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CECAN Webinar: The Human, Learning, Systems Approach to Managing in Complexity

Online, 1 Oct 2019, 1pm
Toby Lowe

Tuesday 1st October 2019, 13:00 – 14:00 BST

Presenter: Dr Toby Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and Management, Newcastle Business School

Webinar Overview:

The webinar views the challenge of creating complexity-informed evaluation by seeing it as a public management challenge. How can public management adopt a more complexity-informed approach? The session will outline an emerging complexity-informed approach to public management: the Human, Learning, Systems (HLS) approach. The HLS approach involves public services responding to the variety of human need through bespoke service provision, using learning as the engine for performance improvement and stewarding the health of the systems which produce social outcomes.


One of the three key tasks of managing work in an HLS way (including funding and commissioning of work) means creating the conditions in which people can build effective human relationships.

This means understanding human variety, using empathy to understand the lives of others, recognising people’s strengths, and trusting those who do the work. Variety, Empathy, Strengths and Trust (VEST).


In complex environments people are required to learn continuously in order to adapt to the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the work. In complex environments, there is no simple interventions which “works” to tackle a problem. “What works” is an on-going process of learning and adaptation.

It is the job of managers to enable staff to learn continuously as the tool for performance improvement. This means using measures to learn, not for reward/punishment. It means creating the conditions where people can be honest about their mistakes and uncertainties. It means creating reflective practice environments between and across peer groups.

This requires funders/commissioners to fund for learning and adaptation, not for “results”.


The outcomes we care about are not delivered by organisations. They are produced by whole systems – by hundreds of different factors working together. The final job of managers is therefore to act as Systems Stewards – to enable actors in the system to co-ordinate and collaborate effectively  – because that it was will enable positive outcomes to emerge.

The HLS approach has recently been outlined in this report.

Presenter Biography:

My purpose as an academic is to help improve the funding, commissioning and performance management of social interventions (across the public, private and voluntary sectors). My research team has used complexity theory to create a critique of New Public Management approaches, particularly highlighting the problems created by attempts to use Outcome-Based Performance Management (e.g. Payment by Results) in complex environments.

We have also developed a new complexity-informed paradigm for the funding, commissioning and performance management of social interventions, and are undertaking action research programmes with public and voluntary sector funders and delivery organisations to explore how this paradigm is implemented in practice, and to support the development of a Community of Practice around this new paradigm.

My team is also conducting working as a Learning Partner for the Lankelly Chase Foundation’s inquiry into place-based system change. In this context we are exploring how learning functions as a mechanism for system change.

I began my academic life as a political philosopher (my PhD is in the concept of community in political theory). After completing my PhD I worked in both the public and voluntary sectors for 15 years. My previous job before returning to academia was as Chief Executive of Helix Arts, a North East charity specialising in participatory arts practice with marginalised groups.

From 2015-2018 I worked at Newcastle University Business School, and Open Lab. In this context I also worked with PhD students at Open Lab exploring the role of digital technology in enabling people and organisations to reflect on their performance, and to contribute to learning in complex systems.

How to Join:

This talk will take place via a Zoom Webinar (registration now closed).

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. In case you are unable to attend, a recording of the webinar will be uploaded to our website following the event.

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