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Soft Systems Methodology

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Chapter 4 - Soft Systems Methodology

4.1 Soft Systems Methodology

As it may suggest, the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is a soft tool for application in a wide range of systems development investigations. It is widely used in the field of systems analysis and is recognised as a most useful technique in gaining a detailed understanding of a problem situation. As a 'front end' tool, the Soft Systems Methodology is adopted in this project as a means to explore the current situation and further justify the ensuing development.

Most of the methods available methods are based upon the assumption that there is a problem that needs solving. In contrast to other methods SSM understands that there may not be a problem - per say, but a situation which would benefit from improvement. Wilts County FA falls firmly into this category. From initial fact finding it has become evident that there is no specific problem to be addressed, but there is scope for improvement in line with the Football Association (FA) and their willingness to improve the efficiency of the game at county level. There are, at the moment, data administration methods in place, but associated with this is the desire for a more up to date and user friendly administration system. To this end, SSM has been selected as a tool to achieve this purpose and shall be studied and utilised forthwith.

4.1.1. History

The Soft Systems Methodology was developed by Peter Checkland in 1981. Prior to working at Lancaster University, he was a Senior Manager in industry for 20 years during which time the science of management was becoming increasingly popular. Many of the tools and techniques which were conceived from this science, he found to be little use in the development of his industrial aims and objectives. The written difference was based upon the conflict between 'hard' and 'soft' methods. As a production engineer, Checkland had been involved in a number of projects to introduce new technology into the manufacturing sector. Even though much care was given to design robust and efficient technology, problems would often occur on introduction, which led to breakdown of the system and halt of production. Whilst it is not envisaged that the work of the Wilts County FA would fail if the data administration system failed, it can be seen that the reasons for difficulties are the same.

Checkland observed that the design of the system assumed operators functioned like hardware components. He proposed that work organisation should be seen as consisting of a Technology System (hard) and a Human Activity (soft) system. The methods used for engineering the technology should not be applied to the human side of the system. In order to analyse and describe the relevant aspects of the Human Activity System, a different approach was needed. Checkland developed the SSM to deal with the task. Similarly, Checkland recommended SSM use in gaining an understanding of a problem situation and offering rationale to whether a concerted effort for change should be used at all. Tudor & Tudor (1997) describes how Checkland, in his development of SSM employed 'reductionist' tactics, to 'divide and conquer' and break the problem area into smaller more manageable components.

4.2. The seven stages of Soft Systems Methodology

It should be noted that these stages do not follow a strict sequence. It is often necessary to correct or add to the output previous stages. In common with several other methodologies, SSM serves only as a template and it is perfectly acceptable for the analyst to 'pick and choose' elements from the methodology for their specific purpose.

Fig. 4.1 Seven Stages of SSM

The distinction between Real World and Systems World stages reflects a conscious division between the existing system and the idealised model of what the system should be.

Stage 1 - The Problem Situation: Unstructured

This initial stage can be summarised as the occurrence of one member of the organisation thinking there may be a problem or opportunity for improvement and thus initiating some kind of review or analysis. There will be many different views as it is unlikely that the views of the problem owner, that is, the person or group on whose behalf the analysis has been conducted, the other people taking part as 'actors' in the problem situation and other stakeholders will coincide. At this stage there are no physical outputs.

Stage 2 - The Problem Situation: Expressed

In many respects, this is the most valuable stage within the cycle. The analyst collects all sorts of information and provides some description of the problem situation in a formal way. Avison & Fitzgerald (2003) describe how Checkland does not prescribe a method of doing this, but he and many users of the approach tend to draw rich picture diagrams of the situation. The rich picture is used as an aid in discussion between the problem solver and the problem owner, or may simply help the problem solver better understand the problem situation. It is also an attempt to capture the whole problem situation in diagrammatic form. The diagrams are intended to be holistic devices which include information regarded as 'soft'. If executed with care and accuracy the diagrams can be of great use to the analyst.

Stage 3 - Root Definitions of Relevant Systems

Once the analyst has collected a set of information to work with, he/she can move from the Real World into the Systems World. The method now takes the findings of the previous stage (structured) and expresses these in system terms. It is at this stage that the debate is most important. The problem solver and the problem owner decide which view to focus on, that is, how to describe their system. The structure of a root definition is based around six components summarised by the mnemonic CATWOE. In order to retain accuracy the analyst should try and incorporate all six elements within each root definition.

1. Customers - The system's beneficiaries or victims.

2. Actors - The persons who carry out the system's activities.

3. Transformations - The core transformation process of the system.

4. Weltanschauung - Or world view of the system.

5. Owners

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