Checkland and the two Stowells – sharing a Lancaster journey
Published 8 May 2012
Professor Frank Stowell (MA Systems in Management, 1982 and PhD Systems, 1989) was one of the attendees at the Peter Checkland Systems Colloquium in April 2012. The event brought to mind the impact that Peter’s teaching and Frank’s Lancaster experience had on his career and life, as well as the parallels in the ‘Lancaster journey’ also taken by his daughter, Alison.
Frank and Alison both took sabbaticals from their respective jobs to study a Masters degree at Lancaster and later each followed this with a Lancaster PhD.
Here Frank shares his story:
Frank and Alison Stowell
The Civil Service provided opportunities for my colleagues and I to attend a variety of relevant training courses. The training they provided, as now, was very good and it was through this scheme that I attended a talk given by a Professor Peter Checkland.
What I heard that day was to change my career and, looking back, my life. Peter Checkland's presentation made a great deal of sense to me. What I, and my colleagues, had not recognised was that we were putting in place computer-based systems that were effectively automating the status quo. We were not addressing the problems or the context in which they occurred nor did we have the tools to do so. Our problem-solving tool-kit was based on time-and-motion methods and ways of converting menial tasks into data processing systems.
Enthused by what I had heard I decided to apply for a year’s sabbatical to study at the Department of Systems at Lancaster University.
Unfortunately, much as now, the UK was facing drastic cuts in public funding so my application was rejected. I had the choice of resigning or giving up the idea. This was not an easy decision as aside from holding a good, secure job with a good pension I was married with two children and a had a mortgage to repay. To my eternal gratitude my wife, a student teacher, gave her full support and encouraged me to apply for a place on the next Masters programme. I applied, attended an interview and was accepted. I then tendered my resignation and made my way to Lancaster, leaving my family behind. On reflection this was a totally selfish act on my part and a totally selfless one on the part of my wife. It was a decision that can only be made by someone of early years where the prospect of failure did not enter into the equation.
The Masters programme was exhilarating for me and its content answered many of the questions that arose in my previous role as a consultant and suited me perfectly. The average age of the cohort was 30 years as maturity and experience were an integral part of the programme's design. The aim was to attract students with experience of real-world problems who would appreciate what was being taught as well as being in a position to contribute to the learning process.
Frank Stowell at his PhD graduation
In 1990 I moved to Scotland where I was awarded a Chair in Information Systems and Associate Head of Department. In 1995 I moved to De Montfort University where I was appointed first as Professor and Head of Department of Computing then, in 2000, Director of the De Montfort University campus at Milton Keynes. In 2004 I took early retirement from De Montfort and was fortunate enough to take up a research professor's role at the University of Portsmouth where I remain as emeritus Professor. My enthusiasm for the subject is undimmed and I remain active in the field. I am past President of the UK Systems Society and past President of the UK Academy of Information Systems. I am the present chair of the Council of Information Systems Professors and a Board member of the World Cybernetics Society. I am also editor in Chief of an international journal of IT and Systems [IJITSA] and of the UKSS journal Systemist. I have a new book/ebook due to be published in July, entitled “The Managers Guide to Systems Practice.” published by Wiley, and another edited text later in the year.
Alison Stowell with Lancaster Chancellor, Sir Chris Bonington
I have often wondered who it was in the Civil Service that approved my attendance at Peter Checkland’s lecture all those years ago, and if they realise what a seismic change that decision was to make to my life. I have no regrets but looking back it would not have been possible without the support given to me by many people but especially my family. I remain thankful to those who were prepared to believe in me and of the lessons that it has taught me.
Postscript. When Alison read this she commented. “There are lots of parallels that I did not realise had taken place e.g. both applying for the sabbatical, me applying for a course you did 30 years ago and picking it without knowing you had done the same”.