Session Report: The PhD Colloquium


The 2007 International System Dynamics Conference (ISDC) was the 25th International Conference and also celebrated the 50th year of the founding of the field of System Dynamics (SD). It was held July 29th – August 2nd, 2007 in The Seaport Hotel at Boston, MA, U.S.A. Preceding this milestone event, for a full day on Sunday, July 28, 2007, exciting presentations were made and lively discussions held on the platform of The Ph.D. Colloquium. While the colloquium has become a regular feature of the ISDC, the 2007 Colloquium was also special in several ways;

Given that this Colloquium was exclusively designed, developed, and delivered by graduate students coordinating well in advance across geographies, it is admirable to see its excellent outcome reflecting superior content and critique. The moving spirit propelling this forward were two outstanding Ph.D. students, Stefan Groesser of University of Berne (Switzerland) and Chintan Vaishnav of M.I.T. (U.S.A.), who voluntarily organized the Colloquium for many months. Their passion for quality SD and personal high values were reflected in the excellence defined by this Colloquium and the degree of responsibility they effectively executed in a globally integrative endeavor.

Professor Jay W. Forrester, the founder of the field of system dynamics, attended part of the Colloquium with interest, even when he had other commitments that day.

The impact of this milestone Colloquium will be felt for sometime in both, the emerging SD ideas, hypotheses, and theories that were presented and discussed as well as the benchmark this event has set for future colloquia.


This Colloquium flowed as follows:

1. Invited Keynote Presentation

Prof. John Sterman (M.I.T.) was invited to present his thoughts on building good foundations for an academic career in system dynamics. John titled his presentation “The System Dynamics of System Dynamics: A System Dynamics Approach, or, How to Succeed in Modeling with a lot of Trying.” While a long title, it was an personification of how John thinks and wants the community to be sincere about the field. As the subtitle indicated, John focused most of his comments on best practices in modeling and the common pitfalls we SDers have a tendency to encounter. He described 10 bad practices (7 in modeling and 3 in attitude) that he has seen over the years that many SDers and potentials SDers unknowingly inculcate but that these practices should be caught and forbidden. “We have all made and seen some of these errors but must seriously watch out for.” John then shared 10 critical success factors for building a sound basis for an academic career in SD. Amassed from the learning of many1 over the past 50 years and his own observations of SD students, these factors were a portfolio of do’s, don’ts, and guidelines that affected the entire academic career beyond modeling and into academic publishing, refereeing, and integrating SD into and with other fields. As is characteristic of John, he was informative, instructive, reflective, and entertaining – all at the same time.

2. Three Plenary Sessions

There were two plenary sessions in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each plenary session featured two full-time Ph.D. students pursuing their doctorates in SD and/or applying SD to address issues in various domains of social science. During the plenary, students presented highlights of their research agenda, the approach they are taking, and their emerging findings. Each took up to five questions and comments from the audience. A plenary session was followed by two parallel sessions where each of the two plenary presenters got a full session to delve deeper into the research details (see Section 3 below). This “every speaker gets his/her own full session” approach enabled the topics to be explored in details – as much as time would allow – and became the basis for a two-way exploratory dialogue between the presenter and the audience. The plenary sessions were alternately moderated by the organizing doctoral students, Stefan Groesser and Chintan Vaishnav, who then each moderated a parallel session.

The six plenary presenters and their research areas included:

Summary of each presentation is described within a paragraph in the next section on Six Parallel Sessions. For details, please read the paper or contact the author/speaker directly.

3. Six Parallel Sessions – one per plenary speaker

Parallel sessions generated rich discourse and brought diversity of thought to each topic. Both, the breadth and depth of discussion handled by the speakers and moderators cast the topics under sharp focus and positioned these in different ways within the various fields of research. Accomplished academics in the audience and critics (yours truly also included) asked piercing questions and provided critique that was positively received.

