IMS3230 - Information Systems Development Practices

Soft Systems



the systems approach
general systems theory (e.g. Bertalanffy 1968):
 to understand the nature of large and complex systems  a system is a set of interrelated elements, with inputs and outputs, and with a set of processes which convert inputs into outputs  a system has a boundary and an environment with which it interacts

 a system has a purpose, and its elements interact to achieve this  systems relate to each other, and consist of subsystems e.g. an inventory system 5.2

the systems approach
 systems have emergent properties: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

 need to develop information systems for the organisation as a whole, not for isolated functions
the interconnectedness of systems

 understand the context of information systems
 avoid the reductionism of scientific analysis: decomposition of complex structures may distort our understanding as elements may react differently when examined individually 5.3

the systems approach
 organisational (human activity) systems are not predictable: people‟s behaviour and interpretations  organisations are open systems, interacting with their environment e.g. competitors, government policies, customers, suppliers

 organisations are complex systems:
need people with a range of expertise and experience to develop and implement information systems 5.4

the systems approach
  the technological aspects are closed and predictable the human aspects are open and nondeterministic:
methodologies must take into account the importance and complexity of the human element

computer solutions are not always appropriate

multiple viewpoints and solutions: which is “best”?
may require technological and also attitudinal, structural, environmental changes

“hard” vs “soft” systems thinking
Checkland (1981): soft systems approaches

 organisations are complex, with problems which are “fuzzy”, ill-defined, not well-structured, and where multiple points of view exist hard systems approaches
 focus on the certain and precise in situations e.g. structured approaches, SSADM

 assume there is, and consider, only one point of view

Soft Systems Methodology
 developed at Lancaster University from the early 1970s by Peter Checkland as part of an action research program  Checkland wanted to adapt the ideas of systems theory to form a practical “methodology”: a study of methods for application in a particular situation  not a development methodology: a methodology to identify changes  human problem and process oriented, not technique oriented  a number of models built representing different viewpoints  exploration of problem situations to decide on action for desirable changes 5.7

“hard” systems thinking
   systems exist in the real world and can be “engineered” an objective, “correct” view exists decomposition of systems into parts for examination and understanding: scientific method

  

focus on how to do things, assumes what to do is already clear
the system's objectives can be defined in advance alternative means of achieving them can be modelled the most desirable is selected deterministic, goal-seeking: seek optimum choice from competing alternative solutions

“soft” systems thinking
 systems do not exist as such, but are an abstract concept representing a way of seeing and understanding the real world: a “holon” e.g. “the education system”  the “system” is not some part of the real world but is the organised process of enquiry itself  subjective, depending on background, experience, beliefs  need to understand and explore the whole and its context  SSM is a system of enquiry and has to be participative  the role of the SSM “expert” is to help the people in the problem situation carry out their own study  models are not representations of real world activity but are constructed in order to help debate it 5.9

Soft Systems Methodology
 “fuzzy”, ill-structured, complex (i.e. “soft”) problems are common in organisations: human activity systems  the unpredictable nature of human activity systems:

data, processes are relatively easy to model, but to understand organisations, we need to include people in the models the people involved may have different and
conflicting objectives, perceptions, and attitudes  we need to address the “soft” aspects of problems, not 5.10 just the “hard” aspects, to achieve a better understanding

The development of SSM: action research
Action research:  to investigate and refine theoretical knowledge by active and reflective participation in a real-world situation not under the control of the researcher vs e.g. laboratory experiments  client-centred, contextual  goals negotiated with members of the organisation  not fact-finding, but a learning process  each social context is unique, no law-like generalisations about organisations vs the scientific method  insights rather than cause / effect relationships

Soft Systems Methodology
 humans attribute meaning to their experiences and observations  we form intentions, based on how we interpret our situation, and take purposeful action in response to our experience of the world: the experience / action cycle = learning  SSM: “the focus is on an organised set of principles (methodology) which guide action in trying to „manage‟ (in the broad sense) real-world problem situations” Checkland and Scholes (1990), p. 5 the “what to do” and the “how to do it” are both tackled (problem situation, not “a problem”)


Soft Systems Methodology
Checkland and Scholes (1990) p. 6:

“the basic shape of the approach is to formulate some models which it is hoped will be relevant to the real-world situation, and use them by setting them against perceptions of the real world in a process of comparison. That comparison could then initiate debate leading to a decision to take purposeful action to improve the part of real life which is under scrutiny”
see Fig 1.3 p. 7

