Friday, June 10, 2005

Systems thinking and program evaluation

Program evaluation is a profession that, in simple terms, seeks to answer the question "So what?", the mate to the researcher's question "What's so?" It started as a way to measure the contribution made by programs such as the Great Society in the United States and to determine whether a funding agency (the government, in that case) was getting what it was paying for.

There is a group of program evaluators who are exploring how systems thinking in one or more of its forms might be useful in their work, and we're always looking for more concrete examples of systems thinking applied to evaluation as opposed to research, problem solving, or management.

Bob Williams has been a strong and articulate champion of applying systems thinking in a broad sense to evaluation. I've been fortunate to work with Bob on several projects. Bob brought Glenda Eoyang of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute and me together to do workshops for the American Evaluation Association and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation exploring how different systemic approaches might be applied to evaluation.

Thanks to the graciousness of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, you can see documents from their workshop that show the application of four approaches to a particular, fictionalized evaluation problem. You can find the article on system dynamics on Bob's Web site: click on "Systems Stuff" in the left pane, and then scroll down to the article entitled "System Dynamics" and labeled "New—June 2005."

While you're there, check out three other documents from that workshop on soft systems methodology, cultural-historical activity theory, and complex adaptive systems, as well as the wealth of other free resources Bob has made available.

It's always a pleasure working with Bob and Glenda. We have fun interacting with those in the workshop, with each other, and with interesting ideas as we work to help people do better things for good causes.

Enjoy the documents, and, if you like, engage us in a dialog.


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