X Close

UCLse Blog


Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


Business optimisation

By Raúl Leal, on 14 May 2014

We were recently invited to participate in a bid to provide consultancy to an organisation. They are looking for the work of consultants hoping to gain a step change in their own capabilities when confronted with their very difficult business challenges.

This call for proposals made me think, what are the necessary conditions for external consultants to be effective in their contribution to the management of an organisation and how do we understand their input in terms of the systemicity of the organisation?

Sometimes consultants are brought into organisations when they are faced with very difficult problems and feel surpassed by the situation or somehow unable to resolve it. I wonder if the idea of solving some difficult problems through consultants can be seen, under certain circumstances, as a ‘disturbance’ that shakes the organisation into new areas that take them to find better answers. I would argue this is a problem that can be partly understood as an optimisation problem when you are searching for the most appropriate variables and their most appropriate combination to find the optimum of a function. Here the problem is the most appropriate way to deliver a complex project  (for example) and the variables are the exact number and identity of the resources (with their capability) involved. The function to be optimised is the business performance metrics. Of course, the situation arises not only when we get to the point of bringing in consultants, sometimes organisations face difficult problems and embark on solving them themselves. But the question is still relevant, if the organisation is a system, is the consultant (or the ‘hero’ within the organisation) anti-systemic? are they part of the system even if their participation is sporadic and is not in keeping with the internal dynamics? Or are they perhaps just bringing to light dynamics (or parts) of the system that had not been identified? Finally, is there anything we can learn from the field of optimisation in maths and search algorithms (in numerical computing) that we can transfer to the management and design of complex systems, including organisations?

It will be nigh on impossible to transfer directly an organisational problem to a numerical optimisation problem because many of the variables at play are non-quantifiable, being of a human nature. Nevertheless I reckon making the analogy with numerical optimisation gives you a very good chance of understanding the underlying and overarching dynamics of the organisation.

Just systems thinking…

Is part-time study worth it?

By ucaklmu, on 22 April 2014

Although there are some that choose to study full-time, most MSc Systems Engineering Management (SEM) students are professional engineers in full-time work. It’s not an easy option – balancing work, study and your home life – so why do it? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot recently as I am also in the middle of a part-time programme – in my case an MBA with the OU. Having taken an eighteen-month pause when starting with UCLse, it’s now time to get on and complete it.

Even though I’m just over half way through I still had a lot to think about in deciding to get back to it. After all, half way means at least another eighteen months of studying after work and at weekends – more, if I pace out the modules a bit. I have to admit I don’t think I’ve found a killer argument for doing this, though I’ve discussed it with a lot of people. Often the horror of having to put yourself through more exams is mentioned and it’s true that’s not greatly appealing. What I’ve found harder is the discipline of continuously doing the extra study throughout the course. A 15-credit module is equivalent to around 150 study hours. With work and personal life going on, that implies quite a commitment every week, even before you throw in some family holidays and life’s little hiccups (obviously, just how much depends on the length of the course).

Despite this, I’ve still been motivated to continue as I’ve found that there’s so much you get out of it even as you go along. I was initially surprised how much the study could have an immediate impact on what I was doing work-wise – and of course this only builds as time goes by and you get more experience. Though I didn’t know it when I started, I think that’s now one of the key justifications for me, in addition to having the qualification when I finish.

What do you think about the part-time study experience?

For more information about the MSc Systems Engineering Management course and how we support our part-time students: