Insights on Soft Systems Analysis

SOFT SYSTEMS are purposeful systems of human activity, that represent how various business processes, groups, or functions work, are organized,and interact. The key idea, as presented by the originator of the approach, Peter Checkland, is to generate multiple views of a situation of interest that reflect the multiplicity of perspectives on what people are trying to achieve. We employ a “divide-and-conquer” approach to modeling each purpose of the larger system separately, exploring its interior logic, problems with how or what activities are performed, and measures or processes for monitoring success of this purpose. This provides us with a set of “sub-system” models of human-activity that can be compared with the real world to define desirable and feasible change, as shown in Figure 1. But it also provides insights into a larger set of activities that can be integrated into a model of the “big picture” system of work (or play) that we are attempting to improve.

Figure 1. The Process of Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland, 1999)

By focusing on the method – the generation of Root Definitions and Conceptual Models to be compared with real-world-activity – it is easy to miss the small miracle that defining multiple models of relevant purposeful activity systems enables. System requirements methods are almost universally reductionist in nature, striving to merge every struggling purpose of what people do into a “sub-goal” or subsystem of a unifying system goal. SSM, on the other hand, legitimizes diversity of goals. It surfaces all the emergent purposes of work that – in future years, when using traditional requirements analysis methods – will pop their heads above the surface as “bug reports” or “supplementary requirements.” Requirements are multivocal. They fulfill multiple objectives because people are working to rich understandings of work outcomes, not the over-simplistic definition of work outputs that traditional IT requirements analysis produces.

For example, when I was investigating the requirements for improvements to a UK Charity’s regional store management system, an output that repeatedly reared its head was that the weekly store report should be compiled by 11 am on Friday. This made little sense, until one of the middle managers let slip that the senior Regional Manager played golf on Friday afternoons, so he needed the report an hour before lunch, so he could address any issues and also be familiar with the performance figures before he left for his game. Odd though this seemed, it was an important deadline and needed to be included in the system requirements. I later discovered that the Friday golf game was where the Regional Managers caught up with each other, and with the Chief Financial Officer, to strategize and report on their region’s performance. Understanding this outcome provided context and meaning for the IT system output that the report should be available by 11am on Fridays.

It is also important to note that individuals develop rich understandings of their work that provide them with multiple purposes for the activities that they perform, even on an individual basis. We are all the products of experiential learning, which produces multiple ways of framing any situation. Sometimes one frame is salient, sometimes another, depending on circumstances. As an instructor, sometimes my effort is focused on grading my students work, normally to a deadline, so I can report on their progress. But at other times, my effort is focused on providing detailed feedback to my students, so they can learn from the work that they did and improve their professional and analytical skills. This is the same activity: grading assignments. But I have (at least!) two purposes in performing that activity. I would judge success differently, depending on which perspective I take at any point in time. The reporting-on-progress perspective always becomes especially salient in the hours leading up to my grade-entry cut-off deadline!

The ability to generate multiple purposes for a system of work provides an opportunity for brainstorming that is unique in generating perspectives that might otherwise be missed early on in requirements analysis. For example, a rather tongue-in-cheek set of alternative purposes, many of which are complementary, are shown in Figure 2. While many of these may be informal purposes, accidental purposes, or secondary (to the main goal – whatever that may be) purposes, they are purposes of the system of activity that makes up a prison. If we are trying to define requirements for an IT system to support this activity, we need to understand all of these purposes (even if only to control and monitor the less desirable aspects of prison life).

Multiple root-definitions of a prison system

Figure 2. A Set of Alternative/Complementary Purposes For A Prison System

Using Multiple Purposes To Model the Big Picture

A system of work may be viewed as the combined, purposeful work of multiple individuals who perform parts of the work to achieve a “big picture” goal for an organization. By interviewing those individuals and understanding the multiple purposes they strive to achieve with their work, it is possible to gather a systemic map of purposeful activity for the whole unit, be it a functional department, a specialist workgroup, or a targeted business unit serving a specific market segment. Figure 3 shows the general structure of a Purposeful Human Activity System Model. This structure may apply at the detailed level, to a subsystem purpose, or it may be used to assemble and integrate (co-relate) subsystems in a big-picture model of a business unit purposeful system. In other words, each of the model components (numbered 1 to 7 in Figure 3) might be a single activity, in a Conceptual Model of a single purposeful subsystem of activity, or it might represent a Conceptual Model in its entirety, when these are integrated into a big-picture model of the business department (for example).

The general structure of a model of a Purposeful Human Activity System

Figure 3. The General Structure of a Purposeful Human Activity System Model

This sort of “drill down” and “drill up” modeling allows us to engage in the “zoom-in” and “zoom out” analysis that is required for systems thinking. An example is presented in my analysis of a Market Research field research department (to be added soon!).