Systems Week: Beverly Parsons on Resources for Applying Systems Concepts to Evaluation

My name is Beverly Parsons. I’m the executive director of InSites (a non-profit research, evaluation, and planning organization) and an AEA board member. I have a tip about resources for applying systems concepts to evaluation. This tip is based on InSites’ continually expanding use of systems orientations in evaluations in education, social services, community change, and health.

Hot Tip: Whether you are an old hand at using systems concepts or new to the topic, get your hands on a copy of Ramage and Shipp’s 2009 book, Systems Thinkers (Springer London). This book is about the people who have shaped the systems fields across many disciplines. The book’s authors organize systems thinkers around themes—cybernetics, general systems theory, systems dynamics, complexity theory, soft and critical systems, and learning systems. Ramage and Shipp’s focus on the person behind the idea helps you see how differing ways of thinking systemically are linked to people’s personalities, lives, environment, time in history, and connections with others.

Each of the book’s 30 chapters gives a brief, well written synopsis of a system thinker’s background, contribution, and links to other thinkers along with a short extract from his/her writings. You’ll be drawn to some because their ideas are familiar, to others because of their life experience or personality, and yet others because of their ideas are new to you. Explore the landscape of systems, walking beside these colorful characters from many disciplines.

Rad Resources: Just as Ramage and Shipp give us a way to position ourselves in the landscape of systems thinkers broadly, you can do the same with your contemporaries who are applying systems thinking to evaluation. Get to know the many people who are regular contributors to the application of systems thinking to evaluation. You can find them by attending AEA sessions sponsored by the Systems in Evaluation TIG. Go to one or both of the November pre-conference workshops (Systems Thinking and Evaluation Practice: Tools to Bridge the Gap on Tuesday or Useful Tools for Integrating System Dynamics and System Intervention Elements into System Change Evaluation Designs on Wednesday) where you’ll meet six workshop leaders who are each crafting their own ways of synthesizing and applying system concepts. These sessions will help you traverse the rest of the AEA program and find kindred spirits.

If you can’t attend AEA this year, check out Michael Quinn Patton’s new book, Developmental Evaluation, Jonny Morell’s new book, Evaluation in the Face of Uncertainty, the websites of Bob Williams ( and Glenda Eoyang ( as well as our website (, and the e-libraries of AEA and the Canadian Evaluation Society. You’ll find great resources, discover what you are already doing that is systems-based, identify areas you want to explore, and find people to walk along side in your journey of applying systems thinking to evaluation practice. Draw on both the relationships and the ideas. Happy trails.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Systems in Evaluation Week with our colleagues in the Systems in Evaluation AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Systems TIG members and you may wish to consider subscribing to our weekly headlines and resources list where we’ll be highlighting Systems resources. You can also learn more from the Systems TIG via their many sessions at Evaluation 2010 this November in San Antonio.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.