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Practitioner Profile: Jack Homer, Homer Consulting

Practitioner Profile: Jack Homer, Homer Consulting

Welcome to Practitioner Profiles, a series of up-close blog-length interviews with experienced System Dynamics practitioners.  We have a standard set of 10 questions and let practitioners take the responses in any direction they choose.  They tell us about who they are, how they got involved with the field, how they work with clients, and in what new directions they may be heading.  

For any questions or comments, please contact Dr. Saras Chung (saras@skipdesigned.com). 

For this spotlight, we talked with Dr. Jack Homer from Homer Consulting.

What kinds of SD project applications do you do?

I have operated as Homer Consulting for nearly 35 years now, first in California, then in New Jersey, and now in New York.  For the first 15 years, nearly all my consulting projects were in the private sector, working directly with large corporations or as a subcontractor to larger consulting companies.  I experienced a major shift toward the public sector in the early 2000s, including more than a dozen years with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  For the last 20 years, about 70% of my work has been with government and non-profit organizations, most often on health and healthcare policy, but also on climate change and decarbonization.  I have some new clients every year, but also some clients with whom I’ve worked for many years, including Rethink Health, Kaiser Permanente, Climate Interactive, and Deloitte.

What is distinctive in your approach to SD projects? 

Starting with my PhD dissertation 40 years ago, I have always taken a “structure and data” approach. That means I press the client not only for plausible causal hypotheses and details, but also for any numerical data that might be relevant.  There’s plenty of data out there these days to support modeling, although sometimes it needs a deep dive and statistical analysis or algebraic manipulation to see it clearly.  This effort is worth it, and I always find that the data tell me something important I didn’t know and that even the client didn’t know or at least didn’t think to communicate.

In what way is Homer Consulting unique or different from other organizations doing SD work?

I’m a solo practitioner, though I often do projects in conjunction with other modelers and consultants.  I may miss out on the benefits of being a fixture at a larger organization, but I have always valued my independence and autonomy.  This has allowed me to split my time between projects and writing papers about them.  Publishing papers has always been important to me personally, and it’s also turned out to be a good way to attract new clients.

What is your role in the organization, especially with regard to SD Project work? 

I’m the chief cook and bottle washer, as they say.

How did you originally get interested in SD, and when was that?

Like quite a few SD old-timers, I first became excited as a teenager in the potential of computer simulation as dreamed up by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his Foundation Trilogy books.  In 1972, I happened to meet Dale Runge from the MIT SD group (he was the husband of my former Spanish teacher), and he told me all about SD and gave me a copy of Jay Forrester’s “Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems” paper.  As an undergraduate at Stanford, I studied applied mathematics including statistics and operations research, but never found anything that approached SD for its breadth and explanatory power.  I started at MIT in 1977 and completed the PhD in 1983.

What individuals and organizations are inspirations to you?

I’m impressed by people in the public sphere who not only put it in the hard analytic work themselves but also grow an effective and long-lived organization around it.  People like Amory Lovins (famous for “Soft Energy Paths” and founder of the “think-and-do-tank” RMI), Don Berwick (founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and later head of the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), Jay Forrester (for building our entire discipline from scratch), and, of course, John Sterman (my classmate at MIT), who more than anyone else moved SD toward recognition as a legitimate management science discipline.

What accomplishments are you proud of?

Let me say first that I’ve always wanted to improve the world in some way with my work.  I guess that’s a pretty high bar to set.  Many of my projects don’t seem to clear that bar, at least in terms of actions taken subsequently by the client.  It’s just a fact that modeling projects sometimes fizzle out and clients may not follow through on recommendations.  Even award-winning multi-year work, like what we did for the CDC and Rethink Health, does not always translate into real-world change that I can identify and quantify.  And yet, I often hear later from people (who took part in these projects or read our papers about them) how much they learned from our work.  My longtime collaborator Bobby Milstein says that our modeling and writing have helped to build the intellectual foundation for a growing movement for universal health and well-being.  I must take his word for it because he’s in the trenches more than I am.

What challenges have you experienced?

