A blend of conventional data collection and analysis techniques together with creative thinking tools (e.g. cognitive mapping) used to characterise business problems (with significant social/political content) and hopefully suggest ways in which they can be resolved.
In the 1960s as a Research Manager in a large UK industrial group, Peter Checkland noted the limitations of applying traditional
systems approaches (i.e. Input > Process>Output etc.) He concluded that this was because typical business problems were often
deceptively complex, with many competing influences, and sometimes no obvious
right answers. He used the adjective
define such situations and he worked with the University of Lancaster to evolve an approach for dealing with them, which he
eventually named Soft Systems Methodology. As currently practiced, SSM can be seen as having five distinct stages.
These are: Rich Pictures, Root Definitions, Conceptual Models, Real World Comparisons and Solution Development:
- Rich Pictures
- Finding out about the problem situation and expressing it through cartoon-like diagrams showing boundaries, structure, information/communication channels (e.g. documents, e-mails, media etc), participants, monitoring activities (usu. shown as eyeballs), areas of conflict (usu. shown as crossed swords), emotions displayed, barriers to communication etc. The mix of the formal and informal generates therichness.
- Root Definitions
- Identifying the perspective/motivation of each group of stakeholders in the rich picture. Checkland introduced the mnemonic CATWOE to describe the six elements that need to be covered:
- Customer: the beneficiaries of the system.
- Actor: the people who perform the tasks in the system.
- Transformation: the core activity of the system, or primary change brought about.
- Weltanschauung (or worldview): the underlying beliefs & objectives of the system.
- Owner: the person or body that has the power to approve/cancel the system.
- Environment: external constraints (e.g. legal, commercial, environmental etc.)
- Conceptual Models
- A simplified diagram (typically 5-10 stage) showing how each stakeholder would ideally see the system operating to achieve each Root Definition. More detailed second-level diagrams can be produced where necessary.
- Real World Comparisons
- The conceptual models are compared with the real world activities to see whether or not the perspectives are being met, and where there are discrepancies. This comparison can be carried out in many ways, e.g.: documenting the current practices, interviewing or benchmarking.
- Solution Development
- After the discrepancies have been identified, possible solutions are explored, and their feasibility evaluated.
By its nature SSM can be quite tricky to manage. For example, it is not always easy to persuade all participants to openly discuss problems, perceptions and needs. However it can prove to be a useful cathartic precursor to more traditional systems disciplines in situations where there is conflict and objectives are not clear.