Soft Systems Methodology
Checkland and Scholes (1990), pp 286 - 287

 no automatic assumption the world is systemic: conscious choice to take a part of the world as a system to be engineered
 distinguish between unreflecting involvement in the everyday world and conscious systems thinking about the real world: the SSM user is conscious of moving from one world to another many times  in systems thinking holons are constructed: purposeful human activity systems embodying emergent properties, layered structure, processes of communication and control  holons are used to enquire into the real world in order to articulate a debate or dialogue intended to define changes deemed desirable and feasible 5.14

Soft Systems Methodology
 the situation is a product of a particular history
 the improvers are the users of SSM  the focus is the search for one (or more) “world view”: a set of assumptions about reality

 the world view is extracted from the problem situation through debate on the purpose of the organisation
 the world view forms the basis for describing system requirements  implemented changes will change the nature of the problem situation as perceived: continuous cycle of learning

Evolution of SSM
Two “modes”:

 mode 1:
 mode 2:

Checkland (1981)
Checkland and Scholes (1990)

7 stage model, is the most well-known version

developed from further action research
two interacting streams of structured enquiry together lead to changes: logic-based stream: holons cultural analysis stream

mode 2 is more a “framework of ideas”: the version of mode 1 is seen as just one option

Stages of SSM: 1.

the problem situation: unstructured
(See Fig 24.1, p. 471 in Avison & Fitzgerald (2003))

 explore the problem situation: to understand the “real” causes
 problem owners: those on whose behalf the study has been initiated  actors: those taking part in the situation, other stakeholders  analysts attempt to reveal many possible views of the situation  the structure of the problem situation: physical layout, reporting structure, formal and informal communication patterns  activities carried out  climate: relationships between structure and activities

Stages of SSM: 2.

situation: expressed

the problem

 express the problem situation more “formally”
 no particular way prescribed, but rich pictures are often used as a communication technique  elements include: clients, actors, tasks, the environment, problem areas, conflicts, concerns, controlling bodies, other stakeholders, relationships, issues  exploration, discussion, communication: to help move from thinking about the problem situation towards thinking about what can be done about it

Rich pictures
 graphical representation of the organisation or work area

 self explanatory and easy to understand
 a subjective process: there is no “correct” picture  “hard” facts: e.g. activities, departmental boundaries, physical and geographical layout, product types, resources,  “soft” facts: concerns, conflicts, socio-organisational roles, political issues, relationships, employee needs,  rich pictures help:


to identify what is really important in the situation
people understand their role in the organisation to define aspects of the organisation to be addressed by 5.19 the information system

Primary tasks and issues
Rich pictures also help to identify primary tasks and issues  primary tasks  tasks the organisation must perform as part of its purpose: what is central to this organisation?  the boundaries of primary task systems coincide with a real world manifestation: e.g. a functional boundary as in a personnel system  issues  topics or matters of concern or conflict  generally the boundaries of issue-based systems do not map on to real world boundaries: e.g. a system to resolve disagreements about resource usage

Stages of SSM: 3.

root definitions of relevant systems
 the problem solver imagines and names “relevant systems”: a way of looking at the problem situation which provides useful insights  a system is a perceived, meaningful grouping of people, objects and activities

e.g. problem theme = conflicts between two departments
a relevant system = a systems that redefines departmental boundaries  identify one or more relevant systems for each problem theme  a subjective process, several relevant systems should be identified, both primary task systems and issue-based systems 5.21

Root definitions
 a root definition is created for each relevant system

 relevant systems are a focus for debate and exploration
root definition:  a concise, verbal definition expressing the nature of a purposeful activity system regarded as relevant to exploring the problem situation  useful in exposing different views (see examples: Avison and Fitzgerald 1995, pp 120-122)  expresses the core purpose of a “purposeful activity system” and is always a transformation of some input entity into a new form of entity (output)  use the CATWOE checklist to ensure that six essential characteristics are included

Root definitions
 the CATWOE checklist:

who is doing what for whom, to whom are they answerable, what assumptions are being made, and in what environment is it occurring?
C ustomers A ctors T ransformation W eltanschauung O wner E nvironment = victims or beneficiaries of T = those who do T = the conversion of input to output = the assumptions, the world view which makes T meaningful in context = those who could stop T = elements outside the system which it takes as given 5.23

Stages of SSM: 4. building
conceptual models
 develop a conceptual model for each root definition: an informal diagram of something relevant to the situation  not a model of the situation, but a diagram of the activities of what the system described by the root defintion will do

 conceptual models are used to structure enquiry into the problem situation, not for checking that the model matches the real world
 the process of building root definitions and conceptual models is an iterative process of debate and modification moving towards an agreed definition