The frequent fizzling-out and lack of follow-through.

What kinds of SD work would you like to be doing over the next 5 years?

I will continue to work with my favorite clients on important issues but will take on fewer new clients.  I’ve done some of this already, and it has freed me up to do volunteer activities like managing the SD Society’s remote one-on-one mentoring program and doing some mentoring myself.

Are there any specific changes or tweaks you would like to make in how you and your organization approach SD project work?

I would like to have more early conversations with clients about how the model or its results will ultimately be used.  I’ve found that such a conversation can help keep everyone on the project working together toward a longer-term goal.

 

Have other questions or comments? Leave a comment below or reach out to Jack at Homer Consulting.

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Practitioner Profile: Hyunjung Kim, California State University, Chico

Practitioner Profile: Hyunjung Kim, California State University, Chico

Welcome to Practitioner Profiles, a series of up-close blog-length interviews with experienced System Dynamics practitioners.  We have a standard set of 10 questions and let practitioners take the responses in any direction they choose.  They tell us about who they are, how they got involved with the field, how they work with clients, and in what new directions they may be heading.  A new profile will be posted every few weeks during 2021. 

For any questions or comments, please contact the editors of these interviews, Dr. Jack Homer (jack@homerconsulting.com) and Dr. Saras Chung (saras@skipdesigned.com). 

For today’s spotlight, we talked with Hyunjung Kim from California State University, Chico.

What kinds of SD project applications do you do at CSU Chico?

I teach and conduct system dynamics research in the areas of service delivery, environmental policy, and resource management. With a team of colleagues at the College of Business, we have incorporated SD into our undergraduate and graduate business curriculum. Between our capstone course in strategic decision making and the introductory system dynamics course, over 800 students get exposed to SD every year. My most recent SD research has been with the US Army Corps of Engineers, examining their flood risk management programs and identifying areas where Systems Thinking and SD modeling could be applied. We are also working on a game interface for them to accompany the modeling.

What is distinctive in your approach to SD projects? 

My research involves developing and applying formal methods for using qualitative data in system dynamics. It is important to understand perspectives of diverse stakeholders and systematically generate insights from their input. When it comes to teaching, it is important that my students have a positive first experience with SD so that they are motivated to explore it beyond the course.

In what way is your situation for SD modeling at CSU Chico perhaps different from that of academics elsewhere?

Our institution focuses on undergraduate education, and most of my students will go into the workforce soon after graduating. It is important for me to find SD topics that are relevant to my students and teach those topics in a way that can be easily understood and retained over time.

What other SD activities have you been involved in lately?

Currently, I am developing system dynamics learning materials for an exciting project called the Diaries During and After the Lockdown. The project was started by a group of SD modelers and an epidemiologist who created a blog targeted for a non-modeling audience. Using storytelling, it communicates insights from a system dynamics model of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did you originally get interested in SD, and when was that?

It was during my graduate school orientation at the University at Albany. I was sitting next to a professor with a big smile who asked me why I wanted to study public administration. I told him I wanted to understand policy outcomes before actually implementing a policy, and he said, “Oh, then you should study system dynamics!” That was my first encounter with my mentor George Richardson.

What individuals and organizations are inspirations to you?

The Thursday Group members! The Thursday Group is a system dynamics peer mentoring group, and we have been holding weekly online meetings since 2011. This supportive group inspires me with research ideas and provides collaboration opportunities and feedback on my work.

What accomplishments are you proud of?

I find it rewarding when my former students tell me how much impact the systems perspective has had on them in their profession, and how much they appreciate what they got out of the SD courses.

What challenges have you experienced?

Communicating technical aspects of SD to people with little to no background can be a barrier to reaching a broader audience. Part of the hope of our current COVID Diaries project is to communicate these types of system insights.

What kinds of SD work would you like to be doing over the next 5 years?

I would like to focus on communicating system dynamics to a broader audience with no modeling background. I want to promote general public understanding and to use SD, with rigor and quality, on a daily basis.

Have other questions or comments? Leave a comment below or reach out to Hyunjung Kim.

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