Competencies, sustainability and the importance of systems thinking

Bryan Hopkins Consulting
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Competencies, sustainability and the importance of systems thinking

Bryan Hopkins Consulting
Published by Bryan in Systems thinking · 18 October 2021

Many years ago when I started running workshops on instructional design I used to ask the question, "What is the difference between education and training"? The consensus generally was that education aims at providing a general understanding of the subject while training focuses on helping people to perform some specific activity.

More recently, it has become fashionable to talk less about 'training' and more about 'learning', which might imply that the distinction between education and training has become less clear. However, when looking at how training sometimes happens I wonder about the extent to which the training world has really taken on board what is meant by learning. I still see PowerPoint slides in face-to-face training packed with text and e-learning courses relying on screen after screen of text-centred content. There are, of course, many honourable exceptions, but this old dichotomy came back to me when researching for my new book on organisational learning about sustainability.

What I found was a steadily developing academic and educational practitioner literature about sustainability in education, but with very little of this crossing over into guidance and texts aimed at Human Resource Development or, more generally, the learning within organisations market. This is exemplified by the fate of Education for Sustainable Development, or ESD, an initiative with roots in the United Nations' Agenda 21 publication of 1992, and which had its own decade between 2005 and 2015. It is also an explicit target in Sustainable Development Goal 4, which states the importance of people having the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality and a culture of peace and global citizenship, among other measures.

So how has this been integrated into learning within organisations? One way in which we could try to find an answer to this question is by looking at the behavioural competencies seen as important within ESD, and then to consider the extent to which these may be seen in organisational competency frameworks. Although various lists of desirable competencies have been proposed in recent years, a useful reference point comes from the UNESCO report Issues and trends in Education for Sustainable Development.[1] This suggests eight key competencies.

Systems thinking competency
People need to be able to recognise and understand how sustainability needs to be seen through a complexity lens, that it is influenced by webs of interrelationships, that there are multiple perspectives on sustainability issues, and that we are constantly making boundary judgements in order to make sense of situations. This goes against the grain of conventional educational processes which teach us to think reductively, based on an assumption that we can understand how the world works by having expert knowledge of narrowly-defined subjects. Think about the general failure of the economics profession to predict how economic situations develop.

Integrated problem-solving competency
This is about being competent to use different problem-solving frameworks to think about complex problems. I remember once talking to an HRD manager who worked in an organisation beset by all kinds of different problems, and saying that I had previously delivered well-received problem-solving workshops in another, similar, organisation, and suggested they might be of interest. No, came the firm response, they need to focus on the technical requirements of their work. Again, this type of thinking comes from a reductive belief that just being able to implement technical skills correctly means that there will be no problems.

Anticipatory competency
This competency is about being able to recognise what multiple futures may exist, and as such, links closely with systems thinking and problem-solving.

Critical thinking competency
Critical thinking is about questioning the norms and assumptions which we may see as 'common sense'. This is where thinking about sustainability steers into the political arena, as it requires us to think about how we manage our economies and organise our societies, and consequently run our organisations. It is easy to see how this could be a competency that many organisations would rather not develop.

Collaboration competency
This addresses the ability to work with and learn from other people.

Normative competency
Related to the critical thinking competency, this addresses an inward-looking ability to think about how our underlying beliefs, values and assumptions drive our own actions.

Strategic competency
This is about being able to develop and implement innovative ideas.

Self-awareness competency
This addresses the ability to reflect on our own actions and how we relate to the world around us.

In many ways the systems thinking competency is the core competency here, as several of the others may be displayed more effectively if a person is competent in systems thinking. It is an extremely powerful way for trying to make sense of complex problems, and by understanding the interplay between perspectives, interrelationships and boundary judgements it is easier to identify strategies which may be able to minimise the effects of a problem. This implies that the anticipatory competency is also dependent on systems thinking. Thinking rigorously about boundary judgements which are active in a situation means that the critical thinking issues of power dynamics and hegemonic practice are explored. And systems thinking practitioners always try to collaborate, to draw in other people in order to bring forth alternative perspectives on a situation.

So how does this relate to existing organisational competency frameworks? Of course, every organisation which has formalised a competency framework will have done so differently, often using different language to express similar ideas. You as a reader will have your own ideas about how these might relate to your own frameworks, but I thought it might be useful to look at some publicly available frameworks to see how they compare.

The United Kingdom's Civil Service competency framework[2] defines 10 competencies. One of these, 'Seeing the big picture' can be seen as having some systems thinking competency characteristics, in that it encourages an understanding of how a civil servant's work 'fits with and supports organisational objectives and the wider public needs and the national interest'. However, it falls a long way short of addressing the real value of systems thinking through drawing out multiple perspectives, considering interrelationships and reflecting on the importance of boundary judgements.

At an international level, the OECD competency framework[3] identifies 15 core competencies. This does not refer to systems thinking at all, and instead refers to 'Analytical thinking'. On the face of it that might seem similar, but analytical thinking generally uses a Cartesian, reductive approach: indeed, the OECD definition says that this is the ability 'to identify key or underlying issues in complex situations'. The problem with this is that when a 'key issue' is identified, this becomes the focus of attention. A strength of systems thinking is in helping us to understand how the various potential key issues may interact, making it easier to think about what the emergent behaviour in our situation might be.

In the space of a short article like this it is impossible to carry out a thorough critique of different organisational competency frameworks and see how they compare with those for ESD, but I leave it to the reader to reflect on their own frameworks and think about the degree to which they may be contributing to organisational sustainable practice.

Systems thinking lies at the heart of my forthcoming book, Learning strategies for sustainable organisations. It explains key principles of systems thinking, shows how important it is in organisational sustainability, and uses systems thinking in a systematic process for developing learning strategies. Go to for more information.

[1] UNESCO, Issues and Trends in Education for Sustainable Development (Paris: UNESCO, 2018),
[2] Civil Service Human Resources, Civil Service Competency Framework: 2012–2017, 20818,
[3] OECD, Competency Framework (OECD, 2014),

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