Soft systems methodology
The development of soft systems methodology was the brainchild of Peter Checkland and was developed in the 1960’s at Lancaster. Ever since then the technique has grown and now is internationally recognised. To understand soft system methodology we need to understand 2 types of systems thinking. One is hard systems thinking while the other is soft system thinking.
Hard systems thinking uses the hard system approaches such as structured methods, and systems engineering. It assumes that that problem is well defined, it has a scientific approach to problems, and considers technical factors foremost.
Soft systems’ thinking uses soft system approaches. This approach is needed when structured methods alike have failed, when problems are messy and not well defined. This technique is more creative in terms of problem solving as it addresses many factors including humans, cultural, ethics, politics etc. It would be safe to say that soft systems methodology looks at the interaction between people and its business environment instead of just technology. By looking at the system as a whole it recognises that a change from one part of the systems may influence another part of a system.
It is called “soft” because it’s about people and the way they relate to the environment. The systems are the way we use the theory and put it into practices with people, relationship, objects, and processes. This is described here in detail 1(Mackness, 2007).
2 Patching (1993) declared that the methodology is merely a method with a set of guidelines that help predict an outcome to problem situations which is described here (Patching, 1993 p. 41)
1.martinwellsinterview. 2007. Dr John Mackness – Soft Systems Methodology [online]. [Accessed 19 November 2007]. Available from World Wide Web: < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZn8QrZI7OI>
2 Patching, D. (1993) Practical soft systems analysis. London: Pitman Publishing
Checklands’ software system methodology comprises of a seven stage model. It is very similar to other methods of investigation.
Stage 1. This stage shows messy problems, which are not suitable for hard system methods.
Stage 2. Is concerned with rich pictures to express situations more clearly, which in turn provides better feedback. It is the problem expressed in the real world. May included client and yourself in the picture, physical layout, hierarchy etc.
Stage 3. Root definitions are needed but first a viewpoint must be selected. Are we looking at it form the employee’s position or the managers position etc? Root definitions describes what a systems is, and what it will do by doing so, it takes into account whoever is part of the system. It looks at who is part of it and who may be affected in any way. Using the mnemonic CATWOE, this is basically a simple checklist for thinking about problems.
- Customers Who are they, and how does the issue affect them?
- Actors Who is involved in the situation? Who will be involved in implementing solutions? And what will impact their success?
- Transformation Process What processes or systems are affected by the issue?
- Weltanschauung What is the big picture, world view ? And what are the wider impacts of the issue?
- Owner Who owns the process or situation you are investigating? And what role will they play in the solution?
- Environmental Constraints What are the constraints and limitations that will impact the solution and its success?
Source : http://www.lifehack.org/articles/management/whats-the-problem-find-out-using-catwoe.html
Stage 4. Is the conceptual model, which represents the minimum set of procedures for the system to be able to achieve the desired transformation. Procedure and task are described by verbs.
Stage 5. Is a comparison of the conceptual model and the real world. Stage 2 and stage 4. Questioning the situation and how they could be changed.
Stage 6. This stage discusses where improvements can be made to certain areas and whether it is culturally feasible taking into account stakeholders views, backgrounds, experience of the people involved. Desirable changes are also discussed for the systems that may benefit the transformation.
Stage 7. Is to take action and implement the changes that would improve the system. This would involve changes in attitude, finance, equipment, staff, training etc. It is advisable to note stage 3, the root definitions to not overlook things.
After implanting the changes it is important to measure the systems performance. In SSM we use the 3 E’s which Checkland, Scholes (2001) describes
‘ efficacy (for ‘does the means work?’)
effienecy (for ‘amount of output divided by amount of resources used’)
effectiveness (for ‘is T meeting the longer term aim?’)’ 3.(Checkland, Scholes, p.39).
3.Checkland, P. and Scholes, J. (2001) Soft systems methodology in action. Chichester: Wiley
Accompanied with the 3 E’s would be a model to determine what stage each of the 3 E’s are at.
This is the complete conceptual model when applying soft systems methodology, which consist of
- Rich Picture
- Root Defitions
- Model of transformation
- Measure of performance
Advantages to soft systems methodology
Soft systems methodology can be used as a tool to increase an analyst understanding of a problem during investigation as well as the later stages. The technique helps identify areas that need to be improved, and areas that have weaknesses where hard approaches have been unable to do so. It helps produces solutions in a sense that it defines the problem well enough for other system approaches to take over such as hard techniques. By trying to use hard techniques would stop the problem from being seen as a whole. Soft systems methodology relies on a holistic view for the problem to be solved successfully.
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Another advantage of this methodology is that it doesn’t really rely on the use of any equipment except pen and paper. The technique is successful enough to produce solutions to problem just by itself which is supported here 4.(Davies, 1998 p.256). All it needs is a competent analyst. The methodology can be adapted to fit a situation, customer values are considered greatly over other values such as financial and technical values while aiming to find the best solution that would suite all that are involved.
Disadvantages to soft systems methodology
This disadvantage to soft systems methodology is that the technique does not tell you how to build a system. Problems are subject to change anytime as there were fuzzy in the first place. With added discussions from key actors more changes to the problem situation may be made. It relies heavily on people for SSM to work. Can be very time consuming and requires money and experts. Non technical issues are taken into account which may make the problems situation more complex. Companies sometime view SSM as inferior to other techniques of improving an organisation and would rather hire 2 different parties. One would be the business consultant for improving effectiveness while the other would be a technical consultant to improve the technological side of the organisation. Instead of hiring a SSM competent analyst that would do both by in twining them together some companies would rather keep them separate. Sometimes a goal may never reached as root definitions may still be unclear which in turn sends the whole process into a loop that may never finish.
4.Davies, P.B. (1998) Information systems development. 3rd ed. Hampshire: Macmillan Press LTD.
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