What is the Soft Systems Methodology? Description
The Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) from Peter Checkland is a qualitative
technique that can be used for applying Systems Thinking to non-systemic situations.
It is a way of dealing with problem situations in which there is a high social,
political and human activity component. This distinguishes SSM from other
methodologies which deal with HARD problems that are often more technology-oriented.
SSM applies Systems Thinking to the real world of human organizations.
But crucially without assuming that the subject of enquiry is itself a simple
system. SSM therefore is a useful way to approach complex situations and corresponding
Origin of the Soft Systems Methodology. History
SSM originated from the understanding that "hard" Systems Thinking, such
as Operations Research techniques, is inadequate for enquiring into large,
complex organizational issues. Soft Systems Methodology was developed by Peter
Checkland for the express purpose of dealing with problems of this type. He
had been working in the industry for a number of years and had been working
with a number of hard system methodologies. He saw how these were inadequate
for the purpose of dealing with extremely complex problems which had a large
social component. Therefore in the 1960s he goes to the University of Lancaster
in an attempt to research this area, and to deal with these soft problems.
He conceives his "Soft Systems Methodology" through a number of research projects
in industry and its application and refinement over a number of years. The
methodology, which is pretty much how we know it today, was published in 1981.
By that time Checkland was firmly entrenched in University life and he had
left the industry to pursue a career as a professor and researcher in Software
Usage of the Soft Systems Methodology. Applications
- Any complex, organizational situation where there is a high social,
political and human activity component.
Steps in the Soft Systems Methodology. Process
The following steps should be taken (often several iterations are needed):
- Investigate the unstructured problem.
- Express the problem situation through "Rich Pictures". Rich Pictures
are a means of capturing as much information as possible relating to the
problem situation. A rich picture can show boundaries, structure, information
flows, and communication channels. But in particular it shows the human
activity system. This is the element that is not included in models such
as: data flow diagrams or class models.
- Root definitions of relevant systems. From what different perspectives
can we look at this problem situation?
- Root definitions are written as sentences that elaborate a transformation.
There are six elements that make a well formulated root definition. They
are summed up in the acronym CATWOE:
- Customer. Everyone who may gain benefits from a system is
considered as a customer of the system. If the system involves sacrifices
such as layoffs, then those victims must also be counted as customers.
- Actor. The actors transform inputs into outputs and they
perform the activities defined in the system.
- Transformation process. This is shown as the conversion of
inputs to outputs.
- Weltanschauung. The German expression for world view. This
world view makes the transformation process meaningful in context.
- Owner. Every system has some proprietor, who has the power
to start up and shut down the system (power of veto).
- Environmental constraints. These are external elements that
must be considered. These constraints include organizational policies
as well as legal and ethical matters.
- Conceptual models.
- Formal system concept.
- Other system thinking.
- Comparison of 4 with 2.
- Feasible, desirable changes.
- Action to improve the problem situation.
Strengths of the Soft Systems Methodology. Benefits
- SSM gives structure to complex organizational and political problem
situations, and it can allow them to be dealt with in an organized manner.
It forces the user to look for a solution that is more than technical.
- Rigorous tool to use in "messy" problems.
- Specific techniques.
Limitations of the Soft Systems Methodology. Pitfalls
- SSM requires from participants to adapt to the overall approach.
- Be careful not to narrow the scope of the investigation too early.
- It is difficult to assemble the richest picture, without imposing a
particular structure and solution on problem situation.
- People have difficulties to interpret the world in the loose way. They
often show an over-urgent desire for action.
Assumptions of the Soft Systems Methodology. Conditions
- Assumes that most management and organizational problems cannot be seen
as pure "systems problems" as the system is far too complex to analyze.
- Nevertheless applying a systemic approach in a non-systemic situation
Book: Peter Checkland
- Systems Thinking, Systems Practice -
Soft Systems Methodology Special Interest Group
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Compare with Soft Systems Methodology:
| Gestalt Theory |
Dialectical Inquiry |
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