workshops by managers from statutory agencies, based on specifications developed by a variety of stakeholders (including service users and carers).

Fourth, the strengths and weaknesses of Cognitive Mapping (one of the methods used in the project) are discussed. Significant limitations of this method are highlighted.

Fifth, contributions and reflections on the theoretical and practical basis of the research are presented. These among others focus on the theory of boundary critique, which is an important aspect of critical systems thinking. It is often assumed that boundary critique is only undertaken at the start of an intervention to ensure that its remit has been adequately defined. However, this project shows that it is both possible and desirable to use the theory of boundary critique in an on-going basis in interventions to inform the creative design of methods.


Munlo, I. (1997). Critical systems thinking, theory and practice : a case study of an intervention in two British local authorities. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 3, 2012
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2023
Keywords Management; Mathematical statistics; Operations research
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Management Systems and Sciences, The University of Hull
Award Date Dec 1, 1997


Thesis (18 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 1997 Munlo, Isaac. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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