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Soft Systems Methodology: Puzzles and Organisations

You’ve heard of soft skills, but what is Soft Systems Methodology? 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Hamlet

One Sunday broadsheet holds a brief distraction for able mathematicians, though demanding more than thirty minutes in my case, and occasionally not completed at all.

The challenge is to unravel six clues which determine a four-digit sequence via the digits 1 to 9, any digit appearing only once.

As examples, two clues printed in the broadsheet during June were ‘Exactly one digit is square’, and ‘Either the second or third is odd but not both’.

Masochists might like a brute force method which starts at 1234, then adds 1 after each trial, thus moving steadily in the direction of 9999: the solution is in there somewhere!

Scientific methods to improve decision making

More advanced, business versions of this class of problem occur in the field of Operations Research.

An OR society website describes its discipline as a scientific approach to the solution of problems in the management of complex systems; OR allows better decisions by decision makers, whether in public sector, charities, business, or the community.

This website cautions most problems are complex and messy, resolved by the application of advanced analytics, modelling, and simulation… to determine the best solution. Another institute also notes the importance of applying scientific methods to improve decision making, management, and operations via advanced analytical methods.

Many ‘messy’ scenarios fall outside the scope of mathematical modelling 

This problem-solving outlook was important at Lancaster University’s Department of Systems during the seventies, thanks partly to statistician Gwilym Jenkins, the department’s founder. His small teams worked as itinerant consultants on behalf of fee-paying clients, applying maths to evaluate solutions in areas such as cost reductions for an industrial chemical manufacturer, or improving the efficiency of a distribution service.

However, Jenkins recognised that many challenges tackled by his teams were hazy and fell outside the scope of mathematical modelling. In the absence of a well-defined problem – how could they choose and manipulate quantitative variables?

Soft Systems Methodology 

Peter Checkland

Peter Checkland was recruited from ICI to conduct a new line of research within elusive and ‘messy’ scenarios.

Thirty years of working with hundreds of clients helped Checkland develop a shareable methodology for enquiry.

Named Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Lancaster’s well-tested principles rely upon verb phrases rather than mathematics, phrases which help organize debate among concerned participants keen to see their modus operandi improved.

One major study within a joint Anglo-French project for providing supersonic aircraft found technical excellence at senior levels, but too little experience regarding the coordination of information between departments. Checkland has authored books and numerous papers about the methodology; several of his lectures appear online via You Tube.

A concise outline follows. SSM has four stages:

1. Investigate organisational structure and history

First, an enquiry stage that investigates organisational structure and history, done by, inter alia, interviews, press reports, or internal correspondence. The views of staff when gaining such knowledge is paramount: a single institution is assumed unique.

2. Discuss underlying issues

During the second stage, researchers construct abstract models which they believe to be relevant when discussing underlying issues encountered in the previous stage. Each model (a freehand sketch on flipchart sheet) is a set of linked activities which perform a carefully worded purpose.

For example, the two phrases Define ‘recent starters’ and ‘Agree support required by recent starters in the Commercial Department’ are part of a model concerned with employees’ induction. A linking arrow indicates information flowing from the former to latter because, in logic, you cannot work out support for recent starters unless their recency is stipulated: last month, nine months, or a longer period? The two activities are abstract yet operational in the sense that they could be performed by organisational members (who decide exactly ‘how’).

3. Discuss possible ideas for change

SSM’s third stage creates a discussion about the models prepared in stage two: are these sketches relevant to the organisation by stirring ideas for change? The people taking part answer this question, not outsiders.

Ways of arranging the debate stage include a general chat or, if preferred, a more detailed contrast of each model against participants’ experience.

Potential questions in this method are:

  •    Does this activity exist within the organisation?
  •    How is the activity conducted?
  •    Who is in charge?
  •    How is success measured?
  •    What might count as an improvement?

4. Decide a way forward and put it to work

Stage four takes whatever results get agreed in stage three and puts them to work. Most institutional changes during Checkland’s research were modest, though occasionally radical rearrangements like a new information system have proved feasible. Whatever the changes implemented, an expectation of repeating the flexible cycle more than once is a tip for newcomers, given that hazy problems do not stay ‘solved’ for long.

A longstanding belief underlies this methodology: the ever-changing and opaque social world is rich with variety, not merely a puzzle awaiting solution.

Ambitious, ideological phrases like ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ or ‘world-class education’ do not mean designers have found a formula for transforming most citizens into a different lifestyle.

World-class for who, at what cost, and by what means?

Avoiding grandiose claims, the principles of SSM are available for both experts and lay people: you do not have to be a consultant to use it.

Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton  

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