Conceptual models
Checkland & Scholes (1990)

 assemble and structure the minimum necessary activities to carry out T
 base this on logical contingency: to convert raw materials into a finished product, you first need to obtain the raw materials  identify the monitor and control activities and the operational activities  structure similar activities in groups together  use arrows to show logical contingency See Avison & Fitzgerald (1995) pp 122-127 for some examples


Stages of SSM: 5.

comparing conceptual models with perceived reality
 this debate creates new perceptions of reality, suggests new relevant systems, and concentrates thought on possible changes  use informal discussion, formal questioning, scenario writing based on operating the models, trying to model the real world using the conceptual model  formal questioning supported by creation of a matrix comparing activities in the model with the activities in the real world

 the aim is to compare the models with the real world to find an accommodation between different interests in the situation which is seen to be an improvement of the initial problem situation
not a “solution” in the hard systems thinking sense

Stages of SSM: stages 6 & 7
6. assessing feasible and desirable change

 analysis of changes proposed in Stage 5 to create proposals for those considered feasible and desirable
 may or may not involve the development of an information system 7. action to improve the situation  recommend action to improve the situation  no methods described for implementing “solutions”:

changes must be systemically desirable: truly relevant to the situation
and culturally feasible: perceived as meaningful within the particular culture and its world view 5.27

SSM mode 2
Checkland and Scholes (1990)

 two streams of structured enquiry unfold through time interactively:
logic-based stream cultural analysis stream

the stream of cultural enquiry analysis of the intervention social system analysis political system analysis

all three cultural analyses complement the logic-based stream

SSM mode 2: cultural enquiry
analysis of the intervention: “Analysis One”:  intervention in in a problem situation is itself problematical  useful to analyse roles in the study: who has the role “client”: why have they requested the intervention? who has the role “would-be problem solver”: their perceptions, knowledge and readiness to make resources available who has the role “problem owner”:

SSM mode 2: cultural enquiry
social system analysis: “Analysis Two”:  uses a model of a social system as a continually changing interaction between three elements: roles, norms, and values “role”: a social position recognised as significant, e.g. team captain


characterises a role, e.g. expected behaviours
used to judge performance of a role, e.g. beliefs about what is good and bad behaviour (the engineering company example)

 the account of the social system will never be complete or 5.30 static

SSM mode 2: cultural enquiry
political system analysis: “Analysis Three”:

 politics: “a process by which differing interests reach accomodation”  what are the commodities through power is expressed in this situation? e.g. formal authority. personal charisma, intellectual authority, external reputation, access to information, membership of particular groups  how are these commodities obtained, preserved and passed on?  analysis three enriches cultural appreciation from analyses one and two  tacit level (the real politics) vs explicit level of analysis 5.31

SSM and information systems
Checkland and Scholes (1990) suggest:

 develop an information flow model
 define information categories and data structures  design of an information system  SSM could enrich the information requirements definition steps of other methodologies

Soft Systems Methodology
 for fuzzy, ill-structured problem situations  for problem exploration

 not prescriptive or technique-oriented
 action research oriented: experience in use of SSM helps to refine the methodology  used in different ways by different users in different circumstances  is it just a “front end”?  practicality? Is it too vague?

 is it just consensus seeking?

SSM: criticisms
 too subjective:

- all viewpoints are considered equally valid
- ignores political and social structures conditioning people‟s views - ignores power relationships that constrain people‟s actions  assumes improvement can occur just by changing people‟s views without changing the social structures that shape our views  ignores issues of conflict and coercion and the difficulties of avoiding superficial consensus 5.34

SSM: criticisms
 exploration of world views should be an ongoing process, posing difficulties in practical situations of moving from abstract debate to pragmatic problem solving e.g. Flood and Jackson (1991) p. 189 argue that SSM “resolves” this difficulty by merely leaving closure of the debate “to the prevailing power structures as reflected in the dominant culture of the organisation”

Flood, R.L. and Jackson, M.C. (1991) Creative Problem Solving: Total Systems Intervention. Wiley, Chichester

 Prescribed text:
Avison, D.E. & Fitzgerald, G. (2003). Information Systems Development: Methodologies, Techniques and Tools. (3rd ed), McGraw-Hill, London. Chapters 4.1, 10.1-10.3, 24.1
 Checkland, P.B. and Scholes, J. (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Wiley, Chichester.

Refer to additional references in the readings at the unit web page and in the prescribed text