Gokhan Dogan (M.I.T.): Improving Product Quality

Gokhan displayed the typical analysis of product quality and failures (e.g., defects per machine). This was related to the traditional product lifecycle where time delays affect the decision quality and one needs some rules of thumb to prioritize failures (defect → delay → failure). This especially relates to field failures and the projects set up to fix them. Cost v. Benefit tradeoffs are also implied in how many engineers, for example, does a firm need to fix field problems. This goes on to related considerations like, how many projects should a company be working on simultaneously. Policy questions driving his research are: How should product quality problems be prioritized? How should this process be managed? What is the best practice? How do we know we are working on the right problems?

David Lyell (U. New South Wales): A Dynamic Balanced Scorecard for Managing Health Systems Performance

Beginning with a simple – yet powerful – statement that the human (body) is one system but in health care it is broken into mutually exclusive boxes for analysis, David went on to say this is similar to the health care (HC) system of modern times where the system is not always seen as a whole. David’s focus is on assessing the performance of HC systems, especially investigating the long-term drivers of successful performance. He admits that this is a complex problem and an SD approach is a step closer to being in the wholeness aspects of the real system. This is relevant today from a cost-benefit perspective but also in the long run as population ages and demands draw heavy on existing HC systems. He has assessed various instruments that measure HC performance and is working on a dynamic balanced scorecard (Dynamic BSC) in Australia.

Chintan Vaishnav (M.I.T.): The End of Core: Should Disruptive Innovation in Telecom Invoke Discontinuous Regulatory Response?

As new technologies take over the telecommunications landscape, they are making disruptive changes to the traditional core that had been protected by regulation for a long time until just a few years ago. The impact is significant as it relates to the architecture and ownership of the network in an increasingly fragmented value chain. It will affect how wealth will be generated and shared and migrated in new ways. Issues also relate to public safety and security. Chintan has developed a framework for analyzing voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) vs. public switch to network (PSTN) architecture. His dynamic, multi-sector framework (CLDs and SFDs) is also helping understand the effects of migration towards end-devices with reduced role of core. Self-regulation – as it happened in the case of Web technologies – may be one possibility. A play across reinforcing mechanisms and balancing (regulation-related) mechanisms will be crucial in developing proper policy design that is not easily possibly through other, linear methods.

Matthias Muller (U. Berne): Towards a Conceptualization of the Diffusion of Energy-Efficient Renovations in Switzerland’s Built Environment

A very interesting study in the Zurich, Switzerland area, Matthias looks at the effect of commercial buildings on the environment. There may be leverage in planning the maintenance of old buildings to reduce carbon dioxide (CO 2) emissions as well as in designing future buildings for reduced emissions. In a carefully planned multi-disciplinary research (bringing together economics, innovation, marketing, psychology, etc. sectors), Matthias is putting the building manager in a central role to explore the alternatives for better, more environmentally-friendly commercial building maintenance planning. This is especially relevant when it is too much hassle to change existing, aged designs; one needs sophisticated planning to make changes that are functionally effective while also economically profitable. In addition to SD, Matthias is using soft systems and other tools.

Swibert Miczka (U. Mannheim): Looking at System Dynamics from a Resource-Based Point-of-View: Can SD Models Become a Source of Competitive Advantage?

For some time now, SDers have been excited about the possibilities of advocating the SD approach in the corporate domain. Since the rebirth of the resource-based view (RBV) of the firm, most methodologies have been wanting to fully explain the capabilities of a company and how it plays as resource (or constraint) in the implementation of strategy. Even in communities outside SD, different people are beginning to talk about using SD if they can communicate it in the language of their audience. Swibert is exploiting commonalities between RBV and SD while also making connection points wherever accumulation (and preservation) or resources take place as well as where a long-term approach is utilized. There are two lines Swibert is analyzing; the model and the modeling process (e.g., knowledge elicitation and integration).

Nicole Zimmermann (U. Mannheim): System-Dynamical Analysis of Systemic Mutability and Commitment in Organizational Changes

Change is as old as human perception of it. Both, change and addressing change confound policy makers, strategists, and managers. The perennial question has been: Why do change efforts fail (at least, most of the time)? Change failure has puzzled everyone. Nicole has set herself up to take on the missing element of combining several reasons for change inefficacy (in contrast to the notion that there is one or two prevailing factors that must be looked into). Defining new concepts like ‘mutability’ as the capability of a system to change, efficacy, etc. Nicole is bringing together a systemic explanation of change failure and how we can get to deeper interconnected reasons in a system to change and relieve employee resistance to enhance commitment and trust.

