The situations of practice are not problems to be solved, but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder and indeterminacy (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

The situations of practice are not problems to be solved but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder and indeterminacy. Russell Ackoff, one of the founders of the field of operations research, has recently announced to his colleagues that “the future of operations research is past” because:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consists of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Ackoff argues that operations research has allowed itself to become identified with techniques, mathematical models, and algorithms, rather than with “the ability to formulate management problems, solve them, and implement and maintain their solutions in turbulent environments.” Problems are interconnected, environments are turbulent, and the future is indeterminate just in so far as managers can shape it by their actions. What is called for, under these conditions, is not only the analytic techniques which have been traditional in operations research, but the active, synthetic skill of “designing a desirable future and inventing ways of bringing it about.”

The situations of practice are characterized by unique events. Erik Erikson, the psychiatrist, has described each patient as “a universe of one,” and an eminent physician has claimed that “85 percent of the problems a doctor sees in his office are not in the book.” Engineers encounter unique problems of design and are called upon to analyze failures of structures or materials under conditions which make it impossible to apply standard tests and measurements. The unique case calls for an art of practice which might be taught, if it were constant and known, but it is not constant.

Practitioners are frequently embroiled in conflicts of values, goals, purposes, and interests. Teachers are faced with pressures for increased efficiency in the context of contracting budgets, demands that they rigorously “teach the basics,” exhortations to encourage creativity, build citizenship, help students to examine their values. Workers in the fields of social welfare are also torn between a professional code which advocates attention to persons and bureaucratic pressure for increased efficiency in processing cases. School superintendents, industrial managers, and public administrators are asked to respond to the conflicting demands of the many different groups which hold a stake in their enterprises. Professionals engaged in research and development are not infrequently torn between a “professional” concern for technological elegance, consumer safety, or social well-being, and an institutional demand for short-term return on investment.

In some professions, awareness of uncertainty, complexity, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict has led to the emergence of professional pluralism. Competing views of professional practice – competing images of the professional role, the central values of the profession, the relevant knowledge and skills – have come into good currency. Leston Havens has written about the “babble of voices” which confuses practitioners in the field of psychotherapy. Social workers have produced multiple, shifting images of the nature of their practice, as have architects and town planners. Each view of professional practice represents a way of functioning in situations of indeterminacy and value conflict, but the multiplicity of conflicting views poses a predicament for the practitioner who must choose among multiple approaches to practice or devise his own way of combining them.

(Schön, 1995, p. 16f.)


Problem setting as an art (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

When leading professionals write or speak about their own crisis of confidence, they tend to focus on the mismatch of traditional patterns of practice and knowledge to features of the practice situation – complexity, uncertainty, instability , uniqueness, and value conflict – of whose importance they are becoming increasingly aware.

Surely this is a laudable exercise in self-criticism. Nevertheless, there is something puzzling about the translation of wavering confidence in professional expertise into these particular accounts of the troubles of the professions. If it is true, for example, that social reality has shifted out from under the nineteenth-century division of labor, creating new zones of complexity and uncertainty, it is also true that practitioners in such fields as management and industrial technology do sometimes find ways to make sense of complexity and reduce uncertainty to manageable risk.

If it is true that there is an irreducible element of art in professional practice, it is also true that gifted engineers, teachers, scientists, architects, and managers sometimes display artistry in their day-to-day practice. If the art is not invariant, known, and teachable, it appears nonetheless, at least for some individuals, to be learnable.

If it is true that professional practice has at least as much to do with finding the problem as with solving the problem found, it is also true that problem setting is a recognized professional activity. Some physicians reveal skills in finding the problems of particular patients in ways that go beyond the conventional boundaries of medical diagnosis. Some engineers, policy analysts, and operations researchers have become skilled at reducing “messes” to manageable plans. For some administrators, the need to “find the right problem” has become a conscious principle of action.

And if it is true, finally, that there are conflicting views of professional practice, it is also true that some practitioners do manage to make a thoughtful choice, or even a partial synthesis, from the babble of voices in their professions.

Why, then, should leading professionals and educators find these phenomena so disturbing? Surely they are not unaware of the artful ways in which some practitioners deal competently with the indeterminacies and value conflicts of practice. It seems, rather, that they are disturbed because they have no satisfactory way of describing or accounting for the artful competence which practitioners sometimes reveal in what they do. They find it unsettling to be unable to make sense of these processes in terms of the model of professional knowledge which they have largely taken for granted. Complexity, instability, and uncertainty are not removed or resolved by applying specialized knowledge to well-defined tasks. If anything, the effective use of specialized knowledge depends on a prior restructuring of situations that are complex and uncertain. An artful practice of the unique case appears anomalous when professional competence is modelled in terms of application of established techniques to recurrent events. Problem setting has no place in a body of professional knowledge concerned exclusively with problem solving. The task of choosing among competing paradigms of practice is not amenable to professional expertise.

(Schön, 1995, p. 18f)