Collectively, the plenary and parallel sessions were a treat to SDers in revisiting various themes that form new perspectives and define new areas for research.

4. Poster Presentation Session

Unlike the general poster session in the main conference itself, the Colloquium Poster Session was highly selective to eight posters and including only Ph.D. students and advisors.

The eight poster presenters and their topics included:

Descriptions of these posters are provided on the System Dynamics Society Website as well as the contact email addresses of the presenters.

5. A reflective Panel Discussion

The organizers of the Colloquium arranged a very exciting panel discussion inviting five accomplished SD academics to take on the theme: “Academic versus Action Research in System Dynamics.”

This was set up in a two-viewpoint discussion:

The Academic Research in SD side opened the discussion with Rogelio Oliva setting an excellent stage by highlighting the characteristics of SD; interactive, multi-disciplinary, boundary expanded, and problem oriented. He then shared the characteristics of Action Research; strong social science tradition, and depicted its framework and application applied/bridged by process methodology. Granted the differences and similarities however, the realities of tenure track and academic promotion are narrow which is counter to SD’s approach. Therefore it would be prudent to simplify models to 1-2 loops and/or become a dominant expert in an area using SD, integrating fragmented domains.

Then, the Action Research in SD side opened their discussion by Andy Ford mentioning that engineering uses dynamic feedback explicitly. In social sciences, he postured that what was once done as group study with no modeling was very helpful; in fact, those discussions were strong and one could see them as generically rich in SD as stories. People saw the vicious circles even though these were called “the problem triangles” but nobody simulated these.

Back to Academic Research in SD, Ed Anderson suggested the ‘wait till you have leverage’ approach. His own success in using and advocating SD came after he got his tenure and then he had the option to do whatever he liked and chose to freely use SD and publish in it as well. “I was not stealthy but used my SD with an OM language, math that doesn’t look like SD in form. ... So, find an area, get to know it well, make friends and alliances in it, use SD to address some of their issues, then beat the problem to death till you own it.” Ed also suggested all Colloquium participants to (re)read of “Scientific Revolutions12” so as not to be in normal science but in breakthroughs.

Finally, Peter Senge from the Action Research in SD side added on that normal social science is a subset of action science. He mentioned the work of Kanter; you need a theory of the thing and you need a theory of change. The policy – which resides in our mental models – is the bridge between the theory of things and theory of change. So, how do mental models change? These are habits of thought and action. And, the meta theory of change is in reflection. Only by drawing into the process of reflection do we change as we are able to ask ourselves questions like: Am I a part of the problem? Are my judgment and activities counterproductive? It is not bad luck; rather it is the lack of reflection that fails us. Peter quotes a Chilean scientist, Humberto Maturana13: “It is only through reflection that history changes.”

George Richardson wrapped up very well by assimilating the common thoughts and differences. “It is a disciplined process of observation,” “framework without people is useless,” and “”usefulness is the ultimate criterion; when will we have a social science?”

6. Student Chapter Meeting

The Student Chapter of the System Dynamics Society met after the Colloquium and panel discussion. The 30+ paid members present conducted various business of the chapter and elected new officers to four offices for the coming year. Results and details may be found on the Web in the Student Chapter area.

1 For example, Jørgen Randers (Ed.), “Elements of the System Dynamics Method,” The MIT Press, 1980.
2 University of Berne, Switzerland.
3 University of Mannheim, Germany.
4 University of Bergen, Norway.
5 University of Bremen, Germany.
6 University of Sydney, Australia.
7 University of Skövde, Sweden.
8 Tilburg University, The Netherlands.
9 London South Bank University, UK.
10 University of New South Wales, Australia.
11 Texas Agricultural & Mechanical University, U.S.A.
12 Thomas Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” The University of Chicago Press, 1970.
13 A Chilean biologist whose work extends to philosophy, cognitive science and even to family therapy. “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system.” Metadesign.

Usman A. Ghani